Arctic Circle Trail

This post may contain affiliate links. Meaning, at no extra cost to you, we may earn a commission, or miles and points from the companies mentioned in this post.

Greg and I love heavy pack, set up camp, snuggle all night in a cold tent backpacking, but having a roof over our heads in the backcountry is an unbelievable luxury. After we hiked the Laugavegur and Tour du Mont Blanc trails in 2016, I started researching other hut hikes around the world. And by ‘researching’ I mean I binged (because you get paid to search) ‘Best hut hikes in the world’ and Greenland’s Arctic Circle Trail came up on a few sites. We already had Greenland (and Baffin Island and Svalbard) on our radar as a tourist destination(s) because Greg is a true northerner, and while my alter ego Lady Campfire hates being cold and wet, she loves all things snow and ice and glaciers and Greenland is right up the Warcken alley. Over 80% of its mountainous interior is covered in ice and its coasts are sparsely populated with people, but rich with birds and arctic marine life. To see a polar bear is my deathbed wish, to see a narwhal might put me on said deathbed.

We didn’t know anyone who had done the hike, or even anyone who had ever been to Greenland, so we depended on the internet and Paddy Dillon’s Trekking in Greenland: The Arctic Circle Trail for all the pertinent information we might need. Both were useful, but sometimes massively outdated. Greg and I were expecting to see maybe a couple of people a day across a flat expanse of something that resembled the Alaskan tundra. Ha! Unsure about being alone in the middle of a wilderness that may or may not support polar bears, we asked a couple of hiking friends to join us- ones who could withstand potential cold and misery, but who we could outrun if necessary. Wink!

The Arctic Circle Trail stretches just over 100 miles between the towns of Kangerlussuaq and Sisimiut in western Greenland. Kangerlussuaq is actually about 30 miles north of the Arctic Circle, Sisimiut almost 50. Kangerlussuaq sits at the east end of a 118 mile-long fjord and boasts over 300 days of sunshine every year. Because of its predictable weather, the Americans built an air base there in 1941 and it currently remains the only airport in Greenland that can accommodate large aircraft, like a 747. That means almost everyone traveling to and from Greenland will pass through Kangerlussuaq, which makes it really convenient for flying in and out of for a hike.

Greg and I started our trip over a week before the hike in Ilulissat and absolutely loved it. And we were happy to have the extra time to acclimate and get some day hikes in. You can read all about our time in Ilulissat here. If I were just flying in for the hike, I’d take a few days to spend around Kanger, then hike from the ice cap toward Sisimiut and the coast. Kangerlussuaq has a population around 500, Sisimiut over 5000, and while both areas offer great hiking, Sisimiut obviously offers a few more diversions. Mostly in the way of food, a lot more food. But Kanger does have a delicious Thai/Pizza place that we enjoyed on several occasions. To the hike!

Day 1: Kangerlussuaq to Hundesø Lake, 13.2 miles

John and Alli flew in the night before we started hiking, so we were happy to let them sleep as long as they wanted. We got a late start, but not wanting to short ourselves on mileage, we decided to walk the 12+ mile road from Kanger to Kelly Ville. We stopped to stock up on fuel at the convenience store/hot dog stand/ice cream shop in the airport parking lot, and treats at the big grocery store across from the airport where John bought a huge block of Greenlandic cheese to enjoy on the trail. It was hot- over 70°- and a bit… not exciting. If I had to do the whole thing over I would add a couple of days and get a ride out to the Ice Cap, then hike back to Kanger and catch a ride from town to Kelly Ville. Then I’d split the distance between Kelly Ville and the Katiffik Hut instead of spending the first night at a brackish lake.

John broke his Greenlandic cheese out for dinner and when I say it stunk, that’s like the understatement of the year. It was the most horrific smelling food product you could imagine. Like sweaty socks that someone had puked on and left in a plastic bag in the back window of a hot car. We all still tried a piece, of course, but a piece was all any of us could stomach. We could still smell it after we went to bed. I washed my face and my hands, and smelled Greg’s feet to make sure it wasn’t them. It wasn’t his feet, the cheese was just that potent.

