Trekking Greenland Far & Wide ‒ a Traveler’s Report
When you stand among the barren glaciers of Greenland, it’s difficult not to be amazed at how huge and gorgeous they are. With the widest uncontrollable smile on your face, you walk west along the trail behind the arctic circle trail. Snow starts to fall…
Before going to Greenland, I thought that this whole island is a huge mass of snow and ice. So exploring a rather narrow strip of the territory where you can find all the colors of nature gave me a clear idea of how Greenland is very vibrant and colorful.
It is also the most sparsely populated autonomous territory on the planet. Greenland is larger than, for instance, Mexico, but only 50,000 people live on the island (whereas 122 million residents populate Mexico). Then, there is a huge number of wild protected areas to explore.
The small town of Kangerlussuaq (population 500) is the location of Greenland’s largest international airport. I started my adventure here after a 4-hour flight from Copenhagen, Denmark.
The circle trail of Greenland is often deemed one of the best long-distance hikes in the world.
This route throughout Greenland stretches out for up to 200 kilometers (124 miles) from the edge of the ice cap to the fishing town of Sisimiut on the west coast.
Depending on one’s physical shape and the selected route, it can take from 7 to 12 days to complete. There are wooden huts along the trail where you can ride out the bad weather, but I’d strongly recommend bringing your tent along.
Only up to 300 people a year travel along the trail, so you can walk here for several days without meeting a single person. The regular tourist season takes place from June to August.
I hiked in mid-August to avoid the mosquitoes that swarmed here in early summer. An important thing to note ‒ Arctic Circle travelers need to be completely self-sufficient. So don’t go if you have even the tiniest doubts or supply shortages.
The only cities are located at the beginning and end of the trail, meaning you must pack all your food and survival gear for the whole duration of the hike. Outside the cities, there is also no cellular connection.
I was anxiously looking forward to this trip for many reasons. I was hyped to test my Arctic desert survival skills and enjoy the peaceful, picturesque loneliness.
Day 1 ‒ Exploring the Ice Cap
12 km (7,5 miles) traveled in 5 hours
I arrived in Greenland at night after our plane was delayed in Copenhagen. It was a majestic white night. Kangerlussuaq is located north of the Arctic Circle and the August sun sets around 11 PM.
Most hikers start the Arctic Circle trail directly from Kangerlussuaq, hiring a taxi to the trail and heading west towards the coast. However, I wanted to start my trek 40 km east along the edge of the ice cap.
So the day after my arrival, I booked a day tour at the World Of Greenland, asking to leave me at the ice cap so that I’d go back to town myself.
The bus took us along a rough dirt road to point 660, where we spent about an hour walking on the ice. There was no need for crampons or safety ropes as nearby glaciers relieve the pressure that usually causes cracks. The ice was also tenacious, like a layer of crunchy snow.
Glaciers are rivers of unstable ice that flow from an ice cap. The ice cap itself doesn’t move ‒ it is actually very solid and can be several miles deep.
After the group left, I decided to spend a few more hours exploring the Greenland ice cap. It was truly impressive.
Rivers of blue meltwater meandered across the icy landscape that stretched out to the horizon as far as the eye could see.
While many people are lucky to visit glaciers around the world, being able to stand on an ice cap is quite rare. There are very few places where you can reach it without flying a helicopter.
Dark clouds suddenly began to gather, forcing me to leave the ice and start down the dirt road back to Kangerlussuaq. It started to snow among the clueless blue sky in only about 30 minutes. Generally, this is standard for Greenland. The weather changes rapidly here.
The first “native” animal I saw was a polar hare. Its bright white fur stood out against the greenish-yellow landscape. Then, a deer ran across the road further on my way. This was the beginning of my trekking wildlife sightings.
The next 5 hours were spent walking along the dirt road built by Volkswagen many years ago to test their new cars in the harsh winter conditions.
At about 11 PM, I reached Russell Glacier and camped.
Day 2 ‒ Road to Kangerlussuaq
25 km (15,5 miles) traveled in 6 hours
Russell Glacier is a tall wall of white, blue, and black frozen water covered with jagged cracks. It shifts by about 25 meters every year and feeds a glacial river.
