Kuannit – Basalt Columns, Waterfalls and Arctic Lushness

With its volcanic past, Disko Island is unique with majestic basalt mountains, hot springs and lush valleys. It’s a great place to hike – also for children. The terrain is challenging and the weather unpredictable, but the scenery is incredibly beautiful.

After arriving on the Disko Line ferry from Ilulissat, we checked into the hotel in Qeqertarsuaq, the only town on the vast Disko Island. It’s mid-July 2023 and I’m travelling with my two sons (aged 10 and 13). The plan is to hike and camp for over a week. However, the first night will be spent in a hotel 😉

Disko Island offers a wealth of great hikes for all tastes – from short day hikes along marked trails to multi-day hikes in the rugged and deserted wilderness. Close to the town of Qeqertarsuaq there are several mountains to climb, and at the top of Lyngmark Mountain there is a glacier that you can dog sled on – in the middle of summer.

Hike to Kuannit

We got ready for our first hike, which will take us to Kuannit, a very special nature area about 4 kilometres east of Qeqertarsuaq. From the centre of town, we walked along the road towards the heliport and football stadium. Along the way we passed the town beach, Black Beach, which with its fine black sand invites you to take a refreshing dip. However, we didn’t make it that day, but we did later in the week.

Click on the map for a larger map. The hiking trail to Kuannit is marked in red. The background map is from dataforsyningen.dk.

About the hike

From Qeqertarsarsuaq to Kuannit and back
Distance round trip: 8 km
Duration: 3-4 hours (walking time without breaks)
Highest point: approx. 80 m
Lowest point: 0 m
Difficulty: Easy

This hike goes from the town of Qeqertarsuaq on Disko Island to the beautiful Kuannit area known for its volcanic basalt columns, hot springs and large green Angelica.

The hike follows well-trodden paths in gentle mountain terrain. The route is marked with yellow dots.

Woolly Lousewort. Kuannit.

We walked past the small heliport and the new football stadium with the bright green synthetic grass field. We had to take the opportunity to play some football. It’s hard to imagine a more beautiful place to play football than here on the edge of the great iceberg-filled Disko Bay with the red-brown basalt mountains towering behind.

Then we reached the Kuussuaq River, which is also called Røde Elv (Red River) in Danish. On the west side there is a campsite and a few primitive shelters with toilets. This is where we pitched our tent most of the days while we were on Disko.

The Kuussuaq River is a dramatic river that drains the large glaciers of the highlands. It got its Danish name from the reddish-brown sediment it carries, which can be seen from the mountain tops as a long, large tail that extends far out into Disko Bay.

The Big Waterfall

We crossed the Kuussuaq River over a wooden bridge and followed the red marks close to the river towards Qorlortorsuaq, “the big waterfall”. After fifteen minutes we reached the fall, or rather the falls, as there are several, small and large. There was a spot where we stood on the edge of the cliff and really felt the rush in our stomachs (and a little fear of heights) as we looked down at the huge masses of water pouring down the gorges.

We then returned the same way back to the trail towards Kuannit, which is marked with yellow dots. We headed east towards Kuannit along the trodden path. The weather was somewhat unstable and alternated between fog and drizzling rain, but also with occasional sunshine.

Just over halfway towards Kuannit we spotted the “Elephant”. It’s a funny rock formation down by the coast that really looks like an elephant drinking from the water with its thick trunk.

Basalt Columns in Kuannit

A natural “gateway” led us into Kuannit, a nature area in a class of its own. On the steeply sloping and lush terrain, we saw one impressive rock formation after another. All created by the red-glowing lava flows of the past, which, during the rapid cooling of the sea water, have become quirky pentagonal and hexagonal basalt columns.

The beautiful rock structures invited closer inspection, and the boys got to do a lot of climbing on the basalt columns. It was both challenging and mind-expanding to move around on 50 million-year-old solidified lava. While in Kuannit, be sure to stick to the foot paths or walk on solid rock to protect the sensitive vegetation and the in places fragile basalt.

There are several thermal springs in Kuannit, creating small and large streams and waterfalls that make the area particularly green and lush. The water gives life to many flowers, mosses and the large and edible Angelica plant. Kuannit also means “angelica” in Greenlandic. Every summer, the locals collect angelica, which is eaten raw as a snack or used in Greenlandic cooking. However, when we were there, the angelica plants were still small.

Bathing in the hot springs on Disko Island is not possible, and they are rarely more than a few degrees warm, but that’s enough to keep them from freezing in winter. On the rock walls of Kuannit towards the coast, several metres high icicles and “ice cathedrals” are formed in winter by the water from the springs.

While we were in Kuannit, we also saw many Black Guillemots, which is a beautiful black seabird with white wing patches and bright red legs. They had nests in the rock walls and we saw them flying back and forth to the nests, probably carrying food for the young. The black guillemot has specialised in catching benthic organisms and use both wings and feet to swim.

The day ended with us finding a good spot in the terrain a short distance from Kuannit where we pitched the tent. It was good that we had brought a trangia with us so we could cook a hot dinner while enjoying the view of the sea. However, it started to rain, so we had to sit inside the tent. The next day we planned to climb Skarvefjeld, if the weather isn’t too bad.

Qorlortorsuaq, the “big waterfall” on the Kuussuaq, the “big river”.

The Volcanic Past of Disko Island

Geologically, Disko Island is much younger and very different from mainland Greenland, where the bedrock is billions of years old. The island was formed by volcanic activity “only” 50-60 million years ago.

Typical of the volcanic past are the many steep basalt mountains that are layered with alternating dark and light bands of different sedimentary and volcanic rocks, often with wide cones of scree in front due to erosion over millions of years.

The volcanic past can also be traced in the island’s many hot springs, but there is no need to fear an imminent volcanic eruption as it has been several million years since the last one occurred. The island is interesting in many ways, not least because of its varied flora. The island is located on the border between Low Arctic and High Arctic, and together with the presence of hot springs, this results in a richer flora compared to other locations at the same latitude. For example, orchids and the edible Angelica thrive on the island.

Disko Island has its own ice cap, with several large glaciers in the high and inaccessible interior. The largest is called Sermersuaq, the “Great Glacier”, stretching 70-80 km in a north-south direction.

Source: Nature Guide Greenland

Swimming in the 2 °C warm water at the Black Beach, Qeqertarsuaq.

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