Volcanoes and sables and bears, oh my: the Kamchatka Peninsula


The largest active volcano in the northern hemisphere and brown bear scooping up salmon - see both in Russia's barely-touched Kamchatka region.

One way to measure the unbelievable biological wealth of the Kamchatka Peninsula is to count the number of plants found here. Despite being covered in snow and ice most of the year, this subarctic1250km-long finger of land in Russia's Far East is home to over 1000 species of plants – and where there are a lot of different plants you know you're going to find a lot of animals.

Without a doubt Kamchatka is one of the top places on earth for pristine habitats and abundant wildlife, though only a few thousand tourists a year make it to this remote and little-known region. In fact, scarcely 400,000 people live on the entire 472,000 sq km peninsula and half of those live in Petropavlovsk, the only major city and the base camp for every expedition on the peninsula.

Little disturbed and scarcely explored, this area is instead populated with over 15,000 brown bears, 10,000 snow sheep, 1500 reindeer, wolves, foxes, wolverines, and sables, not to mention half of the world’s population of massive Steller’s sea eagles. Coastal areas are home to 9 species of whales, huge seabird colonies, and thousands of sea otters.

Visitors to Kamchatka come for one of two reasons: to see the most impressive collection of volcanic features in the world, including the largest active volcano in the Northern Hemisphere; and to see abundant and remarkably peaceful brown bears feasting on millions of salmon.

Fortunately you can do both at the Kronotsky Nature Reserve, 200km NE of Petropavlovsk and one of seven huge protected areas that together comprise the UNESCO Kamchatka Volcano Reserve. Explore Kronotsky's famous Valley of Geysers and the 10km-diameter Uzon Caldera. Or check out Yuzhno-Kamchatsky Reserve at the southern tip of the peninsula in August to witness the largest salmon run in the world and hundreds of bears at Kurilskoye Lake.

These unsurpassed wilderness areas remain protected by their inaccessibility, which also makes your journey logistically challenging unless you sign up with a tour company that takes care of paperwork, lodging, and the inevitable helicopter rides to remote locations. Independent travel is possible but requires a lot of courage and knowledge of Russian language and bureaucracy.

Can't wait to visit? Get set with the Far East chapter from our Russia guide.