Moraine hills surround the glacier. Standing next to this giant, you feel very small. The glacier is simply amazing and I wandered around for hours watching the icefall. Some of the pieces were about the size of a school bus!
It’s important to keep your distance from the front of the glacier. Falling ice can easily crush you, chunks often fall into the river and form large waves that can knock you down in icy water.
Reluctantly leaving the beautiful glacier, I continued along the river. The Arctic desert Sandflugtdalen awaited me.
I saw three musk oxen climbing down the slope. These are large buffalo-like animals native to Greenland. They are hunted by local Inuit for their delicious meat and warm fur.
Kangerlussuaq used to be an American airbase in Greenland before it was reconstructed into an international airport. Along the road, you can find the wreck of a Lockheed T-33 that crashed along with two other planes during a blizzard in 1968. Thankfully, back then, all the pilots ejected safely.
Then I noticed a black shape moving in the bushes ahead. Through the telephoto lens, I was able to see the Arctic fox. This animal can be very shy. They are also quite small ‒ about the size of a large domestic cat. There are two kinds, white and blue. I crept up as slowly and quietly as I could, but it saw me walking and rushed down the road. Somehow I managed to get some pictures as it was running by.
A few miles from Kangerlussuaq, along the road called Sugarloaf, is the famous mountain that offers a 360-degree view of the Greenland ice cap in the east, Kangerlussuaq in the west, and the Akuliarusiarsuup Kuua glacial river below.
There are signs just behind the mountain that warn you not to leave the road, as there may be unexploded ordnance. For a long time, it was believed that the American military took out all the weapons, but after years, local school children discovered a grenade. While a ring of white pillars marks the danger zone, the road itself is safe.
Back in town after a long day, I decided to pay for a room at Polar Lodge rather than camping for another night. I needed to recharge all the batteries in my camera and iPhone (for GPS) and repackage my backpack.
I rented a locker at the airport to store most of my food during this first leg of the trek. Going with a full backpack for 20 extra miles doesn’t make any sense.
I also bought some dried fish and peanut M&Ms from the local supermarket to complement what I brought with me. In total, I had food for 9 days, which should have been enough for the rest of my Arctic Circle hike.
Day 3 ‒ Road to Kellyville/Hundeso
20 km (12,5 miles) traveled in 5 hours
When I had first came to Kangerlussuaq, I found that my gasoline was not suitable for refueling my camping stove. So I tried unsuccessfully to find a replacement.
A local guy offered to rent his stove, which used a different type of gas. But later, I learned that it could not be refueled at the airport until the “big” 747 plane had departed. After spending hours waiting, I finally gave up and went without a stove.
Most tourists prefer to hire a taxi for $50 to make it from Kangerlussuaq to the official route 10 miles away. I was determined to go myself.
The road wasn’t so long. I passed a tiny local port, several huge diesel storage tanks, and a research station called Kellyville, which studies the Earth’s atmosphere and the northern lights.
In the past, Kellyville, a red-colored stone cairn, marked the official start of the Arctic Circle circuit.
Finally, the Arctic desert stretched out before me. I was completely on my own.
Day 4 ‒ Hundeso to Katiffik
20 km (12,5 miles) traveled in 8 hours
Having approached Hundeso in the middle of the night, I decided to camp nearby so as not to wake up travelers or hunters who might have been sleeping inside.
Hundeso is a travelers’ hut that anyone can use along their way. Basically, it’s just an old house for 4 people, located on a rocky hill overlooking the brackish Lake Hundeso.
It stores lots of exciting memorabilia, like reindeer bones (piles of skulls, horns, and hooves). Some of the bones still had flesh and fur on them, meaning the animals had been killed recently.
Lake Hundeso is salty, but you can drink the water from it. Several destroyed fishing boats lie on the shore. You can comfortably stay on the sandy beach. I woke up to the bright orange glow of an incredible sunrise around 4:30 AM.
After I’d captured this unforgettable sight, I went to bed again. I recommend bringing an eye mask along because the night in Greenland lasts only 4 hours at this time of year.
