Churchill, Canada Is Practically a Year-Round Winter Wonderland

Indigenous-led tourism shines a spotlight on polar bears, belugas, and endless aurora viewing.

There are no roads to Churchill, Canada. Other than a lone train track stretching across the tundra, there’s one tiny airport that looks more like a small bus station, equipped to receive planes limited to just 10 rows of seats. And if you look out the window of one of those aircrafts soaring in from Winnipeg—the closest transportation hub at 1,256 miles away—you’ll realize just how much wilderness stretches out before you. But that doesn’t stop adventure-minded travelers from making the trip, drawn by the chance to get up close and personal with polar bears, beluga whales, and the ever-captivating northern lights.

Most visitors to Churchill spend a few days oohing and ahhing before flying back home, but for the 800 or so people who live here the rest of the time and whose ancestors were born here, it can be tough to see the tourists and their economy-boosting dollars jetting off on those planes time and time again. This is the proud home of the Dene, Cree, Inuit, and Métis Nations, and designated knowledge-keepers and elders in the communities help to pass down their leather making, beading, bannock bread baking, and other generational traditions.

That’s exactly why booking a hotel room, Tundra Buggy tour, or northern lights excursion with a locally owned company is all the more crucial in these parts. After all, the residents are the ones that breathe life into this incredible speck on the far reaches of the North American map—not to mention the ones that have to deal with sometimes-dangerous polar bear encounters year-round. From wildlife watching to aurora chasing, here’s what to do in Churchill, Canada, with special attention given to businesses that are both local and Indigenous-owned.

Northern lights in Churchill, Canada
Alan Dyer/Stocktrek Images/Getty Images

Best things for first timers to do in Churchill

Churchill is known as the polar bear capital of the world, and for good reason. In the fall, upwards of 100 bears roam the area, and guides see about 20 to 30 every day along Hudson Bay, where the creatures wait for the water to freeze so they can cross the ice to catch seals. If you’re hoping to nab a glimpse of one of these carnivores, this is about as far south as they come. Yes, it’s still pretty far north—around 1,000 miles north of Minneapolis, in fact—but it’s still south of the Arctic.

But there’s more to see here than polar bears, especially depending on the time of year. Around 5,000 belugas come to the area every summer, and winter’s darker skies allow for incredible northern lights displays. You’ll also find science-oriented and educational tourism opportunities for people interested in conservation and culture. This is a place for travel more than leisure, but there’s still fun to be had: Think fine dining on a frozen river, snowshoeing to a cozy yurt, and dog sledding through forests. But whatever you do in Churchill, you’ll want to make some time to learn about the Indigenous communities here, too.

Polar bears in Churchill, Canada
Photo courtesy of Travel Manitoba

Nature and outdoor experiences in Churchill

See dozens of polar bears in the wild

According to a local guide, visitors to Churchill are excited to observe hunting polar bears: "I never hear anyone say, 'Oh, the poor seal.’”

In Churchill, Sub-Arctic Explorers are the guides you want to go with. Owner Leroy Whitmore, a citizen of the Inuit Nation, gives the tours himself. He prefers to keep groups small (ranging from one to seven people), so that the experience is intimate and uncrowded. However, if you want to feel like an adventure scientist, Churchill Northern Studies Centre offers fully immersive stays in their LEED-certified research center for up to 36 people at a time. Over the week, guests can go on excursions in a heated vehicle with an outside viewing platform, watch the bears roaming around the facility from the windows or indoor roof dome, and attend polar bear or knowledge keeper lectures.

Beluga whale tour, Churchill, Canada
Photo courtesy of Travel Manitoba

Go on a beluga whale tour

Thousands of funny white whales come to Churchill’s waters in summer—over 57,000 to the bay and around 4,000 to the river estuary surrounding the town. Late July and August are the ideal time to get on a boat to spot them. Make sure to ask for a tour operator that has prop guards on their boats so the propellers don’t hurt the whales, or that turns off the engine and allows the animals to come to them. Belugas are curious creatures, so this latter tactic is actually a solid strategy.

Luckily, you won’t be competing against too many other boats to catch a glimpse of the whales. "Overtourism is not a problem for Churchill," says Kieran McIver, Operations Manager at Polar Bears International, which also studies belugas.

Sled dog puppy
Photo courtesy of Travel Manitoba

Go dog sledding

Technically, you don’t have to take a train or plane to get to Churchill; Dave Daley, owner of Wapusk Adventures, has traveled hundreds of miles from Winnipeg to Churchill by dog sled. For those who might prefer a shorter stint on the sled, Wapusk Adventures provides dog sled rides through the area’s boreal forest—but first Daley offers a cultural talk about the history of the Métis people in the area. “My connection to the land as an Indigenous person is deep through my dogs,” says Daley.

