Things to see & do in Kamchatka

Kamchatka, an isolated peninsula on Russia’s far eastern coast, looks for all the world as though it recently emerged from the primordial soup in a great belching, fiery mass. Like a land before time, much of its landscape is formed by a very animated cluster of volcanoes, located along the edge of the Pacific Ring of Fire. The Valley of the Geysers, known as the ‘Pearl of Kamchatka’, is a particular hotbed of hydrothermal activity; a bubbling, pulsating canyon of steaming jets, boiling mud cauldrons and 200 geysers in all.

For most of its history, Kamchatka has remained untouched by modern human activity, inhabited solely by its indigenous people. It’s only really since the 1990s that outsiders have had access, forbidden during the post-war period when its proximity to the USA kept Kamchatka a secure territory for secret Soviet activity.

It’s this obscurity and lack of human encroachment that has preserved Kamchatka’s ecosystems. Getting here requires a long, connecting flight to the industrial city of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, or you can start your tour from the remote sea port of Anadyr in neighbouring Chukotka, arriving by charter plane from Alaska and crossing the International Date Line. Once in Kamchatka, exploration will be by expedition vessel, boat or 4WD bus. It’s far from your typical holiday destination, but adventurous visitors are attracted by the promise of its sensational wildlife and remote settings.

What do Kamchatka holidays entail?

One of the most common ways to discover Kamchatka is on an expedition cruise, often starting in Anadyr in neighbouring okrug (province) of Chukotka before winding your way south along Russia’s far eastern shoreline, anchoring at uninhabited islands and crossing coastal fjords. Otherwise inaccessible territory becomes easy to explore and Zodiac boat excursions allow you to reach land and encounter plenty of wildlife along the way. Expedition cruises are a little different to your typical holiday cruise liner – think ecology talks and thermal underwear, not black tie dinners. While there will be plenty of chances to spend time ashore, longer days of sailing aren’t uncommon.
Alternatively, to really appreciate the varied geography of the area, you could take a land based tour of Kamchatka. In this case, you’re likely to be spending a lot more time on your feet – when you’re not making tracks in a four wheel drive. Due to the sheer size of the area, some long days of travelling may be involved; you could be spending eight hours or more driving. A minimum level of fitness will also be required for more active holidays, where days of six to 10 hours of trekking on tricky terrain are par for the course. There may be a lot of wild camping involved, punctuated by overnight stays in remote hotels. Due to the remoteness of this part of the world, the only access is with an experienced guide as part of a small group tour of two weeks. The few trips that run to Kamchatka are not available on a tailor made basis.

Kamchatka’s summers are short but warm, although temperatures rarely get above 15°C. For this reason, trips only run between May and September. Late spring is perfect for bird watching, while mid-summer is the ideal time for hiking and camping. Colourful September is the best month to see brown bears, salmon-fattened and ready for the months of sleep ahead. For the chance to spot their polar cousins, you’ll need to book a holiday that includes travelling up to Wrangel Island, which is only accessible during July and August.

Kamchatka highlights

Koryakskiy Nature Reserve

The rolling tundra of the protected Koryakskiy Reserve is a prime location to spot your first brown bears. These frequent visitors stop by to gorge on the salmon, which spawn in high numbers all along the Koryak rivers. Seabird colonies really thrive in the coastal areas, nesting in their thousands in the shelter of the cliffs, and bighorn sheep clamber along the rocky slopes of the southern mountains.

Wild rivers

Kamchatka’s fish-filled rivers offer a refreshing change to the volcanic landscapes you’ll encounter during an overland tour. Rafting down the gentle rapids of the Bystraya River, ideally suited to beginners, is the best way to see Stellar’s eagles and brown bears hunting on the river banks. During wildlife cruises, river deltas provide the perfect environment for huddles of walrus, especially at the mouth of the Pika River, and the Zhupanova River is home to oversized rainbow trout and nesting eagles.

