Things to Consider
- The Northwest Passage is only accessible for a few short months: July to September
- Average temperatures during this brief window are +4 to -4 °C (40 - 25 °F)
- Expedition cruises only operate in August & September once the narrow channels become ice free
- July & August are peak months for wildlife activity. By September wildlife is on the move
- September departures benefit from better chances of experiencing the Northern Lights
When is the best time to go?
There’s very good reason why the Northwest Passage is only open to visitors from July to September. These are the only months of the year when average temperatures are above freezing! And it's not until late summer that the ice has receded sufficiently to allow ships to navigate the narrow channels.
July marks the height of summer. It’s the warmest month of the year and these peak temperatures start to unlock the bays and waterways from their icy prison. The tundra is a profusion of wild flowers, while throughout the region there’s a frenzy of wildlife activity as all species make the most of the summer breeding season.
Hordes of migratory birds have returned to nest congregate on Prince Leopold and Bylot Islands, while both belugas and narwhals are starting to migrate deeper into the heart of the Northwest Passage as the receding ice allows, making for spectacular encounters at Cunningham Inlet on Somerset island, and along the ice floe edge.
The good news by August is that the receding ice allows the arrival of a small number of expedition ships, which provide the best means to explore the Northwest Passage. Days are still long - helping to maximise wildlife sightings - and temperatures comparatively warm, however the weather can change rapidly and it can snow anytime.
Opportunistic polar bears by August - who have been following the migrating narwhal and beluga - can be found around Somerset and Prince of Wales Islands. Plus, remaining pockets of ice can assist bear sightings.
Shorter days, slightly cooler weather and higher chances of snow mark a step change in the seasons and the onset of autumn. However, as the ice continues to melt through September it becomes easier to get to ice strewn locations, which were inaccessible earlier in the season. Plus, the longer nights increase the chances of seeing the Northern Lights.
Wildlife is still very much in the area, even though the majority of birds have now migrated south. September can provide excellent sightings - for example, 5 polar bears, 25 belugas and 12 feeding bowheads were recently sighted all on a single day.
Whether it’s for the wildlife, Northern Lights or to visit Inuit communities that you’re heading north, it’s well worth paying attention to the monthly nuances to get the most from your trip.
Most Popular Northwest Passage Trips
Traversing the heart of the Northwest Passage this compact trip focuses on the region’s fascinating history and wildlife. Planned visits to numerous locations linked to the Franklin expedition, narrated by onboard historians, combine with renowned wildlife hotspots such as Lancaster…
Northwest Passage weather
While these are the most benign months of the year weather-wise, it’s well worth being prepared with a range of clothing so you don’t get caught off guard. This is the High Arctic after all.
The weather and temperatures can change rapidly and it can snow anytime. While heavy rain is rare, light showers and mist are common and when the wind is from the north it can send temperatures plummeting.
Plan your trip
The Northwest Passage
For the explorer, there are few places evocative as the Northwest Passage. For centuries men sought a way through the ice; even today passage is not guaranteed. This is a true …
Getting to The Northwest Passage
The Northwest Passage, a beautiful and sparsely populated labyrinth of islands stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. Vast distances and limited transport means joining…
When to Visit The Northwest Passage
While the window of opportunity to explore the Northwest Passage each year is narrow, it's important to understand the nuances between these key months in terms of both wildlife …
Help Me Choose
We're all clear on where the Arctic is located and why we want to visit, but its vastness and the sheer variety of experiences on offer can be a real challenge when deciding where …