I watched arctic hares do their trademark jumps. They freeze for a minute and then suddenly jump and twist in the air for no reason. It looks funny.
When the sun came up, the temperature went up to 65 degrees Fahrenheit and I found there was a nice mossy area to sleep in. So I took a bite of local berries and took a good nap.
Landscapes had transformed from moist wetlands to rocky mountain trails. Sometimes, the path forked in different directions, making me intuitively guess my next turn. The most common route wasn’t always where the cairns were marked.
Day 5 ‒ Katiffik to Kangerluatsiarsuaq
25 km (15 miles) traveled in 6 hours
The Katifik Hut is located on the eastern shore of Lake Amitsorsuak, a long and narrow body of water that stretches for about 14 miles. There, I met my first fellow travelers. They were Lucas from Washington and two Germans ‒ Hans and Hieko.
I shared a room with Lucas while the Germans camped outside. In the middle of the night, we found ourselves with another roommate. Frieder is a 70-year-old Dane who has traveled the Arctic Circle 11 times.
He also had a fantastic surprise “under his sleeve”. A canoe!
There are two ways to cross the next section of the trail. Walk by the lake all day or sail on it in a battered canoe.
If you’re lucky, you may be able to find a canoe. There are rumors that there are 10-14 of them left on the route. Most of them look like they were thrown off a cliff, however.
Fortunately, Frieder was walking in the opposite direction, from west to east. At night, he crossed the lake in his best canoe.
Lucas and I teamed up to use the gift and give our feet a rest.
By the way, heavy-duty trash bags are one of my favorite trekking gear items. You can use them as tarps, raincoats, dry bags, etc. They are lightweight and cheap.
We lined the bottom of our leaking canoe with plastic, dropped our bags, and set off across the lake. One paddle was made of plastic and the other was made of treated wood, wrapped in duct tape. We had a great time in the bright arctic sun without headwinds.
Greenland has huge deposits of gold, diamonds, and rubies. We wandered past rocky cliffs adorned with multi-colored layers of rock, wondering how many millions worth of money were hidden inside.
After spending about 4.5 hours on the boat, we reached the canoe center, the next hut on the trail. This is the largest shelter for 16 people. It was built as part of a failed business, hence the occasional abandoned canoes.
Shortly after our arrival, the Germans joined us. They walked along the lake but left a few hours earlier. Therefore, canoeing was much faster than walking. I felt great after resting my legs.
Instead of staying in the hut, I decided to go further down the lake using another canoe. But the wind got stronger and it wasn’t easy because I was constantly being carried to the shore.
A couple of deer on the hills above the lake spotted me and ran away. However, there was no way to get my camera out due to the strong wind. By the time I reached the end of the lake, I was very tired.
I walked for a few more hours, then stopped. The sun began to set.
Day 6 ‒ Kangerluatsiarsuaq to Ikkattooq
16 km (10 miles) traveled in 6 hours
The next camping site was located in the valley above Kangerluatsiarsuaq Lake. I packed my tent and walked down to the lake for breakfast ‒ cold muesli with water, brown sugar, and wild berries.
At least 3 varieties of arctic berries grow on Greenland hiking polar. Blueberries and black or red cranberries. Everything is edible.
My favorite and least common berries are red thingies that taste like crunchy sour apples. Berries can be picked almost anywhere and I had my breakfast basket stocked up at all times.
After about an hour of my hike, the trail winded and descended along with a series of rocky hills. Around the corner, I found a small, untouched lake beach.
If the sun came out, this would have been the perfect place to sunbathe! Beyond this lake, the route became very steep. Climbing the rocky cliff, I noticed several deer who hadn’t yet noticed me. Deer almost always run away if they see a person.
To take a beautiful photo, you need to act as a hunter a bit: crouch low, approach from the leeward side, hide behind a brush or large boulders, and then take a shot.
The trail was climbing higher and higher, but it was certainly a delight that didn’t need to walk on the bare rock all the time. Dark clouds approached and a light rain began. I put on my raincoat and saw another hare in the bushes. So far I had seen 5 hares and 5 deer too.