Afterwards, guests can wander through the outdoor kennel, which also operates as a dog rescue, to pet some pretty excited huskies. “I was always taught that all animals have souls like we do, whether you're a fish, a moose, or a goose,” says Daley. “And that's the philosophy I use when I raise my sled dogs, because I believe that dogs are the greatest gift to us humans from the animal world.”

If dog sledding isn’t really your scene, Wapusk Adventures also offers some additional activities, like aurora viewing, snowshoe walks, and summer e-bike tours.

Chase the northern lights

Beliefs vary across Indigenous communities as to the meaning of the northern lights. Some say the light show is a message from ancestors, while others believe it connects to other realms. To hear more first-hand—and see the lights for yourself—book a tour with locally owned and operated Beyond Boreal. January through March is considered the best time for the brightest lights, as well as the best time to nab a tour. But night owls can technically catch a glimpse of the aurora in the summer; you’ll just need to stay up until around 3 or 4 am.

Miss Piggy plane, Churchill
Photo courtesy of Travel Manitoba

Museums, art, and culture in Churchill

The murals around Churchill tell stories within stories. Colorful bears, whales, and people adorn the sides of buildings all over town. Organized by Kal Barteski and Sea Walls: Artists for Oceans, the primary goal of these enormous paintings is to bring awareness to climate change, a call to action to protect the oceans and animals in the area.

But the artwork took on extra meaning in 2017, when a storm washed out the single railway track to Churchill, leaving the community stranded, isolated, and in short supply of food and medicine. It took some time for the railway owners and government to get the train running again, and during that time, the painting “Know I’m Here” became deeply personal to the locals.

Another mural is painted onto the side of the ruins of a crashed plane. Nicknamed Miss Piggy, the plane, previously used during WWII, crashed here in 1979. There were no deaths, but the shell of the aircraft has remained here ever since, and the painting on the exterior reflects on life and death. Visitors often climb on top of and inside of the plane.

bear carving
Photo by Shel Zolkewich, courtesy of Travel Manitoba

Of course, we’d be remiss if we didn’t talk about some of the cultural offerings in Winnipeg, as any Churchill-bound tourist will indefinitely find themselves spending at least a day in the northern city on their way in or out of town.

In Winnipeg, try your hand at a soapstone carving workshop, where you can imagine and whittle away your own polar bear from a hunk of soft rock, using the tools and guidance from Fredrick Lyle Spence (Thunder Bear) of the Peguis First Nation. Spence, who started carving soapstone six years ago, says, “There's an emotional charge to it that's therapeutic.” Or contact Wilfred Buck to go on one of his Tipis and Telescopes tours, where you’ll hear about traditional Cree astrology. And you’ll want to make time for a stop at the National Indigenous Residential School Museum, which is crucial to understanding where the First Nations and Canadian government stand today.

Lastly, book a Métis Nation survival game with Sayzoons, which offers various games depending on the season. In the winter version, participants work as a group to learn how to build a fire, negotiate with a fur trader, skate or ski the surrounding area, and enjoy some warm bone broth and s’mores at the end.

Dan's Diner, Churchill, Canada
Photo courtesy of Travel Manitoba

Where to eat and drink in Churchill

Guests have to sign a waiver to eat at Dan's Diner. That’s because the restaurant—open only in February and March—sits on a frozen river, and guests are driven 40 minutes across the river in an EV Tundra Buggy from NorthStar to get there. But don’t get too nervous—the organizers first drill into the ice to make sure it’s thick enough.

Each meal at Dan’s starts with a formal land acknowledgement that the owners are operating on Dene, Cree, Inuit, and Métis land. Guests are then served multiple courses of creative regional dishes, often showcasing elk or caribou, arctic char, jams made from berries, and bannock bread. They also use rocket greens grown at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, which are donated to the community to provide nutrients through the long winters.

The restaurant sits in a retrofitted buggy with panoramic windows and skylights, so it may be possible to see the northern lights above while eating, if the clouds cooperate. After the meal, guests are invited to bring their drinks to an outdoor bonfire on shore to hopefully spot some of the lights above.

Churchill Northern Studies Centre
Photo courtesy of Travel Manitoba

Hotels & other great places to stay around Churchill

If you’re staying in Churchill, definitely check out the Indigenous-owned Polar Inn & Suites. Another option is the previously mentioned Churchill Northern Studies Centre, which hosts six-day science-focused retreats with dorm accommodation. During a stay at the Northern Studies Centre, guests can expect to spot polar bears, arctic foxes, hares, and owls, get a bird’s eye view on helicopter tours, set off on guided hikes, and participate in beading or dog sledding sessions. Each stay includes food, lodging, and excursions for $4,400 per person, and the money goes toward funding research and conservation. Think of it as an all-inclusive with a cause.

