A 3-season travel guide to the natural wonders of Churchill, Manitoba
Bucket listers, start packing. Churchill awaits! This tiny Northern Manitoba community on the shoreline of Hudson Bay has a global reputation as the Polar Bear Capital of the World, as it should. Hundreds of the great white bears migrate this way every fall.
But there’s plenty beyond the bears. Beluga whales by the thousands, blazing fields of wildflowers, and the ever-enchanting northern lights are just the beginning of your “Why I Should Go to Churchill” list. Trust us — this won’t take too much convincing.
Oh, the whales!
While polar bears do visit Churchill in summer, the limelight of the season belongs to the friendly white whales that frequent the western Hudson Bay shoreline. Some 57,000 belugas reside in the bay, and during summer thousands of them spend time in the Churchill and Seal river estuaries to feed and mate. This is your chance to commune with the notoriously curious creatures and hear their underwater whistles and chirps.
Take your pick from the guided tours on offer. If you travel by Zodiac with Sea North Tours, simply leaning over the edge will put you face-to-face with the smiling creatures. For the slightly more adventurous, kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding trips get you even closer. And for perhaps the ultimate encounter, there’s Lazy Bear Expedition’s AquaGliding — you’ll be at water level as you lie on a floating mat surrounded by whales.
Into the wild
The colors here seem to be making up for lost time. Fireweed’s fuchsia blooms spring up in contrast to the lichen-covered rocks and occasional dwarfed-evergreen. Falcons, snowy owls, tundra swans, and the rare Ross’s gull circle in the skies overhead. If you’re lucky, you might catch a curious fox poking its face over the flowers. If you’re really lucky, a lone polar bear may just make an appearance, creating the most Instagrammable image of your lifetime.
That’s right — July and August are growing in popularity for polar-bear seekers, so don’t rule out these months if you’re hoping to catch a glimpse of them. Churchill Wild has a few different styles of wildlife tours, and their unique wilderness lodges put you close to where the bears and belugas congregate in the warm months along the Hudson Bay shoreline. In town, Lazy Bear Expeditions and Sea North Tours run beluga whale boat trips in the Churchill River and Hudson Bay, often with the chance of seeing bears snoozing along the rocky shoreline or taking a dip to cool off.
Be a northern culture vulture
History runs deep into the permafrost around Churchill, especially at Parks Canada’s Prince of Wales Fort National Historic Site, the 18th-century Hudson’s Bay Company fur-trade fortress. It took 40 years to build this outpost, starting in 1731 — that’s 40 winters on the tundra under unimaginable hardship. Inside the star-shaped structure, look for the original canons that were never fired, remains of the powder magazine, and signatures of residents and visitors carved into the stone walls. Only a few miles from the fort, you can retrace the steps of more early explorers and fur traders with a guided hike around Sloop Cove.
Don’t miss the SeaWalls CHURCHILL murals, each of which tells a story of why this community is so special. Or join a guided hike that takes curious visitors up close to the shipwreck of the MV Ithaca just outside Bird Cove. Shortly after leaving port in 1960, this steamship bound for Rankin Inlet lost its rudder in a gale and ran aground, where it’s been ever since.
Back in town, make a stop at the Itsanitaq Museum to see the vast collection of Inuit carvings, some dating to 3200 BCE. It’s a great place to pick up books about life in the north, Canadian Inuit art, postcards for the fam back home, and local wildberry preserves.
Churchill’s ice bears
Your best bet for a premium polar bear experience lies with a tour operator. They’ll arrange transportation, meals, accommodation, and, of course, excursions to see the big bears on the tundra. Most offer multi-day excursions where you ride in style in massive vehicles equipped to traverse the tundra.
Your options abound:
- Visitors who choose Frontiers North Adventures can sleep where the bears sleep thanks to the Tundra Buggy Lodge, located in the middle of the tundra at Polar Bear Point in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area.
- Lazy Bear Expeditions runs a five-day trip that includes opportunities to spot Arctic fox, ptarmigan, and other wildlife; dog mushing; and a culture and heritage tour.
- Churchill Wild welcomes visitors at three fly-in wilderness lodges set on the tundra, which are geared toward photography enthusiasts.
- At the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, you have the chance to serve as a citizen scientist and collect data on the bears during their fall migration.
- Great White Bear Tours has a few tours to choose from — including a trip with a helicopter ride that gets you both bear sightings and a few days exploring the town’s culture.
