Trekking The Arctic Circle Trail In Greenland

Arctic Circle Trail

Hiking the Arctic Circle Trail

Kangerlussuaq, Greenland

Standing alone on Greenland’s barren ice cap in complete silence, you’re hit with the reality of how remote this place is. Smiling, I hike West as snow begins to fall.

NOTE: This is Part 1 of a series. ► Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Packing/Logistics

Before visiting Greenland to hike the Arctic Circle Trail, I mistakenly assumed the country was a huge mass of snow & ice. However that’s not entirely true…

While 85% of Greenland is covered in ice, there’s a narrow strip along the coastline that’s actually green! And red. And purple. And yellow. In fact I would soon learn that Greenland can be pretty colorful.

It’s also the most sparsely populated country on the planet.

To give you an idea of just how sparse, Greenland has more landmass than Mexico, yet has a population of only 50,000 compared to Mexico’s 122 million. There’s a lot of untouched wilderness to explore here.

The small town of Kangerlussuaq (population 500) is home to Greenland’s largest international airport. I began my adventure here after a 4 hour flight from Copenhagen, Denmark.

Greenland Trek

Trekking in Greenland

The Arctic Circle Trail

Greenland’s Arctic Circle Trail is often listed as one of the best long-distance hikes in the world. The trail stretches 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 fitness levels and the specific route chosen, it can take anywhere between 7-12 days to complete. Spread along the trail are a couple of basic wooden huts for bad weather, but packing a tent is recommended.

Only 300 people hike the trail every year, so while you may run into other hikers, it’s possible to go days without seeing a fellow human. The normal hiking season is from June to August. I was hiking mid August to avoid swarms of mosquitos that plague the area earlier in the summer.

Arctic Circle Trail hikers must be totally self sufficient too.

The only towns are located at the beginning and end of the trail, meaning you must pack all your own food & survival gear for the duration of the hike. Outside the towns there’s no cell phone reception either.

I was looking forward to this journey for many reasons — testing my survival skills alone in the middle of an arctic wilderness, and enjoying a much needed break from a world of hyper-connectivity.

Ice Cap Greenland

Greenland’s Massive Ice Cap

Point 660 Greenland

Leaving Point 660

DAY 1: Exploring The Ice Cap

Hiking Distance 12 km (7.5 miles) | 5 hours

I arrived in Greenland at night after our plane was delayed in Copenhagen. But it was still light out. Kangerlussuaq is located North of the Arctic Circle, and the August sun sets around 11pm.

Most hikers start the Arctic Circle Trail directly from Kangerlussuaq, hiring a taxi to the trailhead and walking West towards the coast. However I wanted to begin my hike 40 kilometers East on the edge of the ice cap.

So the next day I booked an afternoon tour with World Of Greenland, requesting they leave me at the ice cap and I’d walk back to town on my own.

A 4×4 bus drove 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 here, as the nearby glaciers relieve the pressure that normally causes crevasses. The ice was grippy too, like a layer of crusty snow.

Glaciers are rivers of unstable ice that flow down from an ice cap. The ice cap itself doesn’t really move — it’s actually very solid and can be miles deep.

Mushrooms in Greenland

Tasty Wild Mushrooms!

Arctic Hare Greenland

Arctic Hare

First Signs Of Wildlife

The tour group eventually left me on my own. I decided to explore Greenland’s ice cap for another few hours. It was spectacular. Rivers of blue meltwater snaked down a landscape of ice that stretched out towards the horizon for as far as your eye could see.

While many people visit glaciers around the world, the opportunity to actually stand on an ice cap is pretty unique. There are very few places where it’s so easily accessible without the use of a helicopter.

Dark clouds suddenly rolled in, forcing me to leave the ice and begin hiking down the dirt road back towards Kangerlussuaq. Pretty soon it was snowing! Only 30 minutes earlier the sky was blue… this would be a reoccurring theme in Greenland. The weather changes fast.

I saw my first animal dart away into the rocks. It was an arctic hare, his bright white fur standing out in contrast to the greenish-yellow landscape. Further on, a reindeer bounded across the road.

This was the beginning of many wildlife sightings on the hike.

The next 5 hours were spent walking on the dirt road, built by Volkswagen many years ago to test their new cars in harsh winter driving conditions.

I finally reached Russell Glacier around 11pm and set up camp.

Camping in Greenland

Camping Next to Russell Glacier

Glacier in Greenland

The Wall of Ice

DAY 2: Road To Kangerlussuaq

Hiking Distance 25 km (15.5 miles) | 6 hours

CRACK! BOOM! SPLASH! This was the sound of ice breaking away from the 60 meter (180 foot) glacier beside me. The earth trembled as the ice slowly advanced.

