What would the oldest tree in the world look like? A sprawling oak tree with wide branches and a gnarled trunk; a towering sequoia towering as far as the eye can see; or a spindly Norwegian spruce whose bald branches are the only outward indication of old age?
Faced with 9,550 years of ancient arboreal history, I have to admit, I’m a bit disappointed. A lone stem on a vast mountain, I couldn’t imagine this tree resisting a gentle breeze, let alone the turbulent passage of time.
But despite its weedy stature, Old Tjikko has become a strong attraction for Sweden’s Fulufjallet National Park.
“We receive nearly 100,000 visitors a year,” explains Maria, a guide at the park’s Naturum information center.
Many come to see the oldest tree in the world, identified by tree scientist Lisa Oberg using carbon dating.
“Of course, what’s above ground is just a clone, but it’s the root system that’s being measured,” Maria explains, registering confusion and doubt in my expression.
Regardless of its size, the tree is part of a much grander primordial landscape. Fulufjallet mountain is one of many peaks crossing the Dalarna region, a four-hour drive from Stockholm on the border with Norway.
The county is a childhood favorite for nostalgic Swedes as well as hikers who have come to realize that there is more to Sweden than the Northern Lights and city breaks.
To get a feel for the area, I start my trip to Orsa at Smidgarden (smidgarden.se; £100 a night for two), a wooden chalet resort popular for its forest hiking trails outside the ski season snowy background.
The scene is bucolic: tractors immobilized on dairy farms, red wooden houses reflecting in the perfectly still lakes and stocky ponies grazing in sloping pastures – imitated by the painted wooden Dalarna horses decorating so many window sills .
Perched on a hill, my loft cottage overlooks a patchwork of rich greens and watery iridescent blues. Blankets hang as curtains from the windows above cupboards painted with folkloric motifs.
In the evening, I grill salmon on the barbecue and in the morning I infuse my tea with fresh mint from a vegetable garden. The smell of burning wood rises from an underground sauna, intensified by the crisp, biting air.
The surrounding forest is tinged red by the first scarlet flames of autumn, blueberries burst from the bushes and mushrooms sprout from the cool, damp ground.
There is a calm granted by the pause between the seasons, a slow farewell to summer before winter sets in.
Even more dramatic are the forests of Fulufjallet, the home of old Tjikko. A two-hour drive from Orsa, its tangle of ferns, fallen logs and swamps could rival the temperate forests of British Columbia or Alaska in beauty.
In search of true seclusion, I take a 6km hiking trail from Naturum to the huts and campsite at Rosjostugorna, past the famous tree and Sweden’s tallest waterfall.
As I gain altitude, I climb an assault course of dusty pink rocks and float through clouds of lichen that foam like sea foam.
Lemmings scurry erratically under a final stretch of boardwalk, while red-eyed grouse stalk majestically past my path.
Tommy Lonnebacke operates the cabins and campground as a leased concession to the park.
Dressed in a beanie and wearing thick socks and a pair of Crocs, I find him chopping wood for the sauna. Beneath a thick beard, a dark tan evokes a long summer spent outdoors.
“He’s the best fisherman around,” he says, pointing to an osprey flying above the lake, where, he insists, species of trout and arctic char have thrived since the Ice Age.
Tommy gives the impression that very little changes on the mountain, where he saw evidence of bears stopping to feast on blueberries in October, before heading to dens for their long winter slumbers.
“It was one of the best fishing camps of the 1950s,” he says, leaning into a stream to check the water temperature on a thermometer hanging from a pontoon.
“Eleven degrees. Always summer, perfect for an evening swim.”
After a sauna and a very brisk dip, I cook in a kitchen that has electricity but no running water – everything has to be scooped up in buckets from the stream. Any food I have was carried up the mountain in my backpack and all waste neatly separated into composts and recycling bins.
My shelter for the night is one of two ice fishing tents (rosjostugorna.se/english; £240 per night for two), heated by a gas heater and comfortable enough to use all year round.
Tommy tells me the new tents will have solar panels to charge phones and skylights to view the Northern Lights, often visible this far south due to high solar activity which is expected to continue through 2025.
In winter, dog sledding is available. But there’s also an innovative way to interact with the affable Alaskan huskies during the snowless months.
The howl of over 90 dogs is deafening when I reach the Fjallaventyr dog park in Salen, a 90-minute drive away. Although they all have comfortable enclosures – complying with Sweden’s strict social regulations – all are desperate to escape.
“It would be impossible to take them all into the mountains,” says musher and mountain guide Axel Skotte as the dogs jump up and down excitedly.
“So the company came up with the idea of renting them out to hikers a few years ago.”
More popular than ever since the Covid lockdowns, the initiative allows visitors to borrow specially chosen dogs for the day (fjallaventyr.com; £64).
Axel introduces me to Lykke, a four-year-old turbo sled dog with a halo of white fur to match his angelic temperament. Despite foul breath from a strict salmon diet, she is irresistibly affectionate and cheerful company on a hike.
Following a cross-country ski trail, we stroll over grassy embankments dotted with berries and cool off in shallow rock pools. As a non-dog owner, it’s a novelty to explore with Lykke as she sniffs out every new scent and takes me in directions I didn’t know I wanted to go. His presence is also soothing.
Like the eternal beauty of Dalarna’s landscape through the seasons, there is a timeless pleasure in taking gentle walks in nature – even more deeply rooted, perhaps, than the oldest tree in the world.
HOW TO PLAN YOUR TRIP
For more information on the Dalarna region, visit visitsweden.com and visitdalarna.se/en.
SAS Airlines (flysas.com) flies to Stockholm from Dublin.