Every year hundreds of people flock to Churchill in northern Manitoba to watch polar bears. But what most people don’t realize is that Churchill has a lot of other great activities to offer for such a small town. Beluga viewing, birdwatching, museums, shipwrecks, and chasing the northern lights to name a few. There are plenty of things to do in Churchill!
Table of Contents
- How do I Get to Churchill
- How Long Should I Stay in Churchill?
- Things to do in Churchill, Manitoba
- 1- Watch polar bears
- 2 – Join a Birding tour in Churchill
- 3 – Kayak with beluga whales
- 4 – Take a zodiac to see beluga whales
- 5 – Visit the Ithaca shipwreck
- 6 – Watch the Northern Lights
- 7 – Visit the Churchill Northern Studies Centre
- 8 – Visit Itsanitaq Museum
- 9 – Find all 18 of SeaWalls Churchill murals
- 10 – E-Bike tours
- 11 – Visit the Inukshuk on the shore
- 12 – Take a drive
- 13 – Take a helicopter tour
- 14 – Dog Sledding
- 15 – Visit the Miss Piggy Plane Wreck
- 16 – Visit the Prince of Wales Fort
- 17 – Don’t forget the poutine!
- Final thoughts
How do I Get to Churchill
Getting to Churchill is not the easiest. While you can rent a car and drive around town and the few roads nearby, there are no roads that lead to Churchill. You can’t drive there!
Churchill is a remote town and accessible only by train and airplane. The train ride is very slow (and we mean very slow). You can either go from Winnipeg to Churchill or drive to Thompson and then take the ViaRail train up to Churchill. We wrote an article where we explained all the ins and outs of how to get to Churchill including a few things to do in Thompson. Check it out.
Flying to Churchill is the fastest, and Calm Air offers regular return service from Winnipeg to Churchill.
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Are you planning your trip to Churchill?
If you are traveling to Churchill, make sure your tours and accommodation are booked ahead of time. Below are our hotel recommendations:
- Tundra Inn (we stayed here when we visited)
- Bear Country Inn is modest and comfortable
- Seaport Hotel A full-amenity hotel with a dining room and coffee shop.
How Long Should I Stay in Churchill?
Churchill might be small but there are a bunch of things to do up there. If you only stay a couple of days you are going to miss out on a lot of things. Also, take into account that weather changes constantly and if you catch a few days of bad weather you might not be able to do a few things, like kayaking with belugas, as they’ll cancel the outing.
One of the times we were there, the outings were canceled twice. Give yourself plenty of time so you discover all that Churchill has to offer. We recommend a minimum of 5 days, but with so many things to do, you might want more.
Things to do in Churchill, Manitoba
There are plenty of things to do in Churchill in the summer. It is not just polar bears and beluga whales! So here is a list of best things to do while you are in town:
1- Watch polar bears
Churchill is commonly known as the ‘polar bear capital of the world’ as polar bears aggregate in the area around fall (late October and November) as they wait at the shore of Hudson Bay for the ice to freeze up again. Without a doubt, this is the greatest place to see polar bears. But fall isn’t the only time to see polar bears. They come ashore in the spring when the bay ice has melted and are on land all summer. You can spot bears walking up and down the beach, crossing roads, swimming in the bay, and even in town during the summer months.
Always be vigilant as you could bump into them anywhere, anytime. Polar bear safety is a top priority. Here are a few tours in Churchill to see polar bears.
Join a Tundra Buggy day trip to find polar bears. This 8-hours tour includes lunch and light refreshments. These buggy tours take you around Churchill Wildlife Management Area where there will be plenty of opportunites to see polar bears and other wildlife like arctic foxes, arctic hares, caribou, and and a variety of arctic birds.
October and November are the prime times to see polar bears in Churchill as they all congregate on the shore before they head out onto the ice in the Hudson Bay. Frontiers North offers a 5-night polar viewing tour that will take you out a few days on the Tundra Buggy to view majestic polar bears safely. It also includes a day of dog-sledding and a visit to the Itsanitaq Museum (see below).
In the fall, polar bear viewing is exciting as you might be able to see males sparring.
For a lodge-based polar bear experience, Churchill Wild has a couple of wilderness lodges where they offer walking polar bear tours. You need to take a short plane ride from Churchill (which is great for spotting polar bears from the air) to get to either Nanuk Lodge or Seal River Heritage Lodge. These aren’t actually in Churchill but fairly close by. Nanuk is on the other side of Wapusk National Park while Seal River Heritage lodge is out west. We visited Nanuk in the summer where the two photos below were taken.
2 – Join a Birding tour in Churchill
June in Churchill is the time for bird migration. With three ecosystems and over 250 species of birds throughout the season, Churchill is an exciting place for birders and nature enthusiasts.
