Oulo, Kainuu & Koillismaa

Stretching across Finland’s from the Gulf of Bothnia to the long Russian border, this broad swath of territory takes in both Oulu’s technology sector and brown bears patrolling the eastern forests. It offers some of the nation’s most memorable outdoor experiences in both summer and winter, from birdwatching and beachcombing in the west to skiing, canoeing, and trekking in the east.

The further you get from Oulu, the more remote things become. Kainuu is a heavily wooded wilderness and important animal habitat traversed by the famed UKK trekking route. Koillismaa, near the Russian border, is the transitional region between the south and Lapland and includes Oulanka National Park, one of Finland’s natural highlights, with tumbling rivers, isolated lakes, and dense forests. The region is also home to Finland’s most recent national park, Hossa National Park, established in 2017 to commemorate Finland’s centenary of independence.



Prosperous Oulu is one of Finland’s most enjoyable cities to visit. In summer angled sunshine bathes the market square in light and all seems well with the world. Locals, who appreciate daylight when they get it, crowd the terraces, and market stalls groan under the weight of Arctic berries. The city center is spread across several islands, connected by pedestrian bridges and cycleways. Oulu is also a significant technology city; the university turns out top-notch IT graduates and the corporate parks on the city’s outskirts employ people from all over the globe.


The capital of the Kainuu region, Kajaani is the major settlement in these parts. Apart from its pretty riverside and church at nearby Paltaniemi, however, it’s more of a stopover than a destination. Kajaani was a tar town; until the 19th century, the Kainuu region produced more than anywhere in the world. Other claims to fame are that Elias Lönnrot, creator of the Kalevala, worked here for a period, using it as a base for his travels, and long-reigning president Urho Kekkonen lived here as a student.


The Sotkamo area, some 25 miles east of Kajaani, offers a typically beautiful Finnish land-and lake scape that’s great fun to explore year-round, with plenty of family-friendly outdoor activities on offer, including a lake beach. It’s especially well known as a winter-sports center, with downhill and cross-country skiing at Vuokatti, 4 miles west.


Surrounded by wilderness, Kuhmo makes a natural base for hiking and wildlife-watching. Vast taiga forests run from here right across Siberia and harbor wolves, bears, and lynx. Kuhmo is also the unofficial capital of Vienan Karjala, the Karelian heartland now in Russia, explored by artists in the movement that was crucial to the development of Finnish national identity. Most of their expeditions set off from Kuhmo, as did one of Elias Lönnrot’s, when he headed into ‘Songland’ to record the verses of bards that he later wove into the Kalevala epic. There’s a fine Kalevala resource center in town. This likable little town also has a great chamber music festival in July.


This remote, strung-out settlement is wonderfully set up for fishing, hiking, snowmobiling, and cross-country skiing: there are many marked trails and numerous lakes. The prize draw here is newly minted Hossa National Park, established in 2017 in honor of Finland’s centenary of independence. It contains spectacular natural and cultural features, including four-millennia-old rock art.


Kuusamo is a remote frontier town 135 miles northeast of Oulu and close to the Russian border, while Ruka is its buzzy ski resort 18.5 miles north. Both make great activity bases.


Set on the beautiful lakeshore of Yli-Juumajärvi, Juuma is a popular base for Karhunkierros treks and rafting on the Kitkajoki. The surrounding wilderness offers opportunities to spot wildlife including bears, lynx, and wolverines.


The Karhunkierros (Bear’s Ring), one of the oldest and best-established trekking routes in Finland, offers some of the country’s most breathtaking scenery. It is extremely popular in summer but it can be walked practically any time between late May and October. Despite the name, it’s not a circuit, rather a point-to-point walk of anything from 32 miles (Ristikallio to Juuma) to 50 miles (Hautajärvi to Ruka). There are four trailheads: the northern access point is from Hautajärvi visitor center on the road to Salla; further south on Rd 950 the Ristikallio parking area is another access point. In the south, you can start the walk at Ruka ski resort; or further northeast at Juuma village. Juuma also has a spectacular loop trail, the 7.5 miles Pieni Karhunkierros (Little Bear’s Ring). Most people choose to walk north to south for transport-connection reasons. Much of the walk is through the Oulanka National Park.