Spanning about one-sixth of the planet’s surface, the vast and pristine Arctic is home to just four million people. In these massive, wide open spaces, it’s possible to truly get away from it all; to digitally detox, completely unwind and rediscover your place in the world.
*Note: The approximate location of the Barneo Ice Camp can vary daily. Image: Quark Expeditions.
But which Arctic destination is right for you? The sheer size of the region means the Arctic offers great diversity, from the wildlife and scenery you might see, to the historic sites and natural wonders you might have a chance to explore.
In this post, we’ll explore the 5 most popular destinations for Arctic expeditions:
- North Pole
- Northwest Passage
- Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge
Planning Your Perfect Arctic Expedition
Planning your trip to the Arctic is a big deal, whether it’s your first time visiting or your twenty-first! Yes, it’s exciting, but some find it challenging to know where to start.
Kayakers take a moment to appreciate a massive wall of ice in their path while on Arctic expedition.
You're likely feeling excited about the adventure that lies before you, but you probably also have a million big and little questions popping into your mind around where you want to go, what you want to see, and how to logistically get there. And this is normal.
Every year, we help thousands of adventurous travelers plan their perfect Arctic expedition, and almost every single person starts their polar travel planning with three big questions:
- What do I want to see and do?
- Where should I go and when?
- How can I get there?
Maybe you already know that you want to go kayaking in the Arctic, or explore Viking landing sites, but you’re not sure where to go to find these things. In the first section, you’ll find a list of Arctic adventures and where to go to find each type of experience. This should help you start to figure out which regions you should start short-listing for your expedition.
What can I see and do in the Arctic?
I want to see wildlife like walrus, whales, seabird colonies and reindeer.
Spitsbergen is the place to be. This largest island of the Svalbard archipelago also offers the best chance to see polar bears. You can read passengers Janet & John Tangney’s trip journal from their Spitsbergen Explorer expedition here.
I want the best chance at seeing the Northern Lights.
Head to Greenland late in the season, September to early October, when the nights are darker and conditions cooler.
After you leave the North, everything else you do in your life pales in comparison. Bill Webb, author of Where Cold Winds Blow
I want to experience wild landscapes and the Inuit homeland.
Explore the Northwest Passage, where you’ll find wild Arctic landscapes and fascinating Inuit and exploration culture and history. You could visit the spectacular Sam Ford Fjord, or the Inuit art hub of Pangnirtung.
I want an active, exciting Arctic adventure where I can push the limits.
For the greatest variety in active outdoor adventures, think about taking our only land-based expedition at Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge in Nunavut. See what it’s like for yourself:
I want to hike the world’s largest national park and immerse myself in Arctic culture.
I want to have a truly one-of-a-kind, bucket list polar adventure.
Experience life onboard an authentic icebreaker and power your way to the North Pole. You’ll crush your way through multi-year sea ice, keeping an eye out from the decks and from sightseeing helicopters for arctic seabirds, seals, and possibly even polar bears. Check it out:
What can I see and do in these different areas of the Arctic?
If you’ve already shortlisted a few options and are trying to decide between traveling to Spitsbergen, Greenland or Baffin Island, the following section will help you compare the relative merits of each Arctic destination, based on the types of experiences they offer. We’ll also go over which times of years offer the best of each region.
One last thing to keep in mind while trip planning: while we’ve recapped the hallmarks of each region, the very nature of polar expedition travel is that every day is an adventure, and no two trips are ever the same! We travel according to weather and ice conditions, and your Expedition Leader is constantly optimizing your route to take you to the most exciting and interesting landing sites. With that said, here’s what you have the greatest chance of seeing and doing in each respective location:
What can I see and do in Greenland?
The iceberg looming above me is the size of an apartment block, yet despite its enormity, the frozen seascape is eerily silent. I am sitting in my kayak with eight other paddlers in one of Greenland’s enormous Arctic fjords. All that breaks the calm is the snap, crackle, and pop of the ice. Then, as if on cue, a curious seal pokes his head above the water to check us out.” - Passenger Keith Perry on kayaking in Greenland
Greenland is where you can explore massive fjords, experience authentic Inuit and Thule culture, hike wide open wilderness areas, and possibly see a vibrant Northern Lights show. You’ll have a chance to take guided hikes and Zodiac cruises, practice your photography on the open decks, and take optional kayaking excursions for a whole new view of the rugged Greenland coast.
When’s the best time to visit Greenland?
The tiny, colorful Greenlandic village of Ittoqqortoormiit beckons.
Our Greenland season begins in August when it’s a bit warmer and runs until October. If you’re interested in seeing the Northern Lights, you may want to travel later in the season, since darkness improves the visibility of the Northern Lights.