Russell Glacier is a towering wall of white, blue, and black frozen water covered in jagged cracks. It moves about 25 meters every year, with sunlight and warm summer temperatures helping the ice “calve” into a glacial river.

Mountains of moraine flank the glacier’s sides, loose gravel that’s been bulldozed into huge piles over thousands of years by millions of tons of moving ice.

You feel very small standing next to it all.

The glacier is impressive, and I hung around for hours watching the spectacle of falling ice. Some chunks were as large as a school bus!

It’s important to keep your distance from the face of a glacier. Falling ice can easily crush you, pieces can be ejected out over the river, or large waves from the splash could knock you off your feet into the freezing water.

Desert in Greenland

Desert Landscape in Greenland

Arctic Fox in Greenland

Blue Arctic Fox

Arctic Deserts & Arctic Foxes

Reluctantly leaving the beautiful glacier I continued following the river. The landscape turned to sand, complete with wind-swept dunes along the banks. It’s an arctic desert called Sandflugtdalen.

In the distance, 3 shapes lumbered up the basin towards some mountains. These were musk ox, large buffalo-looking animals native to Greenland. They’re hunted for their tasty meat and warm fur by the local Inuit.

Too far away for a photo, but I’d get another chance.

Kangerlussuaq used to be an American air base before it was Greenland’s international airport. Next to the road you can find the remains of a Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star that crashed along with 2 others during a blizzard in 1968. Apparently all pilots ejected safely.

I spied something black moving in the scrub brush ahead. Not sure what it could be, I pulled out my telephoto lens to get a closer look…

An arctic fox! What a nice surprise!

Arctic foxes can be super shy. They’re also pretty small — about the size of a large house cat. There are two varieties, white or “blue” like this one. I crept up as slowly and quietly as I could, but he saw me coming.

Like a flash, the fox darted out down the road. Somehow I managed to fire off a few shots with my camera as he passed.

Sugarloaf Arctic Circle Trail

View from Sugarloaf Mountain

Kangerlussuaq Airport

The Town of Kangerlussuaq

Spending The Night In Town

A few miles away from Kangerlussuaq there’s a prominent mountain near the road called Sugarloaf. Climbing it rewards you with incredible 360 degree views of the area — Greenland’s ice cap to the East, Kangerlussuaq to the West, and the glacial river called Akuliarusiarsuup Kuua below.

At the summit I found a cabin with a few wooden radio towers, part of the old US air base. The hike up looks easy, but it’s actually pretty steep.

Just past the mountain are signs warning you not to venture off the road due to possible unexploded ordinance. It seems when the Americans left, they blew up what was left of their ammunition here.

However years later some local school kids found a grenade.

While a ring of white posts marks the danger zone, the road itself is safe.

Arriving back into town after a long day, I decided to pay for a room at the Polar Lodge rather than camp out. I needed to recharge all my camera batteries and iPhone (for GPS), as well as repack.

I’d rented a locker at the airport to store most of my food during this first section of the hike. No reason to walk an extra 20 miles with it!

I also purchased some dried fish and peanut M&Ms at the local supermarket to supplement what I’d brought with me. In total, I’d have 9 days worth of food packed for the remainder of my Arctic Circle Trail hike.

Kellyville Greenland

Sondrestrom Upper Atmospheric Research Facility

Hundesø Greenland

Hundesø Hunting Camp

DAY 3: Road To Kellyville/Hundesø

Hiking Distance 20 km (12.5 miles) | 5 hours

When I first arrived in Kangerlussuaq I mistakenly purchased the wrong gas canister to fuel my backpacking stove. Now I was trying to track down a replacement with no success. The entire town was out.

A local guy offered to rent me his stove, which used a different type of gas. But I later learned it couldn’t be refilled at the airport until the “big” 747 airplane left. After wasting hours waiting for it to leave, I finally gave up.

So much for hot food & coffee! I’ll hike without a stove.

From Kangerlussuaq most hikers choose to hire a $50 taxi to the official trailhead 10 miles away. I stubbornly decided to walk the road, starting late in the afternoon.

There’s not much along this road. A tiny local shipping port, some huge diesel storage tanks, and a scientific research station called Kellyville (population 7). They study the Earth’s atmosphere & Northern Lights.

Past Kellyville, a rock cairn painted with a red semi-circle marks the official start of the Arctic Circle Trail. The end of civilization.