If you want to stay among actual polar bear dens, Wat’chee Expeditions is a two-hour train ride from Churchill. In this lodge, you can see moms and cubs emerge from their snowy shelters in late February through March. The owners serve traditional Indigenous food of caribou, ptarmigan, and bannock bread, and offer guided excursions into neighboring Wapusk National Park.

Any traveler to Churchill will likely find themselves booking at least one night in Winnipeg on either end of their journey. That night should be booked at the Wyndham Garden Ode Akiing, which is owned and operated by the Long Plain First Nation and conveniently located near the airport. The door of the entrance faces east for sunrise (as is traditional for tipis), and the hallways inside are curved to represent the circle of life.

Churchill, Canada train station
Photo courtesy of Travel Manitoba

What to know before you go to Churchill

Best times of the year to visit

"I don't think I could breathe without snow," says Georgina Berg, a knowledge keeper of the Swampy Cree Nation who gives cultural tours at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre. That makes sense for a place that sees snow nearly nine months of the year. So unless you come between the end of June and the end of September, it’s best to make like the locals and embrace the cold.

Winter is truly a special time to come to such extreme northern lands. There’s something magical about a place so cold that the snow sparkles even at night, looking like literal glitter piled on the ground and drifting from the sky. Snow storms in a place this flat can have a disembodying effect, like walking into an endless white-out. And then there are arctic mirages, which look like the wavy air often associated with deserts; the cold here has all kinds of tricks to play on your brain.

November is when the greatest number of polar bears come out. That’s when the bay starts to freeze and bears impatiently stand by, awaiting the prey to be found across the ice. Sightings at this time are pretty much guaranteed. When you’re not hunting the hunters, cold weather activities are practically endless, and the aurora borealis can be seen on cloudless nights. The northern lights are visible in the area 300 nights a year, but in winter you don’t have to stay up as late for the skies to get dark enough. January through March tends to be particularly clear.

Northern lights in Churchill, Canada
Photo courtesy of Travel Manitoba

Spring in Churchill is pretty slow, though a few people do ice floe tours in April, floating rafts between the icebergs to spot seals, and the Churchill Northern Studies Centre offers wildflower tours. But in summer, the area becomes lively again, with Beluga tours drawing tourists in July and August. "August is the best time of year, because you can see bears, belugas, and lights,” says Whitmore. “It's not freeze-your-face-off, and you can have bonfires outside."

Churchill time zone

Churchill falls under Central Standard Time (GMT-5). This translates to one hour behind New York’s Eastern Standard Time and two hours ahead of California’s Pacific Standard Time.

The weather and climate

Churchill’s climate is classified as subarctic, with long, cold winters and short, mild summers. Summer runs from June to mid-September, when temperatures average a high of 51 degrees Fahrenheit and a low of 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Winter runs from December to mid-March, when temperatures average a high of 3 degrees Fahrenheit and a low of -22 degrees Fahrenheit.

Those temperatures might sound daunting, but if you rent the right gear, you’ll be fine no matter the time of year. You know the weather is serious when you have to rent warm-enough clothes in order to stay alive, but it’s quite astounding how effective Inuit-style hoods and monster boots twice the size of your feet can be. You truly can be toasty warm in the tundra at -40 degrees Fahrenheit, annoyingly repeating the adage that “there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes” as much as your companions will allow.

The currency

Churchill uses the Canadian Dollar (CAD) and each dollar is worth 100 cents. As of November, 2023, $1 USD exchanges for $1.29 CAD.

Great White Bear Tours
Photo courtesy of Travel Manitoba

How to get around

As discussed, there are no roads into Churchill. Visitors can arrive by Via Rail Canada, which runs between Winnipeg and Churchill’s central station twice weekly. Each leg is about 48 hours long—two days and two nights—making for a lengthy but scenic ride. Flying in, however, cuts the trip down significantly. Year-round flights are available out of Winnipeg via more than a dozen private plane and helicopter operators. See the full list here.

If you’ve scheduled your adventure during the warmer months, walking is a viable option for getting around Churchill’s small downtown, as long as you’re both aware of and respectful toward the local wildlife. When the temperature drops, though, you’ll want some added protection—and we’re not just talking snowpants. One of the most popular choices for winter transport is the Tundra Buggy, a guided excursion courtesy of Frontiers North and other local purveyors that sees you comfortably inside a custom-built ATV fitted with thick off-road tires capable of traversing the area’s most rugged terrain. Renting a car is also a year-round option, with Tamarack Rentals being the go-to for vans and SUVs capable of lugging you and all your gear around town.

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Danielle Hallock is a former senior travel editor at Thrillist and a current senior editor at Atlas Obscura. She's from no place in particular and has a hard time sitting still.