The rain suddenly intensified. I looked at the map and it turned out that the next hut was already close. I didn’t plan on staying there, but the bad weather made me think about it. When I got to the red house, which looked more like a garden gatehouse, it turned out that I was not the only traveler who decided to spend the night there.
Two other dudes were resting in sleeping bags. They woke up and offered me some hot tea. They were Danes and turned out to be very pleasant neighbors that told many exciting stories.
Day 7 ‒ Moving Further Down the Route
19 km (12 miles) traveled in 8 hours
I chatted with my new Danish friends for a few hours before nightfall, hiding from the storm overhead. Fleming and Ellen have already traveled the Arctic Circle 6 times. They are both 70 years old. And they crossed the ice cap together. An amazing feat that takes a whole month.
To make it, you need a sled packed full of food and equipment. They also have been to Everest base camp and climbed Mont Blanc (the highest mountain in Europe). And they only began their trekking adventures since they were like 40. It’s never too late to try something new and challenging!
The next morning, we parted and I began to climb a steep ridge in the clear mountain air at a 38-degree angle. From there, the trail leads to a huge valley. On the approach to the river, the first mosquitoes began to attack us. There is a big problem with mosquitoes in Greenland.
They breed in many lakes and ponds scattered throughout the landscape and feed on the poor deer. Every year, more and more mosquitoes spawn, which many scientists attribute to global warming.
When hiking the Arctic Circle Trail in June or July, these epic swarms are at their most active. Wearing a mosquito net is important to keep yourself unharmed.
By mid-August, most of the mosquitoes have died due to the drop in nighttime temperatures. I still came across small swarms over swamps and wetlands of the trail. These little insects are a huge problem.
The valley surrounds the Ole Lakseelv, the widest and deepest river on the Arctic Circle. There are two ways to cross it.
You can get a little wet and stretch straight or take a detour to a wooden bridge that was built nearby. In early spring or after a lot of rain, the river level can reach the chest of a person of average height. But in mid-August, the water level drops and barely reaches the knees. The source of all this water is the Greenland ice cap, so you can imagine how cold it is!
To be on the safe side, I dressed in a special suit and protected my travel backpack by stowing it in heavy trash bags.
Slowly and carefully, I crossed the river, using trekking poles to maintain my balance. At its deepest point, the icy water reached my thighs. I dried up and continued my journey on the opposite bank.
The trail climbs back up the rocky mountains to the new hut. On the way, I met a sixth deer and stopped for a while to watch its graze.
Nothing beats relaxing on a long hike. It’s been about a week since I had to reply to emails, write blog posts, edit photos, or stay active on social media. And I was truly happy!
I passed another hut and went uphill along an old snowmobile track dotted with white cotton wool that was flying in the wind.
Day 8 ‒ Long Passage
19 km (12 miles) traveled in 7 hours
It got windy, but I managed to find a decent camping site, sheltered by hills on all sides. I set up a Hyperlite Mountain Gear Echo II tent next to a small pond as a pair of snow-white arctic hares watched me from nearby rocks.
The next morning, mosquitoes woke me up. I packed my things and hit the road by 9 AM after eating wild berries and mushrooms for a light breakfast.
The path continued through a mountainous area dotted with lakes. Patches of permanent snow could be seen on the peaks. Looking at the landscape, you get an idea of how massive glaciers carved this valley thousands of years ago.
In the first of the two huts, I stopped for an afternoon nap surrounded by a rocky ridge. As I’d descended to the second, larger hut, I found my Danish friends Fleming and Ellen passing me while I slept.
They showed me where to cross the river ahead as it flows out of the lake. As I continued the hike, they decided to end their day early in the cabin.
Suddenly, I saw two deer 50 yards to my left. Then, three more, including the cub. This was a whole family! I carefully removed my bright orange backpack, took out my camera, and crawled up my stomach commando-style up the hill to try and take pictures before they noticed me. I was able to get pretty close and get some great shots. Then the wind died down and one of the deer noticed me, apparently by the smell. The animals ran away quickly.
Greenland’s arctic tundra blooms in spring and summer. Purple, blue, red, pink, yellow ‒ all the flowers are all very beautiful.