Day 2: Hundesø Lake to Amitsorsuaq Lake, 12.44 miles

Note: Brackish water is fine in salty meals, but in coffee and tea it’s rancid. We all agreed to thirst until the first fresh lake.

As Greg was taking the tent down, he found a little “gift” under the fly by our heads- John’s stinky-ass cheese. And here I was sniffing Greg’s feet to make sure it wasn’t them fouling up our tent. We all had a good laugh and Alli eventually chucked it in the outhouse, which I’m sure improved the smell. Of the cheese.

This day was a lot harder than any of us expected, with some elevation gain and just physically harder hiking. And I was already bruised all over my hips, toes, and shoulders from the long first day.

The hut was super tiny but super cute. The other three went for a swim when we got there, but you wouldn’t catch LC dead in a cold lake.

Day 3: Amitsorsuaq Lake to Canoe Center, 12.89 miles

It was a cold, windy, cloudy start. We had read/hoped there might be canoes at the Katiffik Hut that we could use to get all the way to the Canoe Center, but alas there were none and we had to walk the length of the lake instead. It was easy hiking, just really long. And that cold wind turned into cold rain. Just when we thought the hut was in sight Greg checked the map and realized that hut was just a big rock, with the real hut at least a mile beyond that. Morale was low. No canoes at the Canoe Center. And no paraffin for the heaters. Still, it was a massive roof over our wet heads.

Day 4: Canoe Center to Ikkattooq Hut, 14.04 miles

It rained all night long and although we were glad to be in a shelter, we had a tough morning. John couldn’t get his stove to work and Greg poured boiling water on his own hand. At least the rain stopped before we started hiking, but a strong, freezing wind took its place. Note: John’s stove started to work again after he switched fuel canisters, but Greg’s hand totally blistered up- blech.

Remember the wildfires in Greenland last summer? We hiked right through them. Undoubtedly started by man, as the only fire in the entire country was along a hiking trail in the middle of nowhere. Peat fires are particularly dangerous because of their ability to burn underground and pop up in unexpected places. Read more about peat fires here.

Six canoes at the west end of the lake so J and A stopped to float and fish while G and I hiked on. From the end of the lake we hiked through beautiful tundra, just starting to show its fall colors. The trail continues up up up onto a plateau which wasn’t difficult, just a bit steep in places. Amazing views from the top, but tiny biting flies in abundance.

The hut was full so we pitched our tents and enjoyed the beautiful evening. I’ll tell you what I did NOT enjoy – all the people who shat around the hut and didn’t try to cover it or their toilet paper up. We’ve found this on every European hike we’ve done – basically open toilets directly next to trails. Y’all need some American national parks in your lives. That shit (pun) would never fly.

It started sprinkling as soon as we zipped up the tent for the night.

Day 5: Ikkattooq Hut to Iluiumanersuup Portornga lake camp, 12.5 miles

Woke up to a cold, miserable rain. We ate cold lunch snacks in the tent and packed up. By the time we finished the hut had emptied so we went inside to warm up and boil water for our morning coffee/tea. Obviously everyone who stayed in the hut got an earlier start for the next one and we knew it had limited space, so we had to boogie.

A steamy ascent right away, then a somewhat treacherous descent into a river valley where we had to ford our first river. We were looking for an obvious crossing when I stepped onto a mossy rock and fell directly onto my hands and knees into a freezing river. As I was recovering there, on my hands and knees, face inches from the water, Greg asked “Where are you going?” Oh, just taking a closer look. Jesus. Then he came over and helped me up and held me while I cried more from surprise, but a lil’ because I whacked my knee on a rock. I was fine and the ford was easy. We crossed right where the trail goes up to the river- that’s important to know if you plan on hiking this.

