The largest active volcano in the northern hemisphere and brown bear scooping up salmon – you can see both in Russia’s barely touched Kamchatka Peninsula. Without a doubt, this sub-Arctic, 1250km-long finger of land in Russian Far East is one of the top places on earth for pristine habitats and abundant wildlife, despite being covered in snow and ice most of the year.
Wildlife and volcanoes
One way to measure the unbelievable biological wealth of this region is to count the number of plants found here. Kamchatka is home to more than 1000 species of plants – and where there are a lot of different plants, you know you’re going to find a lot of animals. Little disturbed and scarcely explored, this area is populated with more than 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 nine species of whales, huge seabird colonies and thousands of sea otters.
However, 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 in Kamchatka. Visitors 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 (kronoki.org), 200km northeast of Petropavlovsk and one of seven huge protected areas which together comprise the Unesco-listed Kamchatka Volcano Reserve. Explore Kronotsky’s famous Valley of the Geysers and the 10km-diameter Uzon Caldera, or check out Yuzhno-Kamchatsky Reserve (visitkamchatka.com) at the southern tip of the peninsula in August to witness the largest salmon run in the world and hundreds of bears at Lake Kurilskoe.
While it’s getting easier than ever to visit Kamchatka on your own, limited infrastructure, permit requirements and risks like bear attacks and avalanches make preplanned tours mandatory for many places and highly advisable for others.
Many of Kamchatka’s main sights, such as the Valley of the Geysers and Lake Kurilskoe, are only available by organised tour. To do a tour doesn’t mean packing onto a busload of 50 camera-toting tourists. Some groups are private, for just two to four people, and most groups include fewer than 20 people.
Tours range from simple day trips to one- to two-week all-inclusive expeditions taking in several sights or activities. Plan ahead, especially in July and August. Otherwise days can be wasted waiting for a guide to return from a trip or transport to be arranged from Petropavlovsk.
Tours usually include everything: guides, transport, permits, hotels or tents to sleep in, sleeping bags and food. Most of the high-profile tours involve helicopter rides or 4WD transport.
Prices for the big day trips – Valley of the Geysers, Lake Kurilskoe and Mt Mutnovskaya – are set by the helicopter companies and tend to cost the same no matter which travel agency you use. Travel agencies pool clients for these tours. A day trip to the Valley of the Geysers costs 27,000 roubles per person, including a one-hour helicopter ride each way, lunch and stops at Uzon Caldera and Zhupanova River.
Prices for longer tours vary wildly depending on how much time is spent in helicopters. A week-long tour involving some camping and taking in several key sights might cost €2500 to €3500, including a few helicopter rides.
DIY without guides
DIY travel is more difficult and comes with serious risks. Especially if you’re looking to venture into the back country, any misstep can be dangerous, and you’re best off having an experienced guide. A couple of local geologists were eaten by bears in 2008, by no means the first bear mauling in these parts. Winter travel eliminates the risk of bear attacks but creates new risks, such as days-long white-outs. This ain’t Disneyworld.
With those caveats established, the easiest fully DIY trips around Petropavlovsk include the hike up Mt Avachinskaya and trekking along the well-marked trails from Mt Avachinskaya to Nalychevo Valley. Another option is to head up to Esso, 10 hours north of Petropavlovsk by bus, where Bystrinsky Nature Park has an extensive network of well-marked and well-mapped trails.
DIY with guides
If you want to get more ‘out there’ than Nalychevo or Esso, another option is simply hiring a local guide and going on a week-long or longer trek. Some travellers have done so to explore huge pockets of wilderness not featured here. The visitors centre in Yelizovo is the best place to get a freelance guide.
This article was first published in August 2009 and last updated in April 2015.