Greenland’s rugged wilderness stretched out before me. ★

NOTE: This is Part 1 of a series. ► Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Packing/Logistics

READ NEXT: My Favorite Camera For Travel Photos

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Hi, I'm Matthew Karsten — I’ve been traveling around the world for over 5 years. Adventure travel & photography are my passions. Let me inspire you to travel more with crazy stories, photography, and useful tips from my travel adventures. Join thousands who receive exclusive email updates and click the green button below...

Comments & Questions

41 Comments

  1. Susan
    May 15, 2016

    Hi Matthew
    Great blog. Thank you.
    Quick question… Because you can’t carry fuel on the plane, what type of fuel can you buy in Kangerlussuaq if at all for a stove be it a MSR pocket rocket or a multi stove?
    Thank you!

    Reply
  2. Lyuda
    February 18, 2016

    Hi Matthew, awesome post and photos! We are doing the arctic circle trail in Late August/September. Do you by chance recall what types of fuel they had in the market in Kangerlussuaq? We are bringing a liquid fuel stove (as there tends to be more liquid fuel options) but there is so little information out there that we were hoping for some insight. Thank you in advance.

    Reply
  3. AdventureSeeker
    February 11, 2016

    Wow this post is great, awesome pictures and beautiful places! I love the blue fox picture! :)

    Reply
  4. Matt Luckett
    January 10, 2016

    Thanks for posting this! I was planning on doing this hike this upcoming summer, but since I am a teacher I need to thread a needle between going too early (dealing with mosquitos) and going too late (missing the first week of class). Although no one can predict the weather six months from now, do you think the first two weeks of August would be late enough to miss the worst of the mosquito plague?

    Reply
    • Matthew Karsten
      January 11, 2016

      You’ll still want to bring a mosquito head net, but yeah I’d say that’s a good middle ground.

      Reply
  5. Patricia
    November 6, 2015

    I’ve also visited Kangerlussuaq this summer and I approached the Russel Glacier by two other means of transport, by a small plane and by bike. Here’s my post if you were interested.

    Reply
  6. Jazzy
    October 12, 2015

    I can’t imagine doing something like this especially without hot food !! I love warm food. How fit do you need to be for a hike like this ?

    Reply
    • Matthew Karsten
      October 13, 2015

      The elevation wasn’t super crazy, most of it is hill walking. The difficult part is packing 8-10 days of food with you — and being so far from help should you need it. Hikers need to be experienced with taking care of themselves in unexpected weather conditions.

      Much of the trail passes through marshy areas too, which makes for slow walking in mud. But overall if you embark on multi-day hikes on a regular basis it’s not too bad.

      Reply
  7. Travis Longmore
    October 11, 2015

    Hmmm I’ve been organising a trip to Iceland for a long time and your photos have me wondering if I should extend the trip and head to Greenland as well. I wonder how long I should head there for!

    Reply
    • Matthew Karsten
      October 13, 2015

      Depends on where you want to go! Due to the cost of flying there, I’d recommend at least a week. I agree it’s a great compliment to an Iceland trip.

      Next time I visit Greenland I’d like to see Ilulissat & Tasiilaq.

      Reply
  8. David Stock
    October 9, 2015

    Sounds like a good trek i’ve added it to our must hit list for next year! Safe travels!

    Reply
  9. Sanna | Owegoo
    October 6, 2015

    What a nice article, I can’t wait to read the next one. Sorry to read about your stove, but in all honesty, who needs coffee to get you alert when you have views like that =) However, a nice hot meal is not to underestimate when you are in the middle of the wild.

    Reply
    • Matthew Karsten
      October 13, 2015

      It wasn’t too bad, but there were a few cold & wet nights where a cup of strong coffee would have helped.

      Reply
  10. crischo
    October 6, 2015

    I love the landscape of the Arctic region. But only in pictures. I prefer countries with nightly temperatures above 20 degrees. Nice Blog that you have here!

    Reply
  11. Fernando
    October 5, 2015

    Mind-blowing photos and write up.
    It seems like an incredible hike. Can’t wait to read parts 2 and 3.

    Reply
  12. Nicole - Treasure Tromp
    October 4, 2015

    oh my goodness, this is the DREAM.

    Reply
  13. Leigh
    October 4, 2015

    I heard about this trail last year – while hiking another I’d recommend to you – The Tombstones in the Yukon. A couple from Switzerland sold me on its virtues and you have just reinforced my desire to visit.

    Reply
    • Matthew Karsten
      October 13, 2015

      Awesome Leigh, thanks for the recommendation! I’ll check it out.

      Reply
  14. Amanda
    October 3, 2015

    Super inspiring Matt! I especially love your shot of the Russell Glacier “campground.” Looking forward to see the other two posts and your videos.