Stopped in the next hut for lunch but four other hikers had made it theirs, even though there was totally room for eight, but we made coffee, scrambled eggs and bacon, and cozied up to the table for a fine brunch. We debated making ourselves at home for the night, too, but J & A wanted to move on, and the Warckens realized we’d rather spend time with our friends than stay in a hut with strangers, so we kept on hiking and it was definitely the right choice. The clouds lifted and the sun came out and the mist on the mountains was just magical. We set up our tent next to J & A, who set up near J & T, and had a lovely evening listening to the loons. It started graupelling at dinner and there was new snow on the high peaks around us.

Day 6: Iluliumanersuup Portornga lake camp to Innajuattoq (big) Hut, 6 miles

Woke up to dumping snow. Boy were we glad we had kept hiking the day before. Ate lunch food in the tent, threw everything together, and left John and Alli to their oatmeal breakfast. When packing for Greenland I had my hands on our gaiters, then I thought “Nah, those are just for hiking in snow.” How we both longed for them. My shoes and socks lasted maybe 30 minutes before the fat snow and wet brush soaked through everything. I hike in Gore-Tex shoes, but when your socks get wet above, it’s impossible to keep the inside of your shoes dry. I tried changing into new socks, and keeping the wet ones under my shirt against my body so they’d dry, but it was no use. The new ones were soaked almost immediately. What can you do, but just keep on hiking? Fortunately it was an easy day, and only six miles to the next hut, and the mountains around us were incredible. Unfortunately we had to hike straight through a bog, which, when your shoes are already soaked and it’s cold and it’s snowing, is about the last thing you want to do. I journaled it was “about the worst hiking I’ve ever experienced. But… it was still so beautiful.”

There are two huts to choose from at Innajuattoq, a big and a small. The small one was up on a rise and the wind was whipping right into it, so we chose the big one. Only one dude when we got there- a Czech named Miroslav- and the Germans were hot on our heels. I changed into my pajamas right away and I didn’t leave the hut for the rest of the day. I couldn’t have been more delighted. We had chicken pad thai for lunch and drank tea and played games and talked to all our new friends and Jonas gave us a Snickers(!)(we now always hike with a Snickers but we call it a ‘Jonas’ bar) and Greg rubbed my feet. The hut ended up filling up, with a few tents outside, so I offered my bed to an older Aussie gal and slept on one of the benches in the common room. It wasn’t completely altruistic- there was a mighty snorer in the dorm.

Day 7: Innajuattoq (big) Hut to 2nd Ford, 14.0 miles

There was a big group of Estonians who had a satellite phone so they could get weather updates. According to them it was supposed to snow and rain the rest of the hike. Boooo. But I woke up to sunshine on my face! Blue skies and fresh snow on the peaks- a Greenlandic miracle! Everyone was in high spirits and we all enjoyed a leisurely morning. I was craving oatmeal, so I traded J & A some pancakes for a couple packets of oats. Alli donated the rest of her blueberries to the pancake cause and they were great. As I was making the pancakes looking out to the snow-capped mountains, two Common Loons appeared on the lake. I felt my heart would burst from happiness.

I had a couple of plastic grocery bags with me, so once we started hiking I wrapped my feet in them to wear inside my shoes. Note: Put your insert inside the bag so you don’t just slide around everywhere. An amazing hike up and over the next pass, with gorgeous views everywhere we looked. We took advantage of our awesome luck and decided to keep hiking beyond the next hut. We lunched beside a beautiful stream and Alli gathered more berries and John fished. We were all happy to think if nuclear war started while we were hiking we would survive just fine in the Greenland backcountry. Greg and John would be hunters and builders, Alli would be our gatherer, and I the medicine woman. Guess who was reading ‘Clan of the Cave Bear’. That’d be me.

