Northwest Passage & Canadian Arctic Travel Guide

N 74°15' W 79°13'

The best way to travel to the Northwest Passage is on an expedition cruise that explores the fabled sea route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through the Canadian Arctic.

Travel experience team member standing on the sea ice in front of Le Commandant Charcot
By Andy Marsh
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In this Northwest Passage Travel Guide, I share our first-hand experience of visiting the Northwest Passage and the Canadian Arctic and our top reasons to visit. I cover all the essential travel information, including how to get to the Northwest Passage, the best time to visit, some of the wildlife you may encounter, and answers to frequently asked questions. 

Do you need assistance planning your trip to the Northwest Passage? Our friendly team of polar experts are ready to assist you in planning your expedition.

Buchan Gulf on Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic

Where is The NorthWest Passage and the Canadian Arctic?

The Northwest Passage (also known as the Northwestern Passages) is a famous sea route that connects the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean through the vast Canadian Arctic. The entire Northwest Passage is over 3,000 miles (4,828km) long, although the exact length varies depending on the ship’s course as it weaves through the labyrinth of channels and islands.  

The route comprises various straits, islands, channels, and bodies of water, making it a challenging and historically significant maritime pathway and an impressive place to explore.

The Canadian Arctic is a larger region that encompasses the Northwest Passage and territory of mainland Canada above the Arctic Circle. Tours to the Canadian Arctic most likely include the Northwest Passage or its entrance.

The Northwest Passage has been of great interest due to its potential as a shortcut for shipping between the Atlantic and Pacific, although ice conditions have historically made navigation difficult. Today, modern ice-strengthened expedition ships can traverse the entire length of the Northwest Passage.

Arctic map from a Satellite showing the position of the Northwest Passage

How to Get to The Northwest Passage and the Canadian Arctic

As roads do not connect the remote settlements in the North West Passage and Canadian Arctic, the only way to visit is by ship or flying. As flights to the Northwest Passage and Canadian Arctic are notoriously expensive, the best way to explore the region is on an expedition cruise.

Expedition cruises depart from Iceland, Greenland or within Canada itself and either sail through the entire Northwest Passage or explore a section. Expedition cruises often include a charter flight as part of the package to the embarkation port, making it a more cost-effective way of exploring a larger area.

Expedition ships have the advantage of being equipped with guide teams and Zodiacs, which allows them to explore large, otherwise inaccessible areas of the Arctic wilderness.

Different Routes Through The Northwest Passage

There are various routes through the Northwest Passage with three main options:

  1. Sailing through the entire Passage east to West or West to east commencing from Nome in Alaska and ending in Greenland or Iceland.
  2. Exploring the entrance to the Northwest Passage on a cruise from Greenland, often along the coast of Baffin Island, or
  3. A fly-and-sail expedition where you join a ship and explore an area in the Northwest Passage on a shorter trip length. You can see our new cruises here.

Why Visit The Northwest Passage and Canadian Arctic?

Dividing the Atlantic Ocean to the East and the Pacific Ocean to the West, the Northwest Passage offers several thousand miles of remote wilderness to explore in the Canadian Arctic. The area is home to vast expanses of untouched landscapes, glaciers, epic scenery, sparsely populated Inuit towns, and diverse Arctic wildlife. This is a unique opportunity to venture into some of the planet’s most remote and untouched landscapes, a thrilling prospect for any adventurous traveller.

Polar bears hunt for seals along the sparse shores and on the ice floes. Beluga whales, walruses and elusive narwhals swim through the narrow passages. Lancaster Sound, Devon Island and countless other inlets are home to abundant wildlife seen nowhere else. This is a chance to witness nature in its rawest form, a truly unique and awe-inspiring experience for any nature lover. 

The Northwest Passage has inspired daring explorers for centuries. From Franklin’s ill-fated attempt in 1845 to Roald Amundsen’s first successful traverse in 1905, The Northwest Passage is a place for history buffs and nature lovers. This is a chance to walk in the footsteps of some of history’s most daring explorers, a journey that will pique any history enthusiast’s interest.

Northwest Passage Tours

Summer time of Nanortalik in Greenland
Door-to-Door
Reykjavik - Churchill
Jul 09 2025 - Jul 25 2025
15 Nights

Price from per person

£26,650
Musk Ox in the Candaina Arctic
Resolute - Resolute
Aug 24 - Sep 4 2024
11 Nights

Price from per person

£7,660
Kangerlussuaq, Greenland - Resolute, Canada
Aug 26 - Sep 11 2025
16 Nights

Price from per person

£11,590

When To Visit The Northwest Passage & The Canadian Arctic?

July to September is the best time to visit the Northwest Passage on an expedition cruise. The ice is at its minimum, allowing the best chance for navigation through the Nothern Passages. Wildlife is at its peak activity; polar bears hunt along the remote shores, bird migrations and mares are at their peak, and mammal things are there.

July

July is the height of the Arctic Summer, and the sun never sets above the Arctic Circle. In The Northwest Passage, travellers are greeted by the midnight sun. The average temperatures are well above freezing, and the region becomes alive with migratory birds after the long, harsh winter. Narwhals and belugas swim deeper into the Passageways as the ice recedes.

