How to Check Antarctica Off Your Bucket List

Want to visit the frozen, final frontier in the south? Here's what you need to know.

Many legendary explorers had one thing in common: trailblazing.

While Antarctica has been open for tourism in the last hundred years, before then it was a treacherous journey that very few ever made. With modern tech and conveniences, though, more and more travelers are venturing out to the coldest, most southern continent. The journey isn't impossible and, for many, the frozen continent is a sacred place. 

"Even after all these years I still love it," said Anthony Powell, director and star of "A Year on Ice" documentary. "It truly is the last pristine wilderness left on the planet. There are places where no human has ever set foot. The air is incredibly crisp and clean, the skies are clear and free of light pollution, letting you see more stars than you can imagine."

Penguins standing in a group
Summer cruising in Antarctica allows for prime penguin viewing. (©Antarctica Bound/Flickr, Creative Commons)

Powell spends the freezing winters in Antarctica, helping the stations maintain activity through the long, dark period of the year. He's helped with the telecommunications around the area for more than a dozen years. 

"Stepping off the plane for the first time is a bit like walking up to the edge of the Grand Canyon for the first time," said Powell. "It is hard to convey the sense of scale. Even after spending a big part of my time there traveling all around in helicopters to work on field communications, I know I have still only seen a tiny fraction of it all."

While winter travel to the frozen south isn't for everyone, summer travel in the area is possible with enough wit, determination and a few smart tips.

Man photographs glacier
Photographing Barne Glacier in Antarctica. (©Anthony Powell)

When to Visit Antarctica

The Southern Hemisphere enjoys its summer from mid-November to March. While the word "summer" usually conjures images of high temps, shorts and flip flops, for those in Antarctica it means getting to look forward to high temperatures in the 30 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit range. While no one country owns Antarctica, the countries that participate in the Antarctic Treaty require that visitors have permission, typically secured through a tour guide.

Flights in Antarctica are limited to weather-permitting landings, so anyone on the continent in mid-March through the coming months is there to stay through the cold, dark winter as a scientist or layman in one of the stations. While the summer months in Antarctica mean higher temperatures, it also means that the sun doesn't set for four months. During 24 hours, travelers can watch the sun trace a seemingly science fiction path through the sky, never quite dipping down under the horizon.

Cruise ship in Lemaire Channel, Antarctica
The Enigma XK—owned by EYOS Expeditions—cruises through the Lemaire Channel in Antarctica. (Courtesy EYOS Expeditions)

How to Get to Antarctica

The easiest—and only—way to visit Antarctica during the warmer summer months is by tour. There are dozens of ways to explore the area including adrenaline sport, sailing and cruising, to name a few. Many cruises and tours leave out of Ushuaia, Argentina, a resort town on an archipelago at the southernmost tip of South America. Here are a selection of the dozens of adventuring offerings for travelers who want to head to Antarctica:

Antarctic-Logistics: This company offers high-adrenaline skiing and hiking tours across the continent, plowing through previously untouched powder that criss-crosses over unexplored sections of Antarctica. Choose between trips based on skill level and intensity. Many of Antarctic-Logistics' trips are between one and two weeks long, with some trips available that last several months.

EYOS Expeditions: Charter a yacht to sail through the Antarctic Peninsula, the Falkland Islands and around South Georgia island. Offered primarily during the 24-hour sunlight summer months, EYOS Expeditions offers cruises during the best time of year to see penguins, seals and whales. Travelers fly from Cape Horn to meet the yacht in the Antarctic Peninsula.

Abercrombie & Kent: This luxurious cruise offers rooms that each have a private balcony in addition to personal butler service, fine-dining restaurants and entertainment onboard with guided excursions led throughout Antarctica daily. 

Penguins and photography
Curious penguins approach Powell as he films. (©Anthony Powell)

Things to Do in Antarctica

While the weather outside is frightful, there are no end of things to do and see in Antarctica.

"Antarctica is a place of extremes," said Devon McDiarmid, expedition leader for Antarctic-Logistics. "So, people are not coming for a normal holiday or a normal expedition and Antarctica provides that environment, extremes and challenges that people can return from with a true feeling of accomplishment."

McDiarmid leads ski expeditions that last for several days, but said that participants also have time to pursue activities like fat biking, downhill skiing, climbing local hills and more before, during or after the expedition.

Adventure sports are all the rage in this area, as they have been for nearly a hundred years. Cross-continent skiing is a popular pastime, along with hiking, outdoor camping and sledding. Photography is a less-extreme alternative to getting outside and enjoying the wilderness in addition to kayaking. 

Polar Plunge participants in Antarctica
Polar plunging is also a popular activity in Antarctica for adventurous travelers who want extra bragging rights. (©Murray Foubister/Flickr, Creative Commons)

A rite of passage in Antarctic expeditions is the polar plunge that many cruise lines and tour guides offer. Many plunges happen during a visit to Deception Island and some cruise ships offer icy dips off the side of the vessel. The plunge is just that: A quick plunge, only seconds long, into the Arctic waters is all that are advised as the water is cold enough to start hypothermia. Those who take the daring dip are ushered nearly immediately back to their ships to warm up.

Can't-Miss Arctic Attractions and Islands

"I have been fortunate enough to have visited Antarctica 10 times over the last 16 years," McDiarmid said. "What sticks out in my mind besides the people you meet and the sites I've seen [...] is the general feeling of awe that Antarctica never fails to greet me with and leave me with."

Look closely in Lemare Channel and there may be a whale or two to spot from the deck. (©Brittany/Flickr, Creative Commons)

Lemaire Channel

The Lemaire Channel is a prime destination for whale spotting and glacier photography. This steep-sided river is one of the most photogenic in Antarctica, between the Arctic Peninsula and Booth Island. Whale watching is popular during the migratory period—summer to fall months on the southern hemisphere—in addition to spotting other wildlife in the freezing waters.

Deception Island

This desolate, deserted island is full of dark history. Serving as a whaling station until the 1930s, this volcanic island in the Shetland Islands chain was the base for whale hunters to strip and boil whale blubber and fat. Now base camp buildings and giant, metal vats used to boil the whale fat stand rusting in a spooky silence alongside the largest graveyard in Antarctica, where whalers are buried. The last time the volcano erupted on the island was in 1969, destroying part of the ruined base camp.  

Deception Island (©Christopher Michel/Flickr, Creative Commons)

Port Lockroy: Historic Site and Post Office

What could be more delightful than a receiving a postcard mailed from the bottom of the world? Maybe a tour of the first British base camp—aptly named Base A. Nestled into a harbor on the coast of Wiencke Island, Port Lockroy has served as a post office since 2006 and a living museum protected under the Antarctic Treaty since 1994. 

Shackleton's and Scott's Huts

See the wood-constructed huts that housed Ernest Shackleton and Robert Falcon Scott nearly 100 years after the adventurers led scouting missions through Antarctica. The huts remain the way that Shackleton and Scott had decorated—if you can call it that—and furnished them, including boxes of booze buried underneath the tents. While those libations were discovered and excavated, nearly everything else in the huts has been carefully preserved.