Rain clouds started to gather behind us so we hiked until we thought it would start to rain and set up tents for the night. Today was the day of the solar eclipse but we saw nothing. Bugs annoying on the bench above a river, but a beautiful sunset. Greg’s burnt hand turned into a massive blister which ripped open today. Luckily for him I love dressing changes, and was happy to keep him clean and dry.

Day 8: 2nd ford to Sisimiut, 20+ miles

It rained overnight and we woke up to a cold, wet, buggy morning. Snacks in the tent again, with a plan to hike to the last hut for a big lunch and coffee. I traded my tattered grocery bags for gallon Ziplocs and duct-taped them around my ankles. Ran into a group of three- one man and two women- just hiking in, one of them appeared half-dead already and wanted to know what our weather had been like. Intermittent crap. She looked defeated, but they kept going. We found out later one of the women was four months pregnant, I’m assuming it was her. Stopped for coffee, eggs and bacon, and some muesli we found in the last hut on the trail. We got there around 11:30 and decided we’d camp somewhere along the way to Sisimiut. Some of our Australian friends hiked in as we were eating so we enjoyed a long chat before going back out into the cold wind. The trail hiked above a fjord and soon the sun came out and it was beautiful and sunny again. Greenland is like a bad boyfriend- she likes to break you down, then build you back up again. We got up to the next pass and that perfect sunshine turned into a biting wind, then snow. See?! Note: This hike from Sisimiut to the first hut would seriously suck. If we were going to hike it in the opposite direction, I’d go to the first ford outside of Sisimiut and camp for the night, then get to the hut the next day.

Due to the weather, and especially the wind, after the first ford from our direction we all committed to hiking all the way to Sisimiut that night. Quick throwback to my journal entry on the third day: “I think 12 miles with a pack is my absolute limit.” Ha! Maybe on the first day. As we descended, the snow turned to rain and the second ford nearly broke me. After fording I was wet, of course, and cold, and dirty, and my duct tape wouldn’t stick to hold my Ziploc bags up and my gloves were wet and I was ready to just stay there on the riverbank and cry. Instead Greg gave me his gloves and I took a caffeine pill and two Tylenol and I put my head down and kept hiking. It was a long, cold, windy, miserable day, and one Lady Campfire never thought she would’ve been capable of.

Really big, beautiful mountains outside of Sisimiut and as we walked into town we were greeted by a blue-eyed blonde woman on an ATV with her identical daughter. She gave us some information about the town and directions to some lodging for the night (we were a night earlier than our hostel reservation). Our own welcoming party! We stopped at a fancy hotel to inquire about a room for the four of us, but it would’ve been 2000dkk- about $320- so we decided to try for the hostel instead. No one was answering at the hostel when I called, so we just started walking. If it wasn’t available, we’d walk back to the hotel. That walk from the hotel to the hostel really did about kill me. After a long day on the trail, the hard pavement is about the last thing you want beneath your feet. The woman who runs the hostel wasn’t there, but another guest was kind enough to let me use his phone to call her again, and that time she answered. There were no open restaurants so the boys went to the grocery store while we girls checked in, and we were delighted with their choices of pizza, pizza burgers, chips, and cookies. Do you like pizza? Do you like burgers? You’ll love pizza burgers! It’s just pizza toppings on a bun, and I sure did. Another girl staying there was like “You look whipped. Did you come from the first hut?” (about 12.5 miles away from Sisimiut) No, you hag. I was windburnt, and dirty, and shell-shocked, and that pizza burger was the best I’d ever had (or heard of). I hiked with no-rinse shampoo, leave-in conditioner, and dish soap, and was happy to find a bar of soap someone left behind in the shared bathroom when I took what was undoubtedly the best shower of my life. Next time I would consider mailing a package from Kangerlussuaq with clean clothes and toiletries. And probably some perfume.