August

August is the main month for expedition cruising, and the reeding ice also provides the window of opportunity for exploring the entire Northwest Passage and for exploration ashore. The midnight sun persists until mid-August, and polar bears are sighted hunting deep inside the passageways.

September

September is the end of the season for tours to the Northwest Passage and offers the best month to see the Northern Lights as the darkest returns during the night. As winter approaches, the first snow returns to the Canadian Arctic. During September, the sea ice extent is at its lowest, offering the best chances to explore remote parts of the Passage that were still locked with ice earlier in the season.

When Is The Northwest Passage Open?

The Northwest Passage is passable by ships from July to September, although the actual routes are dictated by sea ice, which can vary from season to season. Expedition ships may have to alter their course if ice blocks one route.

Things To Do On A Northwest Passage Tour

  • Explore By Zodiac – Witness glaciers, watch wildlife and step ashore on remote Artic islands with a team of expert guides.
  • Nature Hiking – Hike in the neverending wilderness of the Canadian Arctic and soak in the raw, untouched nature.
  • Flight-seeing by Helicopter – On selected tours, join a flightseeing excursion on the ship’s helicopter to gain aerial perspectives.
  • Exploring historical sites – from the Graves of Fraklins expedition on Beechey Island to an abandoned outpost at Dundas Harbour.
  • Kayaking – Connect with nature on a kayaking tour through the icy waters of the Canadian Arctic
  • Photography – The captivating landscapes, glaciers, and wildlife make the perfect subjects for photographers.
  • Learn from Experts – Enjoy onboard lectures and learn about the history, flora, and fauna of the Northwest Passage.
  • Polar Plunge – for the adventurous, plunge into the ice-cold waters of the Northwest Passage.

Places To Visit In The Northwest Passage

Whilst each tour offers different opportunities for exploration, and the exact route will be determined by the weather and ice conditions, here are some places you can expect to visit on your Northwest Passage expedition:

Somerset Island – A sizeable uninhabited island known for its wildlife sightings, including large concentrations of Belugas.

Fort Ross – An abandoned trading post on Somerset Island with a well-preserved building dating back to 1937.

Devon Island is the largest uninhabited island on Earth. It is famous for the Haughton Impact crater, where NASA tests new space landing craft due to its unique conditions.

Dundas Harbour – An abandoned settlement and well-preserved cemetery on the isolated shores of Devon Island.

Pond Inlet – Visit an Inuit community on the North of Baffin Island.

Beechey Island – A famous landmark of the Franklin expedition, the graves of 3 men who perished there can be seen on the desolate shores.

Cambridge Bay – Located on Victoria Island, this remote village is home to 867 inhabitants and provides an insight into life in the remote Canadian Arctic.

Gjoa Haven -Named after Roald Amundsen’s ship Gjøa, this remote settlement is the only inhabited place on the vast King William Island.

James Ross Strait – Sail through a historical strait separating King William Island and the Boothia Peninsula that Roald Amundsen passed through on his attempt to be the first to traverse the Northwest Passage.

Are you looking for some more inspiration about places to visit in the Northwest Passage and the Canadian Arctic? Please see our guide 50 Places You Can Visit in the Arctic.

What Animals and Wildlife Can I See In The Northwest Passage?

For wildlife lovers, The Northwest Passage offers an excellent opportunity to encounter the Arctic’s diverse wildlife in its natural habitat undisturbed by humans. Due to the vast area, wildlife sightings are less frequent than they are in Svalbard. Here, you will find all of the Arctic’s key species, including the Big 5. On an expedition cruise to explore the Northwest Passage, it is possible to witness

  • Polar Bears
  • Beluga Whales
  • Arctic Foxes
  • Walruses
  • Musk Oxen
  • Arctic Hares
  • Narwhals

The Northwest Passage also has a vast display of Arctic bird life, including puffins, guillemots, kittiwakes, Arctic terns and seabirds, including Gulls and fulmars, and other seabirds are commonly seen soaring over the icy waters or resting on ice floes.

What will the weather be like on a Northwest Passage Tour?

The weather and the climate of the Northwest Passage change drastically throughout the seasons. Exploring the Northwest Passage by ship happens during the summer months between July and September when temperatures are at their warmest, with an average of -2 °C to 10°C (28°F to 50°F). In the beautiful 24-hour sunlight, it can feel warmer, and the wind chill can make it feel colder than it is. 

The climate of the Northwest Passage is Arctic, with frigid temperatures during the winter months. At the height of winter, temperatures can plummet below -20 °C (- 4°F) and reach as low as -40 °C (- 40°F). The waterways freeze, and sea ice develops. Thick snow blankets the landscape.

The weather in the Northwest Passage can change rapidly, and it is essential to dress for every occasion during a cruise. We supply a detailed packing list at the time of booking.

How Long Does it take to sail through the Northwest Passage?

A full sailing through the Northwest Passage from Greenland to Alaska takes between 22 and 28 days, depending on the chosen route, ship and voyage.