What can I see and do in Spitsbergen?
The Norwegian territory of Svalbard is an archipelago, and Spitsbergen is its largest island. The entire group of islands is the wildlife capital of the Arctic. This is where you’ll see the most arctic animals including walrus, whales, seabird colonies, reindeer, arctic fox and even polar bears. You’ll spend your days cruising and hiking with your camera ready, always watchful for wildlife.
When’s the best time to go to Spitsbergen?
If you have your heart set on seeing polar bears, you’re going to visit Spitsbergen in June or July, when there’s typically more ice. More ice increases your chances of seeing more polar bears out hunting.
What can I see and do on a Northwest Passage expedition?
Walk in the footsteps of legendary Arctic explorers as you wind your way through the icy channels of the fabled Northwest Passage. The remote communities and rugged landscapes of Greenland and the Canadian Arctic wilderness offer authentic Inuit arts and culture, immense wilderness and opportunities to see walrus, whales, muskoxen, lemmings, wolves and other unique species. Stretch your legs hiking the colorful tundra and enjoy spectacular vistas of mountains and valleys, fjords teeming with icebergs, and ancient rock formations.
When’s the best time to go to on a Northwest Passage expedition?
Visiting Qikiqtarjuaq, Baffin Island on an Arctic expedition. Photo credit: Acacia Johnson
Our expeditions traverse the Northwest Passage in late August and September when there’s less ice, which makes it easier to reach seldom-visited and remote destinations like Sam Ford Fjord and Pangnirtung.
What can I see and do on a North Pole expedition?
Celebrate checking a huge travel achievement off your bucket list by reaching 90° North aboard the world’s most powerful nuclear icebreaker, 50 Years of Victory. Toast your fellow travelers out on the thick, multi-year sea ice and, if you choose, take it all in from high above in a hot air balloon!
Soar high over the sea ice in a hot air balloon, one of the adventures available on a North Pole expedition.
When is the best time to visit the North Pole?
We journey to the North Pole in June and July, when polar bears are actively hunting seal on the sea ice, weather conditions are more favorable than in other months, and days and nights run together under the midnight sun.
What can I see and do at Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge?
On our only land-based expedition at Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge, you’ll have all kinds of activities to choose from. Ride a fat bike across the tundra, go ATVing or hiking in search of wildlife, raft the river between massive rock walls, and more. There’s tons of wildlife, too. You might catch a glimpse of arctic fox, arctic hare, muskox, ringed seal, caribou, snowy owls, peregrine falcons and more.
When is the best time to visit Nunavut?
In the Canadian summer, muskoxen graze a tundra come alive with colorful and tenacious moss, lichens and wildflowers. Arctic hare try to keep out of reach of arctic fox on land, while ringed seals on sea ice and in open water cautiously train their spring pups to avoid the Arctic’s largest carnivore, the polar bear. Thousands of beluga whales migrate to Cunningham Inlet near Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge, making it one of the world’s best sites for observing this close relative of the narwhal in the wild.
We visit from late June to mid-August to give you the best opportunities to spot these fascinating species and participate in once-in-a-lifetime activities like fat biking on the sea ice, or rafting the steep-walled Cunningham River.
Feed your need for speed and high adrenaline adventure with a fat bike ride on the frozen ice floe edge at Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge. Photo credit: Nansen Weber
Wait, how do I get there?
You can find out everything you need to know about gateway cities and embarkation points here.
Ready to start planning your Arctic expedition?
If you still aren’t sure where to start, download your free Traveler’s Guide to discover which expeditions meet your travel style and goals.
The best Arctic destinations are often incredibly remote, but we’ve been getting people there for over two decades. You can relax and enjoy every minute, knowing that the most experienced and passionate people in polar travel have taken care of every detail.
Learn more about the Arctic:
- Dive into Greenland’s fjords and valleys, culture, history and vast wilderness;
- Explore Spitsbergen in a series of 360° VR videos;
- Immerse yourself in Baffin Island’s immense wilderness and fascinating culture;
- Experience a day in the life at Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge and surrounding area;
- See what it’s really like to journey to the North Pole on a real icebreaker.
About the Author
A travel and business writer from Ontario, Canada, Miranda has written for Quark Expeditions since 2013. Right out of high school, she packed a bag and went west to embark on a 10-year career in camps, resorts and lodges across Canada. Miranda spent several months spent in the Canadian Arctic and years in the Rocky Mountains before returning home to Georgian Bay to raise her family. Now a digital nomad, she’s never happier than when traveling and writing. Miranda visited Antarctica with Quark Expeditions in 2016.