In 2016, 278,232 people made the pilgrimage across Spain and Portugal to Santiago de Compostela. At least, that’s how many actually received their certificates at the end. The same year, a mere 1,045 people made the pilgrimage to Nidaros Cathedral on the St. Olav Ways in Norway.
In historical terms, the two are pretty equal. Both the Camino de Santiago and the St. Olav Ways are Christian pilgrimage routes dating back to the Middle Ages. Both involve buried saints and cathedrals, and both require an unwavering, superhero level of dedication. But where the Camino has seen its modern-day renaissance, the St. Olav Ways has not. There is no other 1,000-year-old path like it, and certainly no path as endlessly serene.
This is not a walk you take to socialize with fellow backpackers, nab entire bottles of wine and pilgrim dinners for €10, and wonder whether a way-sign is real or an effort to direct you to the local bar. Here, you come for the eternal summertime sunset. You come to feast on medieval homemade stews in dimly lit and ever-creaking barns. You come to climb in circles to remote mountain farms and to be the only one for miles caught in the rain.
You hike the St. Olav Ways for yourself. For your spirituality, self-improvement, rescue from all things digital, health, peace of mind, and time simply spent wandering the Norwegian countryside.
Here’s how you do it.
What’s the history?
Though Norway is hardly a Catholic country — it’s actually mostly Lutheran — the story of St. Olav is still central to the national identity. His axe, after all, is on the country’s coat of arms. And it really all boils down to one thing: he smelled like roses.
That is, upon being exhumed. When he was alive, he really wasn’t all that popular, nor did he likely smell that great. As Norway’s first king, he was exiled to Russia, came back to regain the throne, and lost at the Battle of Stiklestad on July 29th, 1030 — with the date living on as St. Olav’s Day. His body was brought 75 miles west to Trondheim where he was buried on the banks of the Nidelva River. When his coffin was to be moved, legend has it that it smelled of roses. When it was opened, he didn’t look a day older than he did during that fatal battle.
And bam. Canonization, or sainthood, just a year later. Construction began on Nidaros Cathedral — over the rumored site of his body — in 1070. For the next five hundred years, Norwegians made the pilgrimage along the St. Olav Ways, all headed for Nidaros Cathedral, for St. Olav, in Trondheim.
And then, in 1537, the pilgrimage was banned. The Lutheran Reformation put an end to the ancient trek, and it was almost lost. Yet in 1997, the country dedicated funds to bringing it back, and now thousands of kilometers of trails are marked throughout Norway — through small villages, rolling farmland, national parks, small towns, and into its third-largest city, Trondheim.
What is my route?
Just like the Camino, you can get to Nidaros Cathedral via multiple routes, and by far the most popular is the Gudbrandsdalen. Seventy percent of hikers take this 400-mile main drag from Oslo to Trondheim; most of the remaining hikers opt for the 350-mile St. Olav’s Path, which starts on the eastern coast of Sweden.
Five others routes are the Borg Path, Valldal Path, Rombo Path, North Path, and Coastal Path. While all have their merits, this guide will focus mainly talk on the Gudbrandsdalen. It not only winds through Norway’s prettiest valley; it’s also the longest, most central, and most historic of the options.
How long does it take?
How fast do you want to go? Thirty-two days is the standard answer for the main trek — if you’re going by what the pros have planned out. You may want to schedule in a few extra days to rest or see more. You also have the option of simply hiking the last 100 km (62 miles) to Trondheim, literally in the steps of those who carried St. Olav to his burial. You’ll still receive your certificate at the end for this, too.
In terms of terrain, the Gudbrandsdalen’s highest point (hardbakken) is 4,333 feet above sea level. You should definitely bring a sturdy, well-worn pair of hiking boots, but you won’t be climbing Everest here. The trek varies from rocky, hillside dirt paths to farm roads and small-town streets. All parts of the path are well-marked — albeit by surprisingly small red-and-white markers, so keep an eye out — and you definitely won’t be slowed down by any bushwhacking or altitude sickness. Most pilgrims tend to do around 25 km a day, though you should focus on the distance you’re used to walking. No one’s here to race you. Some days, no one will be here at all.
Where should I stop?
We think Norway is one of the most beautiful countries in the world, so the short answer is “whenever and all the time.” But if you’re looking for a few ideas of what you’ll see along the way, here are some highlights:
Cathedral ruins in Hamar
This 1,000-year-old cathedral is unlike any other you’ve probably seen; it’s encased in nothing but glass. Imagine an ancient sandstone behemoth inside the Louvre pyramid — but with better acoustics. If you can manage a night visit, it’s like being inside a stony rocketship.