Nanuk Operations has a 7-day birding tour with a local Manitoban birding expert. The beautiful landscapes and the chance of seeing other amazing wildlife makes this a great tour to get to know Churchill’s wild inhabitants.
The Churchill Northern Studies Center also has a birding tour of Churchill that runs in June. This 6-day birding tour is one of the Center’s learning vacations. The small group goes on daily outings to explore and learn about the diverse habitats in the area (tundra, boreal forest, freshwater systems, and the coastal marine environment). Participants stay at the center with its state-of-the-art facilities.
At the center you can watch for birds on the outdoor viewing platform, and at night you can watch the sky from the indoor Aurora dome (hopefully the aurora borealis will make an appearance!). Your participation will contribute to research at the center by helping to fund it.
Birds commonly seen on the tour in Churchill: white-crowned sparrow, Pacific loon, red-necked phalarope, Lapland longspur, willow ptarmigan, Arctic tern, common eider, Hudsonian godwit, Bonaparte’s gull, Ross’ goose, long-tailed duck, whimbrel, and blackpoll warbler.
If you are very lucky you’ll also see Northern hawk-owl, short-eared owls, or golden eagles.
3 – Kayak with beluga whales
Kayaking with beluga whales is one of the top wildlife experiences I’ve ever had. Seeing them in their natural habitat and behaving naturally is priceless.
Belugas breed in early spring and appear in the Churchill River estuary around early July. They will stay around Churchill through the summer to calve and feed on capelin and Lake Cisco fish. The best time to see belugas is from mid July until late August.
When you kayak with belugas in Churchill around the mouth of the Churchill River, you will be kayaking with small pods of belugas that will likely have a few calves with them. Adult belugas are white while calves are light grey so they are easy to identify.
Beluga whales are very curious and they will come to your kayak to visit. They’ll also bring their calves to look at you, which is just lovely. If there are a few of them you might be able to hear them ‘sing’.
There are a few tour operators that will take you kayaking with beluga whales in Churchill:
- The Churchill Northern Studies Center offers a 6-day Belugas in the Bay tour, where the protagonists are the belugas. This beluga whale tour includes outings by kayak, boat, and onshore viewing to see these whales, as well as a visit to Prince of Wales Fort, a hike in the boreal forest, and nightly lectures about belugas and the ecology of the area.
- Sea North Tours offers kayak tours to view belugas. The group will be accompanied by a guide and a zodiac for added safety.
4 – Take a zodiac to see beluga whales
Not everyone is comfortable with kayaks. That doesn’t mean you can’t go see the ‘canaries of the sea’! An outing with a zodiac will provide the same close encounter, with the bonus that you don’t have to second guess where the belugas are since you’ll be taken right to them! (Plus they like to follow the zodiacs.)
Choose your zodiac tour to see belugas:
- This 6-day Beluga, Bears, and Blooms tour (July-August) includes an outing with a zodiac, an outing with a boat, a guided bus outing to the area to visit the polar bear holding facility and Inukshuk, and a day on the Tundra Buggy to search for polar bears and the wildlife in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area.
- Nanuk Operations also has a 4-day tour (August) where one of the activities is a zodiac outing to see belugas. This tour also includes 2 ground tours with a 4×4 to explore the area around Churchill while searching for wildlife.
- If you are already in Churchill you can take a 2-hour outing on a zodiac with Sea North Tours.
5 – Visit the Ithaca shipwreck
The MV Ithaca ran aground in 1960 shortly after leaving port and has become a local celebrity. From late June to late September, Discover Churchill Tours offers an outing to take you to see the Ithaca shipwreck, at low tide and if no polar bears are around.
6 – Watch the Northern Lights
Located directly beneath the aurora oval (or aurora belt), Churchill is one the best places on Earth to view the aurora borealis. In Churchill, they record northern lights activity more than 300 nights a year so you can see them any time of year. I have been to Churchill twice and I’ve seen them both times, and both times were in the summer!
If you want to watch the northern lights in Churchill you have a few choices:
- In February/March you can join this 5-night adventure with Frontiers North to watch the Aurora Borealis. The trip also includes dog-sledding through the boreal forest, a visit to Itsanitaq Museum, and a snowshoe trek.
- Also, in February/March you can join a 5-night Winter Skies learning vacation at Churchill Northern Studies Center and watch the northern lights from their heated indoor viewing dome. Every evening there’s a lecture on topics related to the aurora, like the science of northern lights and photography.
- Nanuk Operations also has a 5-night Aurora tour during February/March. This tour includes cultural presentations, a dog sledding tour, and a snowshoe hike.