Sisimiut:

It’s small, but charming, and a welcome end to a great hike. We went back for more groceries, and had pizza, and went to a couple of bars (Chicken and Shrimp), and walked the town a few times looking for souvenirs we couldn’t live without. John and Alli went on a fishing charter one day and brought back a veritable cod feast, and we all enjoyed a good old fashioned fish fry with Jonas and Thomas and a couple of Dutch dudes at the hostel. We would hike this trail again in a heartbeat, and will definitely go back to Greenland. It’s expensive, and hard to get to, but it’s worth it.

Pertinent info:

*We started hiking August 15. There were very few bugs and lots of berries.

*There were tons of people on the trail. The book would have us believe about 300 hiked the trail every year, but a more recent census estimated it was around 1200. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but when you spread those 1200 people across three, maybe four months, that’s 10-13 people a day starting the hike. We pretty well hiked with the same 14 other people the whole time. Not with them, but we’d see them throughout the day and meet up in a hut or camp near them.

*It was 70° and sunny when we started in Kangerlussuaq, we hiked through a blizzard on our last day into Sisimiut. Prepare for all weathers.

*We took both a MSR Pocket Rocket and a MSR WhisperLite gas stove, and had no trouble finding fuel for either of them in either town. We actually got all the fuel we needed from the free bins at our hostel, and bought one extra can to share between the four of us should we need it. We also found fuel all along the trail because people hiking the ACT apparently think it’s okay to leave their unwanted gear, fuel, food, and trash in huts for other people to pick up. WHICH DOESN’T HAPPEN. Pack it in, pack it out, people.

*Shop the free bins at the hostel before stocking up at the local grocer.

*We brought the vast majority of our camping food from home, where it is cheap and dependable. Greenland does have some freeze-dried backpacking meals available, but they’re upwards of $20/meal. There are grocery stores at both ends of the trail.

*The huts went from ‘I wouldn’t stay here in anything but a freezing downpour’ to ‘Can we stay a few extra days?’ And they’re all first come, first serve so you can’t depend on them. Take a tent. We stayed in tents four of the seven nights we were on the trail.

*I wore the same thing every day, and changed into the same thing to sleep in every night. The only things I rotated were my undies and my socks.

*Take every piece of waterproof clothing you can, even socks, and especially gaiters. You won’t regret the weight. I invested in a pair of SealSkinz socks when we got home. They’re super weird, but not uncomfortable or hot, and they definitely keep my feet dry.

*You can ship packages between Kangerlussuaq and Sisimiut if you don’t feel like carrying everything you own between the two.

*Take a water filter. With increasing popularity comes questionable water sources, especially when people are pooping any ol’ place they’d like. We love our Platypus GravityWorks 4.0 liter filter.

*Stick to simple breakfasts. The unpredictable weather means you’ll probably be eating in your tent a few mornings.

*Take more coffee, tea, and soup than you think you’ll need. We had a lot of dreary soup days. And take an insulated mug to keep everything piping hot.

*We took a solar phone charger and it lasted three days. Stomach the weight and take a multi-use external charger. We now use this big ass thing, and I wouldn’t leave home without it.

*Greenland charges up to 5% for non-Danish credit card purchases, so plan on using cash if you don’t want to pay the extra fees.

*We stayed in sister properties in Kangerlussuaq and Sisimiut-the aptly named Youth Hostels. The one in Kanger let us store our things for free while we hiked, then once we flew back to Kanger, Greg walked down to pick them up.

*Do not, under any circumstances, buy this cheese.

Total cost for two weeks:

  • Icelandair MSP-KEF one-way: 47,536 Citi Thank You points (worth $475.36)
  • Air Iceland Connect KEF-SFJ round-trip: $1286.28
  • Air Greenland JHS-SFJ one-way: $258.17
  • Delta KEF-MSP one-way: $93.36
  • groceries: $118.18
  • restaurants: $161.52
  • transportation: $37.92
  • lodging: $589.07
  • wifi: $24.00

Total: $2568.50, or $183.46/day, + 47,536 Citi Thank You points

And for dessert, a little video I put together of our awesome trip:

2 thoughts on “Arctic Circle Trail

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.