Dovrefjell National Park
This section of the trek is my favorite. It has no roads. No people. No power lines. No houses. Just the rolling Dovre mountains splashing out in front of you. And behind. And to all sides.
Also in Dovrefjell, there is a giant cairn, or stone pile, you can’t miss. But the cairn is not meant to mark the trail. It’s an enormous collection of rocks that symbolize what pilgrims before you have each wanted to leave behind, to no longer carry with them. Addiction, anxiety, grief, you name it. Pick up a small stone somewhere on your route and carry it here, joining all these other wonderful humans in their vulnerability.
Ringebu Stave Church
There are only 28 stave churches left in Norway, and Ringebu is the second largest. They’re all around 1,000 years old — as old as the pilgrimage — a post church was here even before this structure was built.
The Hill of Joy
Upon entering Trondheim, you’ll see a sign near a spectacular view. It details how this is the first glimpse of the cathedral that pilgrims would get back in the day — and how that fact hasn’t changed.
What do I pack — and eat?
The packing list for the St. Olav Ways mirrors that of most other long-distance treks, so let’s not waste time stating that you need sunscreen and a first-aid kit. However, note that most days — if you’re hiking the average 25 km — you will likely run into a small town or village. Between grabbing pack lunches at your accommodations and this, staying food and water-equipped shouldn’t be a problem.
In terms of lodging, with sufficient planning, you could avoid bringing full camping supplies if you’re feeling confident. Should you get off-plan, however, it would be nice to have a plan B. If you can handle the weight, it’s nice to have a tent/sleeping bag/hammock/sleeping pad at the ready. That affords you some wiggle room in your itinerary, as well, not to mention full immersion in some of the planet’s most beautiful outdoor settings.
Where do I stay?
Along the main route, you’ll find over 150 registered places to stay, varying from shared hostel accommodations to luxe suites overlooking Norway’s version of Lake Como. Look up all this information online right here, and be sure to call ahead to make reservations — it’s not exactly businesses you’re calling. These are often people opening up their houses and farms to pilgrims, much like locals did a thousand years ago. There are enough places that, if you plan sufficiently, you won’t need to pack full camping gear.
However, let’s not downplay the wonder that is allemannsretten, or the “freedom to roam.” In Norway, you’re allowed to wander virtually anywhere (be respectful, of course), and you can set up your tent for one night wherever you please, so long as it’s 492 feet away from the nearest building. Along these 643 km, the country is totally open to you, if you’re willing to pack the extra camping supplies.
Pro tip: If you’re looking for accommodations, don’t skip Sygard Grytting. It’s one of the few places that has documented proof that it took in pilgrims in the Middle Ages. The 800-year-old farmhouse has super authentic rooms, and Hilde will bake you the best raspberry tart of your life.
Let’s talk stamps.
Norway hasn’t missed the memo. Just like the Camino, you’ll likely find that everything is super well-organized and vaguely reminiscent of a scavenger hunt. Here’s how to take advantage of the “program”:
1) Scope out the website. Tons of downloadable maps, resources, and guides will help you plan every step of the way for both food and lodging.
2) Once in the country, stop at one of the regional pilgrim centers, like the one in Oslo, and buy the pilgrim passport for 50 NOK (about $6).
3) Wherever you go — be it affiliated stops like the above churches or lodging — get a stamp in your passport. Each place has their own, and by the time you’re done, you’ll have one bangin’ souvenir. Besides that, showing your passport will get you into a bunch of places for free or at a reduced price.
4) When you get to Nidaros Cathedral, your completed passport is proof of all your hard work. Show it to receive the letter. Head to the Nidaros Pilegrim Center (not a typo) to get the final stamp and put your little pin into your hometown on the site’s giant map.
What about Trondheim?
After your trek, stay in Trondheim for a couple of days — not only to recuperate but also to celebrate in one of the country’s most vibrant cities. It’s an old, gorgeous, walkable university town next to a beautiful river and surrounded by tall peaks.
A few days a month, Nidaros Cathedral opens tours underneath it and into the crypt. Take a tour if you can. Otherwise, splurge on local seafood at Havfruen. Grab pizza and basement-brewed beers at Habitat. Check out the Crown Regalia and Archbishop’s Palace museum for more ruins. Or just sit on the Old Town Bridge, taking in the above view. It’s certainly well-deserved after all your hard work getting there. And I’m sure your feet won’t mind.