Trekking Greenland – Arctic Circle Trail – Kelly Ville to Katiffik

Interesting fact about Greenland:  the landscape is completely different depending on which part of the country you are in.

This is something that became abundantly clear to me last year as I moved from hiking through the rolling green sheep-country between Narsaq and Narsarsuaq in South Greenland

Sheep and green grass along the hike from Sillisit to Qassiarsuk in South Greenland
Sheep, green grass and rolling hills are characteristic of hiking in South Greenland

to hiking through the barren craggy peaks and deep fjords of East Greenland.

Hikers exploring the bare, rocky peaks of East Greenland with the Knud Rasmussen glacier and Karale Fjord in the background
Bare rock, ice and jagged mountains are typical scenery in East Greenland

Given that Kalaallit Nunaat (the Greenlandic name for Greenland) is the largest island in the world (technically Australia is a continent), perhaps this should not have come as a surprise to me.  But somehow it did.  And for this reason I was super-keen to expand my geographical and geological knowledge of my favourite place in the world, and explore part of West Greenland this year.

Map of Greenland showing the delineation between North, East, West and South
Usual delineations of Greenland into North, South, East and West.  Credit: Greenland Travel

The most famous hike in Greenland is undoubtedly the Arctic Circle Trail (ACT).  As the name suggests, this trek basically follows the Arctic Circle (latitude 66° 33′ 39″ N) for 160km from Kangerlussuaq to Sisimiut, allowing you to walk from the Greenland Icefield (the second largest in the world after Antarctica) to the ocean in under 2 weeks.  It has made several “Top 10” lists over the past couple of years and the number of people doing it has risen dramatically from around 300 per year a few years ago to over 1500 in 2018.   Given my love of remote treks with no people, I figured it was now or never to hike this epic trail.

Schematic of the Arctic Circle Trail Route from Destination Arctic Circle
Outline of the Arctic Circle Trail route by Destination Arctic Circle

We started out as a group of 4.  My friend Tyson, who I’d met on the boat to Antarctica back in 2016 and who had heard me talk non-stop about Greenland for over a year, and Rob and Emilio who I had “met” online in the Lonely Planet forums after my initial efforts to entice my friends to join me failed (Tyson was late to the party). 

Having spent most of the previous 2 months doing back-to-back long-distance treks in Iceland and East Greenland with Icelandic Mountain Guides, I decided to skip the initial 16km of the hike along the road (I hate walking along roads) and join Rob and Emilio in a transfer out to start of the trail near Kelly Ville.  

Road out to Kelly Ville and concrete plinth that marks the start of the Arctic Circle Trail near Kangerlussuaq, West Greenland
Road to Kelly Ville (top) and the concrete structure (bottom) that marks the start of the Arctic Circle Trail. You can see it heading off into the distance.

We’d passed Tyson on the road (we’d offered him a lift but he wanted to walk “from airport to airport”) and I sat down to wait for him as the others started along the trail.  Fortunately, he’s a fast walker, and it wasn’t too long before we were also heading out into the Greenlandic wilderness.  

Hiker and flowers on the Arctic Circle Trail - West Greenland

We nattered away to each other catching up on almost 2 years worth of news, as we followed the trail towards Hundesø lake and it’s unofficial shelter consisting of a caravan with various tacked-on structures.  Hmmm…  While it may look kinda cool and funky from the outside, the inside challenged even my low standards of cleanliness and, I have to admit, I’d only stay there in an absolute pinch.  I’d be much more inclined to camp outside.

Hundesø  exterior and interior
Hundesø is the first (unofficial) “hut” you encounter as you leave Kangerlussuaq

The first day of hiking along the Arctic Circle Trail is pretty easy going to be honest.  It is reasonably flat for the most part with innumerable small lakes (mountain tarns really, with no ingress or egress of water) as the main features.

Typical scenery - mountain tarns - on Day 1 of the Arctic Circle Trail, West Greenland
They look like lakes, but are actually mountain tarns

The trail is a foot-width track through Arctic willow, wild blueberries and other low-lying vegetation, and is clearly marked with red semi-circles (a nod to the Greenland flag) painted on stones that are arranged into cairns.  Many of these are adorned with discarded reindeer antlers – something that we would see a lot of over the coming days. In fact, the Arctic Circle Trail could easily be renamed the “Reindeer Antler Trail”!

Reindeer skull sitting atop a stone cairn marked with the red half-circle indicating the Arctic Circle Trail. The trail runs beside.  Near Kangerlussuaq, West Greenland.
A reindeer skull and a stone cairn painted with red semi-circles that mark the route of the Arctic Circle Trail  

The highlight of the day was spotting my first large land animal in Greenland – a reindeer (“tuttu” in Greenlandic)!  I’d never seen one before and, given that we don’t have native deer in Australia, it is always a thrill to see these creatures of Christmas carols and Disney stories.  Although these guys were quite far away, my hope was that it boded well for future wildlife sightings along the trail.  

Reindeer along the Arctic Circle Trail - West Greenland
My first reindeer!

The first official hut of the trail is the small Katiffik shelter at the head of the Amitsorsuaq Lake.  We actually stopped about 3km shy of the hut and set up camp beside one of the small lakes that lined the route.

Our campsite at the end of Day 1 of the Arctic Circle Trail - West Greenland
Our first campsite

It was here that we discovered a slight issue…

I had spent the previous day out at the Russell Glacier and had left Rob and Emilio in charge of buying the camping gas for us all for the duration of the hike.  They had bought 4 large canisters (more than enough) but when we actually cracked the plastic seal over the top of the attachment point, they turned out to be “clip-in” canisters rather than “screw-in” canisters. 

Guess what type of stove we all had?!

Fortunately, Emilio had taken a half-full screw-in gas canister from the hostel, which allowed us to have a hot meal at least.  However, given that this paltry amount of gas possibly needed to last the 4 of us for several days, we boiled only enough water to re-hydrate our meals and nothing else.  Tyson and I lamented our lack of hot tea before bed (a simple and basic luxury while long-distance hiking), and I added filtered water to my porridge so that it could cold-soak overnight. 

Ah well.  It could be worse.  And it all adds to the adventure 🙂

Read more about hiking the Arctic Circle Trail

If this post has piqued your curiosity about hiking and trekking in Greenland, read about the rest of my adventure over 8 days on the Arctic Circle Trail:

If it has sparked an interest in Greenland more generally, learn more about this amazing country at Visit Greenland, and check out the wide range of tours of all kinds (not just hiking and trekking) at Guide to Greenland.

Trekking Information

Distance = 20.5km

Time taken = 8hr 36mins

GPX File = Arctic-Circle-Trail-Kelly-Ville-Katiffik.gpx

Strava Link = https://www.strava.com/activities/1813015313

Map

Basic map of the route from Kelly Ville to Katiffik Hut along the Arctic Circle Trail - from Strava

Altitude Profile

Altitude profile of the route from Kelly Ville to Katiffik Hut along the Arctic Circle Trail - from Strava
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