Best Spots for an Arctic Adventure

Pair of polar bears in the snow
Photo: Travel Manitoba [CC by 2.0]/Flickr

Some of the world's most remote and exciting destinations are not to be found in dense jungles, on airport-less islands or atop towering mountain ranges, but rather in regions near, or even north of, the Arctic Circle. It might be fair to characterize this part of the Earth as stark and barren, but if you look past the weather, there is a lot going on in the Arctic. Destinations like Greenland, Scandinavia, Alaska and the Russian Far East offer plenty of adventure, beautiful natural landscapes and an abundance of wildlife. The waters of the Arctic Ocean, meanwhile, are home to some of the least-seen marine species on the planet. The cold weather of the Arctic can be a turn-off for some travelers, but the top of the globe is one of the most unique and unvisited places on Earth. Here are eight places to find adventure, nature and completely unique experiences in the Arctic.

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Manitoba, Canada

Travel Manitoba/flickr.

Exploring the northlands of Canada doesn't always mean hopping on a bush plane that has skis instead of wheels. VIA Rail, Canada's national train service, has a long-haul route between the city of Winnipeg, Manitoba, and the town of Churchill, Manitoba, which sits more than 1,000 miles to the north. Before arriving in Churchill, passengers spend 36 hours passing through the natural landscapes of the province. This town, which sits on the shores of Hudson Bay, is often referred to as the Polar Bear Capital of the World. Tourists can view these mammoth white bears from specially reenforced buses called “tundra buggies” (pictured). Polar bears congregate near the shore of the bay in late fall and early winter. For summertime travelers, it is possible to see of a number of migrating bird species on land and to spot beluga whales in the waters near Churchill.

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Backcountry of Greenland

ilovegreenland/flickr.

Greenland is the world's largest island and most of its landmass sits north of the Arctic Circle. For eco-tourists, Greenland is considered one of the last frontiers because of its lack of transportation infrastructure and its sparse population (less than 60,000 people live in an area of more than 800,000 square miles). More than three-quarters of Greenland is covered by ice, making it possible for people who want an Arctic experience to find plenty of places to explore. The most attractive aspect of Greenland is its wilderness. Apart from population centers along the southern coastline, getting around requires a bush-plane flight, snow-machine ride or even a trek on skis or a dog sled. Kayaking, glacier walking and mountain climbing are on the agenda for adventure seekers, while nature lovers will see polar bears and caribou on land, seals and walruses on shore and whales in the coastal waters around Greenland.

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Svalbard, Norway

Airflore/flickr.

Svalbard is a group of Norwegian islands that are located in the Arctic Sea. This is the northernmost tip of Europe, so the islands are characterized by raw Arctic landscapes, with mountains, glaciers and icy, frigid conditions for most of the year. Wildlife such as polar bears, foxes, caribou, and reindeer can be seen on land, while whales, seals and walruses swim in the cold coastal waters. In the summertime, tourists can bird-watch and kayak in Svalbard, while wintertime visitors can enjoy a real Arctic adventure that includes dog sledding, skiing and mountain climbing. Though Svalbard is by no means a tourism hotspot, there is a decent infrastructure, with rental cottages, hotels, restaurants making it possible for guests to enjoy some comfort while exploring this Arctic version of paradise.

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Russian Far East

Eugene Kaspersky/flickr.

The Russian Far East is thousands of miles away from Moscow and the heavily populated West. This region is a land of volcanoes, giant bears, forests and vast unpopulated landscapes. Serious eco-tourists and adventurers in search of something completely off the beaten path might think of this region as a true paradise. One of the most attractive territories in the Far East is Kamchatka, a peninsula that juts down into the North Pacific just a few degrees south of the Arctic Circle. Kamchatka is best known for its large brown bears. These massive creatures are easy to spot in places like Kronotsky Nature Preserve, a huge swatch of protected land that is teeming with wildlife. Other creatures like bighorn sheep, giant river otters and wolverines are also part of the animal population, as are a number of birds, including golden eagles and falcons. The waters around Kamchatka boast seals, sea lions, whales and salmon. Most eco-tourism attractions are located in the southeastern portion of the peninsula. Here, it is possible to watch whales, climb volcanoes, trek though wild forests and even fish for salmon in rushing rivers.

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Iceland

IceNineJohn/flickr.

Sitting in the North Atlantic and hugging the Arctic Circle, Iceland is the northernmost nation on Earth. This land of glaciers, volcanoes and rugged coastline is a prime spot for eco-tourism. Thanks to the jet stream, Iceland is actually relatively warm, considering its near-Arctic location. Summertime trekking, ice climbing, glacier walking, wildlife tours, dog sled expeditions and trips to volcanoes are on the agenda for nature-minded visitors. Iceland is perfect for people who want to see unique, almost otherworldly, landscapes. However, one of its best attractions of this northern nation is actually located in the North Atlantic waters off Iceland's shores. Whale watching is possible year-round, with many boats leaving directly from the capital city of Reykjavik.

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Lapland, Scandinavia

VisitFinland/flickr.

Lapland is a region that stretches across the northern parts of Scandinavia. The winters can be especially harsh at these far-northern latitudes. People who visit during the colder times of year are usually in search of the aurora borealis (also known as the northern lights), which can be seen especially clearly in the northern regions of Scandinavia. During the warmer months, Lapland can be appreciated as one of the last truly remote wilderness areas in Europe. Hiking and trekking opportunities abound, with the most remote and rustic experiences found in Finland.

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The North Pole

Shutterstock.

Many people try to travel to the North Pole for the same reason that people try to climb Mount Everest: to fulfill some sort of personal ambition or to check an item off a list of lifelong goals. From an eco-tourism perspective, other Arctic destinations will prove more interesting than the North Pole. Nonetheless, it is possible to reach the absolute top of the globe in relative comfort on an ice-breaking cruise ship or on a plane. Companies like Poseidon Expeditions offer a reasonable level of environmental-friendliness for those who want to make a trip to the North Pole while having as little impact as possible on one of the last remaining truly untouched regions on Earth.

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National parks in Alaska

ilya_ktsn/flickr.

America's Arctic paradise can be found in Alaska. Like many other far-northern territories, Alaska is a land that is sparsely populated and still dominated by nature. This state is known for its vast national parks. Some of the most remote are located in regions that sit near or above the Arctic Circle. To really experience Arctic Alaska up close, eco-tourists can head to the famous Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It is possible to fly into the backcountry portions of the refuge as part of a tour. In fact, a guide is recommended for any excursions in the wildlife refuge, since much of the area is very remote and unforgiving. Other parks include the roadless, trail-less Gates of the Arctic National Park (also best seen as part of a guided tour), which can only be reached by bush plane, and the Noatak Nature Preserve, a park that follows its namesake river from the mountains to the coastline. In all these parks, infrastructure is basic to nonexistent, so it is possible to have a true wilderness experience (as long as you are prepared for it).