It is also possible to undertake a shorter tour to explore part of the Northwest Passage, which varies between 11 and 16 nights, depending on the chosen itinerary. This is ideal for travellers who want to explore the Canadian Arctic Archipelago but need more time. Please see our Northwest Passage Cruises for more information.

Do I Need A Visa To Travel To The Northwest Passage and The Canadian Arctic?

To travel to the Northwest Passage, you need to meet the entry requirements for Canada and hold a passport with at least six months’ validity.

Guests from the USA and Canada do not require a visa to travel in the Northwest Passage.

An Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) is required for travellers from visa-exempt countries travelling to the Canadian Arctic and the Northwest Passage.

Visa-exempt countries include the UK, most of Europe, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, UAE, and Korea.

A visa is required to enter Canada for travellers not on the list of visa-exempt countries.

Please see the Canadian Immigration Website for more information on if you require an ETA or Visa to enter Canada.

A Brief History of the Exploration of the Northwest Passage

The Northwest Passage was first successfully traversed by the Norweigan explorer Roald Amundsen between 1903 and 1906 on his ship, the Gjøa. But before this, many attempts had been made, including the ill-fated Franklin expedition.

The quest for the Northwest passage dates back to the Vikings. The first Europeans to attempt finding the Northwest Passage was John Cabot in 1497, who was sent to seek a route to the Orient by King Henry VII. In 1845, Franklin set out with two ships, the Erebus and Terror, to chart the vast unknown areas of the Northwest Passage. The doomed expedition was never to be seen again when underwater archaeologists discovered the wrecks of the Erebus and Terror in 2014 and 2016.

Does anyone live in the Northwest Passage?

Yes, the Northwest Passage is inhabited by the Canadian Inuit. The total population of this vast area is approximately 36,000 people, who live in communities consisting of several larger towns and many smaller remote settlements.

Many of these settlements can be visited when travelling to the Northwest Passage. Expedition cruises often call at various settlements, where travellers can experience Inuit culture. Pond Inlet (population 1617), located on the northern shores of Baffin Island, Cambridge Bay on Victoria Island, Gjoa Haven on King William Island, and Resolute on Cornwallis Island are frequently visited settlements.

Does The Northwest Passage Still Freeze?

While climate change continuously affects the Arctic, the Northwest Passage still freezes during winter. As temperatures warm, freezing occurs later in the season, with ice break-ups happening earlier in the summer than before.

Ice still poses challenges to navigating the Northwest Passage. Even in a low-ice year, the Passage isn’t ice-free. Drifting sea ice can be pushed by winds and currents, potentially blocking different parts of the Passage.

Modern ice-strengthened expedition ships are built with strong hulls and state-of-the-art navigational equipment to navigate the ice safely. However, occasionally, diversions can take place if ice is blocking an area. Expeditions are always subject to weather and ice conditions, and changes to the itinerary can occur.

Is It Safe to Travel To The Northwest Passage and the Canadian Arctic?

Travelling in the Northwest Passage and Canadian Arctic is considered safe when accompanied by experienced guides on an organized expedition.

Polar bears are one of the main safety concerns when travelling in the Northwest Passage. Highly trained guides carry polar bear deter deterrents and are experienced in avoiding close encounters which could be dangerous. You must travel with an experienced guide at all times outside of settlements. Expedition cruises are led by expedition teams that ensure the safety of travellers at all times.

Another consideration is the remoteness of the area. Medical facilities and rescue options are more limited than in other places you may have visited. You must be in sound health before travelling to remote areas.

Who Owns The Northwest Passage?

Since 1880, Canada has held the sovereignty of the Northwest Passage and claims it as part of its internal waters. However, there is debate about this, as many countries, including the United States, have contested it as international waters.

How to Book Your Northwest Passage Tour 

As a next step, you can view all our upcoming Northwest Passage Tours.

Please don’t hesitate to contact the Travel Experience Team for help finding the best ship at the best price.

Northwest Passage Travel Resources and Further Reading

The Northwest Passage By Roald Amundsen

The Northwest Passage: Atlantic to Pacific: A guide to the seaway by Tim Soper

Erebus by Micheal Palin

I hope this article inspires you to visit the Northwest Passage for yourself.

If you have any questions or need assistance planning your trip to the Northwest Passage, please get in touch with our Travel Experience Team.

In this article

About The Author
Travel experience team member standing on the sea ice in front of Le Commandant Charcot
Andy Marsh
Founder of North Pole Cruises
Andy is a passionate explorer and an expert in the polar regions. With over 15 years of experience travelling to some of the most remote polar regions, Andy has sailed across the Drake Passage and explored Antarctica and South Georgia by tall ship. He has years of experience working extensively with small boats in Svalbard and Greenland. He even worked on the Falkland Islands, helping to set up the first TV station there. Andy loves to share his knowledge with guests planning their expeditions as an expert in expedition cruising and a polar know-it-all. His most recent and thrilling voyage was on Le Commandant Charcot to East Greenland, a journey that is sure to captivate your imagination.

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