- During February/March, Discover Churchill Tours offers a 7-day Northern Lights Photography Tour, including an editing workshop. Get the Northern Lights shots you always wanted!
- From August to November, Nanuk Operations also has single-day Northern Lights tours. You can request to join the tour and they will call you only if the northern lights make an appearance, and you only pay if there was a northern lights show! So you can travel to Churchill to see polar bears and belugas and just wait for the lights to show.
7 – Visit the Churchill Northern Studies Centre
The Centre is an independent, non-profit research and education facility located 14 miles east of Churchill. Ask a member of the staff about taking a Green Building Tour. They offer a number of unique learning vacations, from polar bear ecology to Aurora & Astronomy, and learning about the belugas.
8 – Visit Itsanitaq Museum
The Itsanitaq Museum has a collection of artifacts and Inuit carvings dating from Pre-Dorset (1700 B.C.) through Dorset, Thule, and modern Inuit times. The Pre-Dorset and Dorset people lived in this area from 3000 to 1000 B.C.
We spent a good couple of hours visiting the museum and it is a must when you visit Churchill. It is the perfect place to learn about aboriginal culture and the history of the indigenous peoples of the area.
The museum’s gift shop is the perfect place to get Canadian Inuit art, art cards, postcards, northern books, and even some local wild berry preserves. Closes on Sundays and holidays.
9 – Find all 18 of SeaWalls Churchill murals
SeaWalls Churchill was created to increase awareness of the issues oceans are facing and to inspire the community to protect them. A total of 18 wall murals now adorn Churchill with polar bears and belugas as the main subjects. The murals span 19 miles (30 km) along the shore of Hudson Bay.
Here’s a map of where to find all the murals.
10 – E-Bike tours
You can rent your own e-bike or join a guided tour around Churchill and beyond. Visit Cape Merry and, for the more adventurous, go down Hudson Bay Coast road.
11 – Visit the Inukshuk on the shore
An Inukshuk (pl. inuksuit) is a stone formation, landmark, or cairn, traditionally built by the Inuit. Originally spelled inuksuk, the word inukshuk means “to act in the capacity of a human.”
In a region where the landscape looks much the same and there are few natural landmarks, the Inuksuit were used to navigate. They might indicate a food source, a mark a travel route, or hunting grounds …
You can find the Inukshuk in Churchill behind the Town Complex, on the shore of Hudson Bay, overlooking the ocean. While you are here, search the shores of the Hudson Bay for signs of beluga whales!
12 – Take a drive
You can rent a car and drive the roads around Churchill while looking for wildlife. Use common sense, this is polar bear country, always check that there are no bears around when leaving the car. This is great way to get eye-level shots of polar bears, if you’re careful and responsible.
13 – Take a helicopter tour
Take a 60 or 90 minute helicopter tour with Hudson Bay Helicopters and fly across the tundra, taiga, and boreal forest to enjoy the scenic beauty of the area. Spot polar bears from your tour and, during summer, watch beluga whales frolic in the Churchill River.
15 – Visit the Miss Piggy Plane Wreck
Visit the Miss Piggy Plane wreck just outside Churchill. You either need to rent a car (try Tamarack rentals) or you can also join the day tour with Nanuk Operations that will take you there. This tour will also take you to see the polar bear facility where problem polar bears are held for a few days before relocation.
Miss Piggy crashed in 1979 and there were no casualties.
If you rent a car to visit Miss Piggy, be aware that you might encounter polar bears so be vigilant at all times. When we visited Miss Piggy we couldn’t get too close as when we were about to get out of the car we realized there was a polar bear sleeping next to it!
16 – Visit the Prince of Wales Fort
To visit the Prince of Wales Fort you can join a Sea North Tours Beluga and Fort Tour, as the fort is across the Churchill River. It involves taking a zodiac, so you’ll probably get to see the beluga whales again! From the shore, it is only a short walk to this National Historic Site.
Originally called the Churchill River Post, it was built in 1717 on the west bank of the Churchill River by James Knight of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). In 1719 it was renamed Prince of Wales Fort. It was used to protect and control the HBC’s interests in the fur trade. The fort is now managed by Parks Canada.
17 – Don’t forget the poutine!
Head out to the Tundra Pub for delicious poutine. You’ve earned it. The pub opens seasonally from July to November.
Churchill is not just about polar bears, there are so many fun things to do that you’ll find yourself wishing you had more time!
Zoologist and wildlife photographer. She has worked in the field with jackals, wolves, cheetahs, & leopards. She serves on the Board of Directors of SEE Turtles, a non-profit sea turtle conservation organization.
Read her posts at Travel For Wildlife and see more of her work at Truly Wild, & Our Wild Yard.