✍️: Erin 📸: Jan & Erin
Snow-capped volcanoes abruptly rise from a thick evergreen forest as we fly into the Kamchatka Peninsula. Framed by today’s rare sapphire-blue sky, the forest below eventually falls into the Pacific Ocean, save for a few islands in the bay.
I’m awestruck. My camera lay abandoned on the middle seat for several minutes before I suddenly remember to reach for it, fumbling with one hand because my gaze is glued to the window.
Here, in the wilderness of Russia’s eastern edge — nine time zones away from Moscow but only five from Los Angeles — the landscape is rugged and desolate. That adds to allure but also to the travel costs. A budget traveler’s destination this is not, but a mountain lover’s destination it is.
Russia’s Far East
Travelers and researchers are drawn to Kamchatka for the same reasons: Nearly three dozen active volcanoes, hot springs that billow steam from mountainsides, and rivers filled with salmon and trout, along with pursuing bears.
But even the few Russians we met in South Korea gave us quizzical looks when we said our next destination was Kamchatka. “Siberia,” they’d say, often as a question. No, even east of Siberia.
Hardly anyone we knew had heard of Kamchatka when we started planning our trip, aside from a handful of guys who played RISK growing up. That’s how Jan discovered it. Kamchatka is a key military location in the board game — and in reality — in part because it’s just north of Japan and a hop west of Alaska.
The peninsula was closed to all visitors during the Cold War, so the landscape was largely left alone for decades.
The result is few roads or people outside the capital city (it’s a mouthful): Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, where most tours and tour agencies are based. The city itself is quite drab, dominated by concrete Soviet-era buildings that look ripe for collapse. But the city is on a scenic bay that’s worth a stroll, especially to see the towering Lenin statue.
And definitely stop by the small but informative volcano museum, the Institute of Volcanology and Seismology. It’s one of the few places with English signage, and workers are excited about what they do. Plus, the museum’s Instagram feed is a visual haven for volcano enthusiasts.
The city is also surrounded by mountains, so it doesn’t take long to see what you came for.
Vast vistas of volcanic rock open up after driving only a couple hours’ out of the city in a 4×4 truck. The black, moon-like landscape goes on for miles, broken only by white snowfields and sprawling blue lakes.
Hillsides are summer-green from snow melt and peppered with wildflowers of orange, white, purple and yellow. Hot springs bubble out of the ground into puddles of sulfury goop. Along unmarked trails, steaming water trickles down moss-covered rocks into shallow riverbeds.
Steam hisses and billows from cracks in the rock underfoot, at times hiding the mountainside — and us — in rolling white fog.
Finding all of this, however, isn’t easy. It quickly became clear why many visitors spend several thousand dollars (U.S.) on tours spanning at least 10 days. The area is beautiful but difficult to navigate — off-road vehicles are a must, signs are few, and regulations are many.
Volcanoes and fog-triggering detours
We booked a two-day hiking tour a few days after arriving in Yelizovo, the closest town to Kamchatka’s airport but about a 40-minute bus ride north of the capital. (Finding the trip wasn’t easy; more on that and some tips later in this post.)
We got picked up by our chivalrous guide, Sasha, and his 4×4 monster truck, which we soon learned was the only kind of vehicle that could get around the region in the summer, outside a helicopter.
The tour was supposed to include two long hikes, separated by a night of camping, to the top of separate volcanoes. Thick fog the first day prompted a detour to an area of hot springs, where I expected to find similarly frustrated hikers lounging in warm natural pools.
Not so! We instead hiked through marshlands with boiling mud and steam billowing out from rocky mountainsides. There are no warning signs or fenced off areas, just an assumption that hikers won’t step in boiling puddles or slip down a steep, muddy cliff. And it was awesome.
The weather cleared a bit the next day, so we made the steep hike up Gorely Volcano, one of the most active volcanoes in southern Kamchatka.
Barren landscape eventually gave way to a precariously narrow edge, from which we peered down into a cavernous void. The bottom was hidden by slowly circling fog. I sat down. I needed more than my feet holding me to the ground.
Then the fog lifted — and the hike down was stunning. Volcanic rock landscapes peppered with wildflowers, ice-blue lakes and snowfields. The vastness was silence inducing.
So we sat, on the edge of sharp rocks, to just watch and feel the stillness all around us.
