While Churchill is fittingly billed as the ‘Polar Bear Capital of the World’, the small Canadian town also has countless other wilderness and wildlife viewing opportunities to enjoy. Set in a secluded spot on the shores of Hudson Bay, it can be found at the mouth of the Churchill River, surrounded by endless Arctic tundra and vast boreal forests.
Due to the pristine nature and diverse ecosystems around it, Churchill is one of the best places on Earth to see, not only polar bears but birds and beluga whales too. Although most visitors come to view and take photos of its wildlife or the ethereal Northern Lights, other great Arctic things to do in Churchill include dog sledding and igloo building.
In addition, the settlement has a handful of historic tourist attractions that offer a fascinating insight into Manitoba’s unique history, heritage, and ecology.
In this post, we'll cover:
10. Bird Watching
While most people come to Churchill to see majestic polar bears or the flickering Northern Lights, the town’s scenic surroundings are also home to an incredible array of beautiful birds. In total, over 270 species have been spotted nearby, with May through to August the best time to see huge flocks either nesting in or migrating through the area.
As well as the snowy owl and tundra swan, visitors can spot peregrine falcons, bald eagles, and the American golden plover alongside many others. Some of the best places to enjoy bird watching are along the shores of Hudson Bay. The sub-arctic tundra and boreal forests also offer untold opportunities. Remarkably enough, it is quite easy to spot over a hundred species in just a few days.
9. Miss Piggy Plane Wreck
Just a short drive from the center of town you can find the amazing Miss Piggy Plane Wreck which crashed just outside of Churchill Airport in 1979. It is so named because of the large loads she used to carry, her rotund shape, and the rumor that she once transported a cargo of pigs. The graffiti-covered wreck is well worth checking out if you have the chance.
On the 13th of November, the freight plane lost oil pressure in her left engine shortly after departing the airport. While attempting to make an emergency landing the plane crashed onto some rocks, just short of the landing strip. Miraculously all three crew members survived. Nowadays, the well-preserved wreck is a popular attraction and makes for some great photos amidst the rough terrain.
8. Wapusk National Park
Although quite challenging to visit, the wild and remote realms of Wapusk National Park warrant exploring due to their stupendous scenery, nature, and wildlife. Lying along the shores of Hudson Bay, the park was founded in 1996 to protect one of the Earth’s most important denning areas for polar bears.
Besides boreal forest and endless Arctic tundra, the park is also home to Cape Churchill, which is the best place in the world to view and take photos of polar bears in the wild. As so many reside within the park, visitors stand a great chance of spotting the mighty mammals when taking a tundra vehicle tour or helicopter ride from Churchill. In addition to polar bears, you can also spy Arctic foxes, caribou, and wolves from time to time.
7. Dog Sledding
As well as being an important tradition, mode of transport and sport, dog sledding is now also one of the town’s most popular tourist activities.
If you’re after an exciting and adrenaline-filled experience when in town then you can’t beat going dog sledding. While gliding across the surrounding snow-coated scenery makes for an unforgettable time, dog sled tours are also possible in summer with teams of huskies pulling wheeled carts behind them instead.
For a couple of miles guests can sit back, relax and take in the stunning scenery while being wrapped up warm in the back of the sled. Besides simply enjoying the ride and views, visitors can also meet and play with the dogs and learn all about the history and current practice of dog sledding in Churchill.
6. Churchill Northern Studies Center
Lying just under half an hour’s drive to the east of town is the excellent Churchill Northern Studies Center, which is set in a very serene and secluded spot. Besides acting as an important education and research center, it welcomes students, researchers, and tourists to stay and learn all about the history and ecology of the North.
Founded in 1976 to further people’s understanding of the area, it lies along Hudson Bay at the point where three major biomes meet. While visiting the field station visitors can take tours of the Arctic tundra, boreal forest and marine environments, and even see polar bears in the wild. In addition, you can also go dog sledding, learn how to build igloos and even see the magical aurora borealis light up the night’s sky.
5. Prince of Wales Fort
Another of the area’s main attractions is the fantastic Prince of Wales Fort which occupies a strategic spot just across the Churchill River from town. Only accessible by boat, it was built by the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1717 to help solidify and protect their control over the fur trade.