Crunched for time?
Manitoba is a big place, and you’ve probably got lots to do. If you’re only up in Churchill for a day or two, Frontiers North Adventures and Great White Bear Tours both offer single-day excursions to get you out on the tundra. They start bright and early at around 7am and include lunch. There’s also Nanuk Operations with their small, customized photography tours — in 4×4 vehicles — for everyone, from amateurs to pros.
During high season, it’s always a good idea to reserve your Churchill accommodations in advance. But if you’re in Winnipeg and make the spontaneous decision to go on a polar bear tour, there’s still hope! Heartland International Travel & Tours has you covered with single-day trips based out of Winnipeg. From city to tundra and back, all in one (very long) day!
Pick your seat
Clear skies and Churchill’s location inside the aurora oval make it a prime location to watch the northern lights paint the winter sky. There are many ways to see them:
- Frontiers North Adventures sets up visitors in their cozy Thanadelthur Lounge, a stone’s throw from town across the Churchill River for prime viewing. For a culinary accompaniment, they also invite visitors to Dan’s Diner, a pop-up dining hall where guests enjoy a world-class meal featuring regional and local fare, all while sitting under the aurora-filled sky.
- Stay toasty indoors at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre and watch the spectacle through the aurora dome. The center is 30 minutes outside of town, offering the darkest conditions.
- Take a reclining seat in Natural Habitat Adventure’s plush Aurora Pod, a customized vessel with 180-degree views of the sky.
- For those who want the full frosty experience, Nights Under Lights is a guided evening photography outing by Nanuk Operations at a yurt in the middle of the northern reaches of the boreal forest.
Dogsledding in Churchill
Do you want go faster? There’s no better way to gain some speed than aboard a sled pulled by a team of enthusiastic dogs. Winter dogsledding is exhilarating fun, made even more of a blast by your unforgettable hosts. Wapusk Adventures and Blue Sky Expeditions are Indigenous outfitters who bring the history, culture, and heritage of northern Canada to life.
Note: If you’re here in March, don’t miss the Hudson Bay Dog Quest. It’s a wild sight that runs for 220 miles — you’ll see for yourself that “there ain’t no law of God nor man goes north of 53°.”
Start your explorations at The Forks, where two rivers meet and people have been gathering for over 6,000 years. Today it’s a place to eat, drink, pick up a few souvenirs, and get really, really excited about the adventure ahead.
Warm your bones before the northern sojourn at one of Winnipeg’s premier spas. Thermëa offers outdoor hot tubs, steamy saunas, and fireside lounge chairs. Meanwhile, the hamam at Ten Spa puts you in an authentic Turkish steam room.
Architecture buffs, get ready to be blown away by the Manitoba Legislative Building and its rotunda dome, grand staircase, and the Golden Boy sculpture perched on the roof. Take a tour that reveals the hieroglyphics, numerical codes, and symbols of Freemasonry hidden in plain sight throughout this impressive building.
From its stunning architecture to thought-provoking exhibits, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights is simply a must stop for all visitors. After only a short time inside these walls, you’ll begin to feel deep respect for all peoples and our shared humanity. You will no doubt leave with increased gratitude and understanding.
And then there’s more wildlife. For over a century, the Assiniboine Park Zoo has welcomed visitors to share in a love of furry and feathered friends on 80 park-like acres. Get a taste of your ultimate destination with the world-class “Journey to Churchill” Arctic species exhibit that includes snowy owls, Arctic foxes, and, of course, the resident polar bears, some of which are orphaned cubs from Churchill brought here to be rehabilitated. Step into the underwater tunnel to watch them swim above you — a great photo opp — and definitely stop by the International Polar Bear Conservation Centre to check out the hands-on exhibits on climate change and wildlife conservation.
Getting to Churchill
Churchill rests on the shores of Hudson Bay, some 650 miles north of Winnipeg. There are no roads into town, so visitors arrive by air or train. Calm Air International flies to Churchill from Winnipeg year-round; it’s roughly a two-hour flight. The Via Rail Canada train departs Winnipeg twice a week and takes roughly 48 hours to reach Churchill.
Once on the ground, contact Tamarack Car Rentals if you need wheels. But how you get around ultimately doesn’t matter — whatever season you visit and whatever you decide to do, this will be the adventure of a lifetime.