Deep above the Arctic Circle, in the Inari region of Lapland in Finland, the village of Saariselkä attracts visitors from around the world who seek a closer connection to nature. Even though only 350 people live here, the town swells with activity throughout the year. According to Visit Finland, the country’s tourism board, travel to Lapland in 2017 increased by 22 percent. With many sports events that make use of the terrain as well as cultural events, there’s a lot to do in Saariselkä.
As the original inhabitants of the region, the Sámi have developed a unique way of life in the Lapland’s wintry environment. Guided tours to their villages offer visitors the opportunity to learn about their history, arts, and culture. Many of the Sámi own and operate these tours, in during which visitors may learn about creating duodji, or crafts. There are also two cultural centers nearby dedicated to the Sámi: Sámi Museum and Nature Center Siida, and Sámi Cultural Centre Sajos on the shores of the Juutuanjoki River.
There are more reindeer than people in Lapland. As such, the animals play a significant role for the Sámi, who continue to raise them. Historically, reindeer herding has provided food, clothing, and transportation—and the Sámi maintain this tradition, as it composes a vital part of their economy. Visitors can learn about these animals by taking a reindeer safari or visiting a reindeer farm.
Few well developed resorts are as great for watching the Northern Lights as Saariselkä. With virtually no light pollution and 250 miles above the Arctic Circle, a visit in the winter is sure not to disappoint. The Northern Lights are visible here about 200 nights a year on average. Guided tours can take you “chasing” the lights and even provide lessons on photographing the phenomena. If you’d prefer a more relaxed experience, stay in a glass igloo at the Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort and watch them comfortably from your couch indoors.
Saariselkä, with its proximity to Urho Kekkonen National Park, is a sought-after destination for cross-country skiers. There are 124 miles of cross-country ski tracks, 21 of which are lit. There are several events throughout the season for fans of the sport. In November, the fourth annual Kiilopäähiihto Endurance race takes place. Participants can opt for a noncompetitive 15K or 30K challenge through Urho Kekkonen National Park, or enter the official 40K race on the machine-groomed skiing tracks.
The other hugely popular sport—and method of transportation—in Saariselka is snowmobiling. The machines have supplanted reindeer-led sleds, and they’re just plain fun for visitors who take them out into guided tours of the region during the winter. The best time for snowmobiles is in the spring. There is even a celebratory snowmobile race that marks the end of winter: the Saariselka Hillclimb in May.