Now a National Historic Site, the star-shaped fort makes for a striking sight due to its sturdy stone fortifications and centuries-old cannons. While wandering around the wind-swept fort you’ll come across the remains of barracks and workshops, with commanding views to be enjoyed out over the bay from its parapets.
Guides are on-hand to teach you all there is to know about the fort’s fascinating past and what life would have been like for the hardy trappers who lived here.
4. Northern Lights Tours
As Churchill lies so far to the north and is positioned right below the Auroral Oval, the town and its surroundings make for a great place from which to view the Northern Lights. While visitors stand a chance of seeing the spectacular swirling lights at almost any time of year, the best season is from January to March, as this is when the nights are longest and there is less precipitation.
An incredible natural phenomenon, the polar lights and their captivating colors, shapes, and swirls appear when there is solar activity. Besides watching them out of your window, you can also take tours into the Canadian wilderness to see the shimmering lights from secluded, light-free spots and stay at cosy cabins, campgrounds, and lodges.
3. Itsanitaq Museum
Despite its small size, the splendid Itsanitaq Museum boasts one of the oldest and most impressive collections of Inuit artifacts in the country. Opened in 1944 by Christian missionaries, the one room is home to all kinds of interesting exhibits and archaeological findings that delve into the history and culture of Canada’s indigenous peoples.
As well as centuries-old carvings and kayak, you’ll find ancient weapons and old hunting gear with a taxidermied musk ox, walrus, and polar bear also on display. While these massive stuffed animals immediately attract your attention, there are just as many small but striking sculptures and carvings that depict everyday Inuit life. In addition, the museum has a well-stocked gift shop for you to stop by and can be found right in the center of town.
2. Beluga Whale Watching
Besides being famed for its polar bears, Churchill is also widely reputed to be the best place in the world to go Beluga Whale Watching. This is because each year over 3,000 of the majestic creatures venture into the Churchill River to feed and calf with countless other whales migrating along the western shore of Hudson Bay around the same time.
From mid-June to mid-August the massive river is packed with pods of the playful whales who are delightfully known as the ‘Canaries of the Sea’ due to their melodic clicks and calls. Visitors can take boat tours to see the whales, as well as kayak, swim, and even scuba dive amidst the masses of cute and curious beluga whales.
1. Polar Bear Watching
As Churchill is the ‘Polar Bear Capital of the World’, no visit can ever be complete without seeing some of these incredible animals up close and in the wild. Each autumn, over a thousand of the big white bears migrate along Hudson Bay’s scenic shoreline, offering untold opportunities to see them on tundra vehicle tours or from the bows of boats.
While the odd polar bear can be spotted in and around Churchill in summer, the best time to see them is from October to November. This is when ice begins to form on the bay and the colony amasses around Cape Churchill, ready to set off in search of seals. An unforgettable experience, Polar Bear Watching really is the main reason that most people visit Churchill.
Best Time to Visit Churchill
While polar bears can be spotted near Churchill year-round, October and November is the best season to see them. Just before the pack ice forms, huge numbers congregate around town, ready to head out and hunt.
As this is when most visit, prices are highest with its tours and hotels booked up months in advance. As temperatures range from -9 to 1°C (16 to 34°F), you’ll have to wrap up warm. While November sees much less sunlight, its snowy landscapes create magical backdrops for photos of the bears.
Both July and August are also popular as thousands of beluga whales come to give birth and nurse their calves. While the days are longest and temperatures reach highs of 16 to 17°C (61 to 62°F), you’ll need to bring lots of insect repellant due to its incessant bugs. Other than boat tours, you can kayak and paddleboard about its waters.
If you visit towards the end of August or early September, you may spot the Northern Lights, as well as see belugas and polar bears. Otherwise, January through March is the best time to see the Aurora Borealis as the days are dark and cold.
During winter, temperatures plummet to -23 and -15°C (-9 to 5°F) so you’ll need special clothes. Although you won’t see much wildlife, you can dogsled and snowmobile across its frozen landscapes.