Finding a tour (or just a map)
If you’re not on a pricey tour, it’s difficult to get accurate information about visiting the region before landing in Kamchatka.
We’d hoped to hike on our own but soon discovered that was nearly impossible without hired help. I scoured travel and backpacking forums but couldn’t find anyone who’d been to Kamchatka without a pricey tour or research trip. I couldn’t even find a hiker-friendly map.
Most emails we sent to tour agencies about short trips went unreturned. Those that did respond never included a price or available dates. The agencies that had price quotes on their websites were only for long trips, many of which included helicopter legs and started at $5,000 — not including flights or visas. (The Russian visa and invite-letter process is another pricey headache; Lonely Planet has a good rundown here.)
We initially thought we’d missed something obvious. How could a place so enticing to backpackers be so expensive, and how could so little information be available? We felt better after meeting a well-traveled couple from Moscow and a pair of Swedish hikers who’d repeatedly been to Russia — they had the same problems we did.
So it seems that the region hasn’t quite adjusted to a foreign clientele without especially deep pockets. The only way to experience the region on your own is if you really know what you’re doing in the outdoors or have an experienced guide, which (again) is pricey.
Kamchatka on a (moderate) budget
But if you’re like us and looking to visit Kamchatka somewhat on your own, here are our recommendations and tips. Learn from our mistakes (and our photos of local maps, which we couldn’t find online):
1.) First stop: Tourism Center
Your first stop should be the Tourist Information Center in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky (address is Naberezhnaya Ulitsa, 30). It’s a wealth of information on local tours and staffed with helpful English-speaking workers. They can call tour agencies and book trips for you.
The prices they quoted us weren’t more than what we found from local tour agencies. But keep all receipts, especially if you pay in cash. This is where we booked our tour, for $285 per person, with Red Rivers Tour Company.
2.) Register as foreign guests
Make sure your hotel or hostel registers foreign guests. None of the budget-friendly hotels or hostels we found would do so in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky — and none was upfront about it. They took our money and reservation, then quietly said they wouldn’t register us when we called to confirm (with help from a fluent Russian speaker) or after we arrived.
If this happens to you, and you’re not willing to risk it, fight it through the booking site. We got our money back after several back-and-forth emails with booking.com. But we ended up paying more than triple what we’d budgeted after the only hotel we could find that would register us was among the priciest in town.
However, we were never asked by Russian authorities to show our registration. When leaving the country on a bus, the only documents requested by border security were our passports and entry paper. So who knows how or if the rule is enforced. We didn’t want to chance it.
3.) Consider the costs (and planning hassles)
Kamchatka is expensive, so expect to drop some cash regardless of how you travel. I hate to say it, but a longer tour may be the way to go. Kamchatka is a bucket-list destination for fly-fishing, bear watching and volcano enthusiasts, so if that’s your motivation, budget travel may not work.
We lost a lot of time just trying to find information. Note that our two-day tour, where we slept in small tents, was $285 each.
We’d hoped to hike nearby volcanoes on own near Yelizovo, the town where we stayed closer to the airport. But you need a 4×4 vehicle to just get to trailheads, which aren’t well marked. We were told we could hire a driver at the tourist office at Yelizovo’s bus station, but the office was locked both times we went, and workers nearby didn’t offer help.
But if you do venture there on your own, maybe the photos below will help. Here’s the sign at a main turnoff for hiking treks and volcanoes in the area. It seemed that every 4×4 vehicle took this turnoff, parking to let some air out of their tires before navigating the upcoming dirt roads (which had water-filled potholes that could swallow small vehicles).
4.) Spend some time in Esso
A highlight of our trip was river rafting in Esso, a quaint town in central Kamchatka that’s about a nine-hour bus ride from Yelizovo. The trout practically begged to get caught. (Read Jan’s fun report here — it was a fun trip!)
Esso is also near what may be the easiest region in Kamchatka for self-guided hikes: Bystrinsky Nature Park. We gathered a bunch of information while there that, again, we couldn’t find before arriving, including maps, details about the bus route and getting the required hiking permits. Check out our full report here, which also includes information about the fantastic guesthouse where we stayed.
If you found this post at all helpful, please let us know! And if you go, let us know about your trip and if you have any updates on the information in our post.
We hope the region becomes a little bit easier to navigate for backpackers in the near future. It’s a stunning place, and backpackers — who love and protect the outdoors — seem to be the kind of travelers you’d want in such an area.