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Polar Route, Greenland

See sheer-sided fjords, calving glaciers, and the northern hemisphere's largest ice sheet.

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You don’t need to be a mathematician to understand these numbers: The world’s largest island is three times the size of Texas, yet it has fewer residents than Waco. Which means backcountry hikers will feel the way Greenland explorers have always felt: like they’re the first ones here. Deeply carved fjords bite into the coastline; mile-thick glaciers calve 10-story icebergs into the ocean; and reindeer and prehistoric-looking musk oxen graze on sedges. And with global warming melting the permafrost and radically–and rapidly–changing this Arctic landscape, the time to see it is now. Follow this plan for a complete Greenland adventure–starting with this unknown trek, which until recently was used chiefly as a winter route for snowmobilers.

The 100-mile Polar Route links Kangerlussuaq, a former U.S. military base, with Sisimiut, the world’s northernmost port that remains ice-free year-round. (And no, you don’t need a dog sled or down suit to hike the Polar Route in summer.) Start trekking from baggage claim in Kangerlussuaq, or get a ride (hitch or taxi) 10 miles up the road to Kellyville, population 8. From there, the Polar Route crosses fields of cotton grass and fragrant porcini mushrooms, soggy permafrost, and a hummocky prairie landscape broken by mile-high granite cliffs. In some streams, the Arctic char are so fat and plentiful you’ll be tempted to fish with your hands. The route, which DIY trekkers can easily follow, is marked with cairns and takes about 10 days to hike. It traces chains of glacial lakes (about 10 miles in, paddle Amitsorsuaq Lake with the complementary canoes left there). At the end of summer, you’ll walk through an ankle-high mat of brilliant red and yellow foliage as the leaves of tundra-loving berry plants turn color. The trek’s hut network ranges from small wooden cabins to large, heated dwellings; amazingly, hikers are so few and far between that the huts cost nothing and require no reservations.

A trip to Greenland would be incomplete without a glimpse of the thick polar ice sheet that covers most of the island. Explore it from Ilulissat, where you can access the Icefjord, a 30-mile swath of ice-choked water at the head of a calving glacier. Dayhike along the rocky coast of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, where you’ll see icebergs bobbing in the sea and a giant glacial tongue crumbling into the water. En route, you’ll come across sod homes and burial sites with visible human skulls; hire a local guide in Ilulissat and you might find that his ancestors are among them. To complete the icecap adventure, get a boat ride from Ilulissat north 37 miles to Eqip Sermia Glacier (boats run every few days in the summer; book space and cabins at Icecamp Eqi through Ilulissat Travel, ilulissattravel.gl). Look for whales and seals along the way, and ask the captain to drop you at the weathered wooden hut of 1940s French explorer Paul Emile Victor. Follow Victor’s abandoned sledge road, now a gravel path, on a dayhike across a moraine to the gently undulating Greenlandic Icecap (get a local map at the Icecamp Eqi tourist cabins).

Life-list moment: Hike around the Caribbean-blue bay and follow an unmarked path along the edge of the glacier, through fields of blueberries in late summer, and listen to what global warming sounds like: the thunderous crack of ice chunks falling into the sea.

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