Ten years ago, Norway's Trolltunga received around 800 visitors in a year; during high season, twice that now come in a single day.
Anne Graue / EyeEm | EyeEm | Getty Images
CNBC Travel

Instagrammers love this iconic spot, but there's something they don't want you to see

If there is one thing that Instagram has shown us is that the world is filled with fascinating natural wonders. The downside? There are few geological secrets anymore.

What was once a tribe's, then a town's, and eventually a country's pride and joy is now subject to the whims of the international traveling world — all 1.4 billion of us.

Take Norway's now-famous Trolltunga. Jutting 2,300 feet above the north side of Ringedalsvatnet lake, the natural rock formation resulted from receding glaciers that broke off large, angular blocks from area mountains.

It's easy to see why photos at the site are an instant hit.

Two visitors gaze off Norway's Trolltunga.
Oleh_Slobodeniuk | E+ | Getty Images

The serenity.

The solitude.

Trolltunga in Hardangerfjord, Norway.
Morten Rustad | 500px Prime | Getty Images

The stillness of the remote surroundings.

But widen the frame a bit, and that's not the story.

Tourism explosion at Trolltunga

A decade ago, fewer than 800 people a year traveled to Trolltunga. Next year, that figure's expected to hit 100,000.

Trolltunga was formed roughly 10,000 years before the advent of the internet, but social media has played a major role in its massive influx. A photo there seems to combine everything we've come to expect from online travel photos: distant lands, a touch of daredevilism, breath-taking scenery and a soul-searchingly authentic experience.

Trolltunga, from a different angle.
Kotenko_A | iStock Editorial | Getty Images

"Instagram has elevated the interest in the site that really no conventional marketing campaign can do," said Bo Vibe, head of digital marketing at Fjord Tours. "Getting the 'selfie' on the top becomes the end-all for many visitors."

"Facebook has probably had just as much influence as Instagram," said Jostein Soldal, CEO of Trolltunga Active, citing effective local and national marketing campaigns, word of mouth and the sheer beauty of the area as other factors.

Unlike other hotspots of the photo-sharing world, Trolltunga — which translates to "Troll's tongue" — is every bit as beautiful as photographs portray. But that solemn mood conveyed on social media doesn't match what's happening just beyond the selfie-frame.

Tourists wait in line to be photographed on Trolltunga.
Kotenko_A | iStock Editorial | Getty Images

As tourist numbers have increased, so have the lines. Visitors who arrive in the summer months have been known to wait longer than three hours to get a photograph on the tongue's tip. The longest waits often result when good weather follows a long period of rain — and when the average number of visitors increases from 800 to 2,000 per day.

Travelers who arrive from June to September should mentally prepare for an average wait of 60 to 90 minutes for a photo opp.

"If you are prepared that there will be a line and spend the time just enjoying all the impressive poses many of the tourists are doing, the waiting is not a big issue," said Soldal.

Interestingly, the website for the regional tourism office keeps it real with an expectation-managing photograph of its most famous spot.

Trolltunga's saving grace – it's hard to get there

Consistently ranked one of the best hikes in Norway, the journey to reach Trolltunga isn't an easy one. From Skjeggedal, it's a 10- to 12-hour hike that covers 28 kilometers and an 800-meter ascent. Hikers need to be fit and equipped with food, water, headlights, hiking boots and other gear. Efforts to inform tourists of this have helped reduce rescue operations from an all-time high of 40 in 2016 to just 12 in 2018.

Built in the early 1900s, a funicular called Mågelibanen once made the journey to Trolltunga considerably easier, but it closed in 2012. To date, the only way to reach it is by foot, a fact that suits the local population just fine, says Soldal.

"We don't want more visitors," he said with a laugh. "Plus, if it's a five-minute walk, the Trolltunga will lose some of its 'I did it' factor."

There is a steep, private road that takes travelers 400 meters up the mountain, but it's still eight hours of hiking from there. Only 30 cars are allowed to park at a time, and the hairpin turns on the drive aren't for the faint of heart.

Trolltunga isn't alone

Trolltunga isn't Norway's only site to achieve Insta-fame. It's common to see photos of breathtaking Preikestolen, or Pulpit Rock, that typically look like this:

Norway's Preikestolen, or Pulpit Rock.
Oleh_Slobodeniuk | E+ | Getty Images

But with 300,000 visitors a year — roughly three times as many visitors as Trolltunga — it's better to assume it will look more like this in person.

Hiikers at Preikestolen.
Xichao Yu | 500px | Getty Images

The journey to Pulpit Rock is a less-arduous, eight-kilometer hike that can be completed in three to four hours, making it a popular stop on the tourist bus and cruise ship circuit.

Instagram is also rife with photos of Kjeragbolten, another picture-perfect geological wonder in Norway.

Woman atop Kjeragbolten.
kotangens | iStock | Getty Images

But behind-the-scenes photos show that the line at Kjeragbolten is decidedly less zen.

Hikers wait in line to take a photo at Kjeragbolten.
Courtesy of Ali Ronca at amsterdamandbeyond.com

How to avoid the crowds

For a less-congested experience, one option is to book an off-season tour. Winter tours reward visitors with open trails, little to no waits and beautiful snow-covered views, though the hike is more difficult and conditions can be too slick to step out onto the troll's tongue. Off-season hikes — from October to May — can be dangerous for novices and should not be attempted without a guide.

Early morning starts in high season are also possible, though it adds the extra challenge of hiking in darkness.

It's an area where all logic says is not a place to settle down. And we have managed it for 8,000 years.
Jostein Soldal
CEO, Trolltunga Active

Norway underwent a tourism boom following the release of Disney's "Frozen" in 2013. The movie, which is now the biggest grossing animated film of all time, is set in the Kingdom of Arendelle, which is loosely modeled on Norway's famously icy terrain. With the release of "Frozen 2" last month, international interest in Norway will likely continue.

"There is certainly a possibility that access might be restricted if visitor numbers (to Trolltunga) keep escalating. However, in Norway there's a general reluctance to turn nature into 'theme parks,' so this is seen as a last resort," said Vibe.

The country is actively helping to disperse crowds by promoting lesser-known gems that don't get as much social media love. It's enticing travelers to the "Top 11 places with less people, more space" and "10 lesser-known Instagram-worthy spots."

Plus, there's more to the Hardanger region than Trolltunga. Soldal said the region has everything that defines Norway, from fjords and glaciers to history and a burgeoning tech industry.

"It's a fjord filled with inhabitants that have creatively managed to survive and live in an area with steep mountains, avalanches, and rain and snow 260 days per year," said Soldal. "It's an area where all logic says is not a place to settle down. And we have managed it for 8,000 years."