Shackleton’s Route, South Georgia Island, South Atlantic/Antarctica

Photograph by Ralph Lee Hopkins, National Geographic
Photograph by Ralph Lee Hopkins, National Geographic

Best For: Explorers; history buffs; travelers already on guided Antarctic journeys

Distance: 22 miles from King Haakon Bay to Stromness, including glacier travel

Stuck in the pack ice of the Weddell Sea for more than nine months in 1915, Ernest Shackleton and his men abandoned their ship, The Endurance. After floating in a camp on the ice and then taking to their lifeboats, captain and crew ended up on Elephant Island just off the Antarctic mainland. From there, they had to engineer their own rescue, jerry-rigging a lifeboat so that Shackleton and five of his crew could cross 800 miles of the roughest seas on the planet and land at a whaling station on South Georgia Island. The only problem? A storm beached the boat on the opposite side of the island from the station, meaning three of the party had to cross the mountains and glaciers to finally reach help. They succeeded, putting nails through their boots for crampons and using a carpenter’s adze as an ice axe.

Hiking part of Shackleton’s route across South Georgia is a true epic, crossing over unpredictable, crevasse-covered glaciers. On the black-sand beaches thousands of penguins and elephant seals squawk in their nesting grounds. It’s a bird-watcher’s paradise—countless species breed along the route, including the light-mantled sooty albatross, giant petrel, and arctic tern. The traverse of South Georgia ends in the same spot where Shackleton and his crew finally ended their epic, at Stromness, which is now abandoned but filled with gentoo penguins.

When to Go: The Antarctic summer runs from December 20 to March 20 and offers the best window of weather. Shackleton made the crossing in May.

Shortcut: You can cut out the glacier travel and hike 3.4 miles, a half-day trip from Fortuna Bay to Stromness. This was the last leg of Shackleton’s trip across the island and is accessed by many commercial tour operators, who dub it the “Shackleton Walk.”

Insider Tip: You will most likely need the services of an outfitter, as the marine navigation is perilous. It’s also expensive, if not impossible, to stay on the island. But so many people want to hike “Shackleton Walk” that the British government has limited party sizes to a hundred—so you may not be alone.