Isolated islands

Kamchatka’s islands are a pristine wilderness, essential for the region’s rich biodiversity and best explored on an expedition cruise that follows the Kamchatka coast. Sailing east to Karaginskiy Island, in the Litke Strait of the Bering Sea, you will find that arctic plains make way for cedars, Siberian pines and carpets of summer flowers. Follow south in the footsteps of Danish explorer Commander Vitus Bering and you’ll reach the Commander Islands, where the expedition leader lies buried. The smaller Verhoturova Island, just to the north, is one of the best places to see the many different birds native to the region, while Steller sea lions can often be spotted on the rocky islets off the coast.

Volcanoes

Kamchatka’s history is a violent one; the peninsula sits on the junction of two converging tectonic plates, making it one of the most volcanically active areas in the world. It’s not uncommon to find multiple volcanoes erupting simultaneously. The most impressive, and permanently active of these is Mutnovsky volcano, at over 2,300m high, from which a continuous column of steam rise high in the air and boiling mud cauldrons fill its crater. Nearby are the belching, conical peaks of Gorely volcano with its craters full of multi-hued fresh and acid waters. Both take around six hours to hike up. You can also walk through the sinister ‘dead forest’, burned by blistering ash from the eruption of nearby Ploski Tolbachik volcano. The craggy landscapes here were used as the testing ground for the first Soviet lunar vehicles.

Our top Russia Holiday

Kamchatka and Chukotka wildlife cruises, Russia

Kamchatka and Chukotka wildlife cruises, Russia

Explore Kamchatka's stunning Coast, volcanoes, fjords & more

From US $7200 13 days ex flights
Small group travel:
2020: 31 Aug
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Russia or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.

Top activities in Kamchatka

Wildlife watching

This remote corner of Russia abounds with wildlife, especially whales, eagles and bears – oh my! Just as fascinating are the horned puffins, guillemots and the auklets with their feathered crests like little fascinators. Expedition cruises offer excellent opportunities to see orca, dolphins and barnacle-covered grey whales surfacing for air. Fur seals, gathering in large numbers in beach rookeries, can be spotted from the boat, and you might hear the sociable bellows of a pink, wrinkled walrus before you spot its gigantic shape, lounging on an ice flow.

Outdoor adventures

Kamchatka is a paradise for outdoor lovers, offering a never-ending expanse of wilderness to explore, far from the reach of civilisation. If you’re keen to spend your time trekking through magma-moulded terrain and scaling active volcanoes, choose a land tour where even your down time will be spent camping out under the stars, or beneath a forest canopy, perhaps fishing for your dinner. You can experience the thrill of rafting along the icy Bystraya River, followed by an afternoon foraging for wild berries and mushrooms in the taiga forests (keeping an eye out for bears, of course) and a hot meal cooked over the campfire. Expedition cruises also offer plenty of chances to disembark for gentle hikes along the coastline, alongside island landings and Zodiac river excursions to admire seabird colonies.

Culture & people

Despite Kamchatka being one of the least populated regions in the world, more than 100 different nationalities and ethnic groups live on the peninsula. The majority of the indigenous population is made up by the Koryaks, Aleuts, Itelmens and the Evens who, in the 18th century, founded one of the oldest settlements here. You can meet the Even people by taking a walking excursion to the settlement, where you can visit a craft workshop, or you may get the opportunity to watch a traditional dance.

Conservation

Alongside wildlife-watching, visitors can take a more active part in the ongoing conservation efforts in the region. Activities may involve talks highlighting ecological issues and the work undertaken by local agencies. Participants also have the opportunity to visit seabird breeding grounds and various nature reserves, while all cetacean sightings are logged and referred on to researchers.

Discover more about Kamchatka wildlife and nearby islands in our Kamchatka travel guide.
Written by Bryony Cottam
Photo credits: [Page banner: Natalia_Kollegova] [Intro: Natalia_Kollegova] [What do Kamchatka holidays entail?: kuhnmi] [Koryakskiy Nature Reserve: Harald Deischinger] [Volcanoes: kuhnmi] [Wildlife watching: Robert Pittman]
Convert currencies