Meanwhile, gray clouds approached and the wind intensified again. I scrambled to find a good campsite before dark and stumbled across a flat plateau that was, sadly, blown by the cold winds from the valley.
Fortunately, there were large rocks around the area, perfect for building an impromptu windbreak in front of the tent. I was trying to light a fire using the fluffy grass and twigs I had collected earlier, but the wind was too strong.
This is why I love thermal blankets. You never know when they will come in handy. I always take the compacted version for long hikes. Wrapping around the sleeping bag helps to trap heat and protect yourself from the wind blowing under the light canvas tent.
It’s been a long, cold night, but I managed to get some sleep dreaming of a huge, mouth-watering steak that I would order when I finally get to Sisimiut.
Day 9 ‒ Innajuattoq to Nerumaq
18 km (11 miles) traveled in 7 hours
Morning in Greenland is dark, wet, and foggy. I was starting to pack my gear for the next section of the route beyond the Arctic Circle. Fortunately, most of the day was about traveling down the mountains.
Eventually, the fog cleared and I spotted the deer grazing right in the hills next to me. There was also another Arctic hare. There are so many wild animals roaming in Greenland!
The Nerumak Hut wasn’t too far away and I stopped for a little nap due to lack of sleep the night before. The day promised to be a long hike and I needed all the energy I could get.
Later on, I was moving pretty fast, expecting to finish the hike by the following night at that pace. My backpack was exponentially lighter because I had eaten most of the food I took with me.
The Arctic Circle trail runs through a patch of dense willow trees, the tallest of which are only about 6 feet high. This is the largest forest I have seen since arriving in Greenland last week. Trees grow poorly in the arctic tundra.
More and more rivers descend from the mountains through my trail, some with small waterfalls. Most of them can be easily crossed by rock climbing.
The trail became wet and swampy again. The weather was getting worse.
It was actually raining. I still hadn’t found the next hut. The fog was swarming and the sky was darkening. While I would have liked to sleep at night in a dry place, it looked like I would have had to camp in the rain.
I curled up in my sleeping bag and had a dried fish snack washed down with strong Greenland schnapps, trying to keep warm.
Day 10 ‒ Kangerluarsuk Tulleq to Sisimiut
22 km (14 miles) traveled in 8 hours
The next morning, I prepared myself for the last day of trekking. And almost immediately fell into the swamp. Not a great start of the day!
Climbing the hill, I soon found the Tullek hut I had been looking for last night. Another 10 minutes and I would have enjoyed a solid roof over my head. The trail climbs back up the mountains through a high rocky valley overlooking the snow-capped peaks on either side. I found remnants of dog sledding equipment.
Then, a walk through the boulder fields with a beautiful view of the jagged mountains awaited me. As I descended into this beautiful valley, I noticed something large, furry, and brown moving along the path. It was a musk ox!
The musk ox is the largest land mammal in Greenland, weighing up to 400 kg (880 lb). These huge furry creatures are related to goats, but to me, they look more like bison.
Earlier that week, I watched a group of them from a distance, but this bull was only 50 yards away from me and was blocking my path. Their Greenlandic name, Umimmak, means long-bearded.
Muskoxen are an important source of meat and wool for the local people of Greenland. You must be careful not to get too close to them. Eventually, the one I met sniffed me and ran up the mountain.
After passing the ski lift, I turned the corner to see the Arctic Ocean. On the edge, the colorful fishing town of Sisimiut rises.
Well, I did it! I hiked the polar paths and felt on top of the world. And although I was completely exhausted, I just couldn’t stop smiling.
Trekking for 10 days along the Arctic Circle Trail in the Greenland desert was a rewarding adventure.
I lived off the ground, ate berries and mushrooms, got acquainted with wildlife, set up camp under the stars, and spent time alone with my thoughts surrounded by nature. How pleasant it was to return to civilization after more than a healthy dose of such nature-bounding loneliness!
The next 4 days were spent walking around Sisimiut, meeting other tourists and a group of theater actors from Norway and Denmark. We danced to Greenlandic hip hop and learned about Inuit culture.
All in all, this was quite the best experience of my life.