The distance between the northernmost Atlasov Island and the southernmost Habomai Islands is about 1,200 km. Heading down from north to south, the climate shifts from Arctic to moderate. The local nature and landscapes of the islands are fantastic: their volcanoes, waterfalls and hot springs will amaze even an avid traveller.
Southern Kuril Islands
The Southern Kuril Islands are the most accessible in the archipelago in terms of transportation. Iturup, Kunashir and Shikotan have regular traffic with Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. Motor ships cruise between the islands and Sakhalin. Additionally, Iturup and Kunashir have airfields. The flora and fauna on these islands is richer than that of the Northern and Middle Kuril Islands.
Of all the Kuril Islands, it is the largest (200 km in length, from 7 to 27 km in width). It is notable, above all, for its volcanoes: there are almost two dozen of them on the island, 9¬ of which are active. The highest of the island's volcanoes is Stokap (1,634 m).
Among Iturup’s hallmarks are its white cliffs, stretching several kilometres.
Iturup boasts one of the highest waterfalls in Russia — Ilya Muromets (141 m).
The island's main landmark is Cape Stolbchaty, which consists of numerous basalt pillars.
Tourists are also attracted by the fumarole field surrounding the Mendeleev Volcano.
Shikotan is the largest island of the Lesser Kuril Chain. The island's main tourist attraction is Cape Krai Sveta (Edge of the World), which is a small piece of land, with cliffs up to 50 m in height descending abruptly into the Pacific Ocean. There are many beautiful rocky bays on the island.
Situated north of Iturup, Urup is the fourth largest island of the archipelago. The island is a chain of volcanic ridges, stretching over a distance of 116 km. The Berg Volcano (9,80 m) is still active. Urup is notable for its several high-altitude lakes, the largest of which, lake Vysokoye, is located 1,016 m above sea level. In addition, there are waterfalls, with the largest one reaching 75 m in height. There are many tiny satellite islands and sea stacks off the coast of Urup.
The Japanese used to call this island Rakkoshima (Sea Otter Island). Apart from sea otters, you can also find foxes, seals, and sea lions here. That being said, there are no bears on the island.
Northern Kuril Islands
Getting to the Northern Kuril Islands is more difficult. Although they are located in the Sakhalin Region, the largest island of the group, Paramushir, has got regular passenger traffic only with Kamchatka. Most islands of the Northern Kurils can be reached only by sea, by overcoming strong winds and high waves. But the experience is definitely worth it! The flora and fauna here are richer than on the Middle Kuril Islands, but it is still not as diverse as that of the Southern Kurils.
Paramushir, the second largest island of the archipelago, stretches over 120 km in length and reaches 30 km in width. The island houses Ebeko, one of the most active volcanoes of the Kuril chain (1,556 m). The volcano steams regularly. There is a fumarole field on its slope, the name of which, Revushiye Fumoroly (Roaring Fumorales), speaks for itself. Several large waterfalls are situated on the Pacific coast of Paramushir.
Eleven kilometres off the coast of Paramushir lies Shumshu, the northernmost island of the Kuril chain. The island is not of volcanic origin, but is nonetheless covered with a thick layer of ash from the neighbouring volcanoes of the Kurils and Kamchatka.
Firing points and other Japanese defence structures still remain here from World War II. Bears and foxes have found homes in these fortifications. Meanwhile, seals, sea lions and sea otters inhabit the island's coast.
East of Shumshu and west of Paramushir rises the silhouette of Alaid (2,339 m).
It is the highest and one of the most beautiful active volcanoes of the Kuril Islands.
Alaid covers the entire area of Atlasov Island, located 70 km off the coast of Kamchatka and 30 km from Paramushir. The volcano's base is 12–17 km in diameter.
Atlasov is the highest island of Russia.
According to one legend, Alaid used to be situated on the south of the Kamchatka Peninsula, but the giant volcano was obscuring the sunlight, so the other mountains exiled it (according to another version, the volcano was exiled out of envy for its beauty). Since then, the volcanic island has been alone, surrounded by the cold waters of the Sea of Okhotsk. However, according to local legends, Alaid has left its heart on Kamchatka, in Kuril Lake.
Alaid is mentioned in the Strugatsky brothers' sci-fi story The White Cone of the Alaid (the story takes place on the island of Shumshu).
To the south of Paramushir lies the island of Onekotan, the second largest island of the northern Kuril group, 43 km in length, and width ranging from 11 to 17 km. There are active volcanoes on the island: Nemo in the north (1,019 m) and Krenitsyna in the south (1,324 m).
The latter is truly a unique creation of nature.
According to those who have managed to get there, it is arguably the most beautiful volcano in the world.
The volcano's caldera is flooded with water and forms a lake, named Koltsevoye (Ring) for its distinctive shape. The lake has a circumference of about 15 km, and its depth reaches 369 m. A volcanic cone, Krenitsyn peak, rises in the middle of the lake.
The all-time highest wind speed of the entire Kuril archipelago (230 km / h) was recorded on the island. Fogs are frequent on the island. The coast is inhabited by seals and sea lions.
Middle Kuril Islands
Unlike the Southern and Northern Kurils, the Middle Kuril Islands had no contact with the mainland, which is why its terrestrial flora and fauna are rather poor. However, this is compensated by the island's diverse semi-aquatic world. The waters surrounding the Middle Kuril Islands do not freeze. There are no severe frosts here. In addition, the islands of this group will be especially interesting to history enthusiasts.
South of Onekotan lies one of the most mysterious islands of the Kurils – Matua.
This piece of land, just over 11 km in length and 6.4 km in width, holds many mysteries of World War II.
Sarychev Volcano (1,446 m), one of the most active volcanoes of the region, is located on this island. According to one version, Matua means "the jaws of Hell" in Ainu. Compared to the other islands, the climate here is cool, with strong winds and heavy rainfall. Much of the year, the island is covered with fog and clouds.
Nevertheless, the Japanese actively used this island as a naval base during World War II. And, to this day, scientists still cannot say why they needed to reinforce an island almost entirely lost in the ocean.
Soviet soldiers landed on Matua on August 27, 1945, almost two weeks after the surrender of Japan. Much to their surprise, there was no resistance. Moreover, they found almost no heavy military equipment. It was obvious that the Japanese soldiers had managed to destroy or hide the most valuable items, but researchers still do not know exactly how it was done. A runway, where aircraft could take off with winds blowing from different directions, still remains on the island. Some people believe that part of Matua's infrastructure is hidden underground.
Further south lies the island of Simushir, which, when translated from Ainu, means "big island" (the island is 59 km in length and 4 to 15 km in width). It is notable for having six volcanoes on its territory, half of which are still active: namely, Prevo (1,360 m), Zavaritsky (625 m) and Goryashchaya Sopka (873 m). The caldera of Zavaritsky volcano is partially filled with lake Biryuzovoye, which has a high sulfur content.
Simushir has the highest annual rainfall of all the Kurils. Most of the summer, the island is shrouded in fog, which gets dispersed by heavy rains in September and October. The winds here are strong and gusty, and tsunamis are not unheard of.
The northern part of the island houses the deepwater Brouton Bay, which is a water-filled caldera with a depth of almost 250 m. It was used by the Soviet military as a base for ships and submarines. The island's coast is home to sea lions, sea otters and seals. Orcas, bowhead whales, Southern right whales, North Pacific right whales, humpback whales and blue whales are frequent guests in the island's waters.