    Reply
  15. Samantha
    October 3, 2015

    Great post and love the pictures. I really liked the fox pic. I actually felt the pelt from one at the NC Zoo once. So amazingly soft. Thanks again

    Reply
  16. Traveling Ted
    October 3, 2015

    Great post and beautiful photos. I cannot wait to read parts II and III. Traveling with backpacking stoves is a pain in the butt. You can’t carry them on airplanes. There is a new stove out that uses only small sticks. No heavy and bulky canisters. I am definitely getting one of those.

    Reply
  17. Per Hansen
    October 2, 2015

    Great article Matthew and spot on. I can say so because I actually live in Greenland, all though in the southernmost part. Spot on except for one thing, Kangerlussuaq is not the only international airport in Greenland. In the south we have Narsarsuaq international airport, originally also build by the americans, actually the busiest airport in Greenland. Never the less we get overlooked by visitors even though the south is the reason it was named Greenland, very appropriate. We like visitors and would like to have a lot more, so please spread the word!

    Reply
    • Matthew Karsten
      October 2, 2015

      Hey Per, thanks for pointing that out. I’ll update the article. I didn’t realize Narsarsuaq was another option!

      Reply
  18. Badri
    October 2, 2015

    I am regular traveller to unusual places in the world. I am from India. I have travelled 90deg North, Antarctica, Mt Everest base camp. Last month on my visit to London, I visited Iceland.

    Can you please suggest the best 5 options I could look into when I travel to UK next. I would appreciate for your expert advice.

    Badri Baldawa

    Reply
  19. Bryan Richards
    October 1, 2015

    This is totally not a trip I would do (Where’s the beer?), but I’m hooked. Can’t wait to read the rest.

    Reply
    • Matthew Karsten
      October 13, 2015

      I packed some Greenlandic schnapps. Warms you up on a cold night!

      Reply
  20. Alexis
    October 1, 2015

    This is incredible! I’ve never thought about hiking the Arctic in Greenland…I imagined it more snow-covered. You’re pictures are awesome. I want to show it to my husband but then he’ll want us to do that trek! ha! I can’t believe you decided to hike without a stove!

    Reply
    • Matthew Karsten
      October 13, 2015

      Plenty of snow in the winter, but it’s nice and green in the summer along the coastline. Glad you enjoyed the photos!

      Reply
  21. Peter
    October 1, 2015

    Great post, man. The Arctic Trail is on my trekking bucketlist. Not the most accessible of places but looks incredible. Thanks.

    Reply
  22. Melanie Levesque
    October 1, 2015

    Thank you Matthew for posting, I have been planing this trip for next Aug!

    Reply
    • Matthew Karsten
      October 13, 2015

      Nice! Have fun Melanie. You’ll love the Arctic Circle Trail.

      Reply
  23. Brit
    September 30, 2015

    Greenland is such an off the beaten track destination.

    Can’t wait to hear more about your hike!

    Reply
  24. Stefan
    September 30, 2015

    Great report so far Matt !
    I like how you divided the text and i´m looking forward to the next two parts.
    Awesome photos !!! On my Blog i tried a report on the ACT myself. It´s in german but maybe you take a look anyway ?! It´s been nice meeting you in Sisimiut Vandrehjem !

    Reply
  25. Surabhi
    September 29, 2015

    I had no idea it was so expensive. I’m a big believer in having experiences on my travels and this is something that shouldn’t be missed.

    Nice post Mathew!

    Reply
    • Matthew Karsten
      September 29, 2015

      Greenland is an expensive country to travel to because it gets so few visitors, and shipping products there is expensive. Most towns can only be accessed by ship or small planes, and accommodation can be pricey. Unless you’re camping.

      But some towns have hostels too!

      Reply
  26. Stephen
    September 29, 2015

    Really cool hike! Glad somebody is blogging about places so far off the tourist radar!

    Reply
  27. Gaz
    September 29, 2015

    Sounds like a great experience, looking forward to read the additional posts.

    Reply
  28. Philip
    September 28, 2015

    Been looking forward to reading this series. Did you do any special pre-conditioning (other than regular exercise)?

    Reply
    • Matthew Karsten
      September 28, 2015

      I was planning to but it never happened. The first few days of road walking helped prepare me for the rest of the trail.

      Reply
  29. MamaMia
    September 28, 2015

    Were you able to get video footage of any of your trip? Hope so!!

    Reply
    • Matthew Karsten
      September 28, 2015

      Yeah I have tons of footage. Slowly organizing & editing it into a video.

      Reply

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