Alaska Bucket List: Bear Viewing
It’s hard to shake the image once you’ve seen it, usually on a TV special or in a magazine: giant grizzlies standing mid-thigh in a churning river, scooping salmon by the pawfull to feed themselves or their adorable cubs waiting onshore. There are few wildlife viewing opportunities more thrilling and special than watching wild bears in their natural habitat, and for many Alaska visitors, it’s high on their bucket list of must-see phenomena in the state.
Alaska is home to about 98 percent of the U.S. population of wild bears, so you might think seeing them doesn’t require a lot of thought or advanced planning. While it’s true that bears are found statewide and in all sorts of habitats, there are a few tips and pointers to keep in mind if seeing bears is on your Alaska list.
First of all, timing is everything. Bears follow their food source, and for most Alaska bears, their favored food source is salmon. Salmon runs occur at different times during the summer depending on the salmon species and river or stream, so knowing when the fish are running and where is important information. Virtually any time you visit the state during the summer, you can find bears somewhere.
Another consideration is species – do you want to see black bears, brown bears or grizzlies? Black bears inhabit Alaska’s heavily forested regions, and although they’re called black bears, their coloration ranges from cinnamon brown to a gray-blue shade that distinguishes the rare and mystical “glacier bear,” a variety of black bear. Technically, brown bears and grizzlies are classified as the same species but there are some very obvious distinctions between them. Brown bears, including the legendary Kodiak brown bears, live along Alaska’s southern coast and feast primarily on salmon. Their high-quality diet means they can wind up growing quite a big larger than “grizzlies,” which are found away from the coasts and subsist mainly on berries, small mammals like squirrels and voles, and tundra grasses. There are a few special bear-viewing areas in the Inside Passage region where you can see both brown and black bears together, like Anan Wildlife Observatory near Wrangell or Fish Creek Bear Viewing Area, which is part of Misty Fjords National Monument and accessible from Ketchikan, but for the most part, black and brown bears keep their distance from one another, so you should plan your bear viewing excursion with species in mind.
Next, be sure to be safe! Many of Alaska’s bear viewing areas are carefully managed to minimize encounters between bears and visitors. But bears don’t confine themselves to park boundaries, and encounters are possible anywhere – on trails, along roadways or on the banks of a river. For the most part, bears will avoid humans if they know you’re there, so making plenty of noise by talking, singing or carrying bear bells or other noisemakers is key to safety in bear country. Complete bear safety information is available through the Alaska Department of Fish & Game.
Finally, think about your trip’s itinerary and the towns you’ll be visiting to determine where your best bear-viewing opportunities lie. In most parts of the state, there’s a bear-viewing opportunity not far away. Read on for a regional breakdown of the major bear viewing areas in Alaska.
Southwest Alaska features some of the state’s most legendary bear viewing. Kodiak Island is home to the largest subspecies of brown bear, with males ranging from 600 to more than 1,000 pounds. Thousands of these giant bears live in the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, which makes up about two-thirds of Kodiak Island. Guided trips are available from the city of Kodiak, and several backcountry lodges also offer access to unparalleled bear viewing within the refuge. Not far away on the mainland, Katmai National Park and Preserve is another popular and rewarding place to go looking for bears. Accessible only by air, visitors can access the area as part of a day trip from Homer, Kodiak or Anchorage or on a multi-day stay in camping areas or at one of a small number of lodges. Dozens of bears position themselves at the top of Brooks Falls to catch salmon as they head up the Brooks River to spawn, making the viewing platforms in this area among the most popular in Alaska. Bears are often within 50 feet of visitors, but show little interest in humans due to the abundance of fish. Careful management of the Brooks Falls area by National Park Service rangers keeps things safe and there has never been at attack here despite the incredibly close proximity.
In Southcentral Alaska, popular sites include the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary and Lake Clark National Park and Preserve. The State of Alaska designated McNeil River as a state game sanctuary to protect the world’s largest concentration of brown bears, which gather to – you guessed it – feast on salmon in the McNeil River. As many as 74 brown bears have been observed at one time near the viewing area at the sanctuary. Several commercial air taxis offer service to the area from Anchorage, Kenai/Soldotna, Homer and King Salmon. Permits are required. Bear viewing at Lake Clark National Park and Preserve consists of a floatplane landing on the lake, whereupon guides take guests by boat to lakeside locations where bears feed on salmon.
In addition to Anan Wildlife Observatory and Fish Creek Bear Viewing Area, the Inside Passage offers several other popular bear viewing locales. Admiralty Island’s Pack Creek Brown Bear Viewing Area is one of the state’s most well known places to watch brown bears due to the sheer numbers – the 1,600 bears on Admiralty Island outnumber the island’s human residents nearly three to one. At Pack Creek, visitors can watch bears feasting on salmon at the mouth of the creek or take a one-mile hike through the forest to observe them from a creek-side observation tower. U.S. Forest Service naturalists are on hand to explain bear behavior and ensure guest safety. Guides in Juneau, just 30 miles away, lead small groups to Pack Creek throughout the summer. Bear viewing is also possible near Haines, at the northern end of the Inside Passage. Chilkoot Lake State Recreation Site is just a few miles from town, and is known as a bear-viewing hot spot throughout most of the summer thanks to the four different salmon runs that occur in the Chilkoot River, which empties into the lake. The state-managed recreation site features camping and other public facilities.
In the Interior, the most popular place for bear viewing is popular for wildlife viewing of all varieties. Denali National Park and Preserve is more than 6 million acres of undisturbed wildlife habitat, and the daily bus tours into the park are a great way to see the grizzly bears of Alaska’s inland regions. Private vehicles aren’t allowed past mile 15 of the one and only road leading into the park, but the wilderness bus tours enjoy full access to the 92-mile park road. Tours leave early in the morning, which is the best time to see animals, and guests frequently see grizzlies, caribou, moose, fox, lynx, owls, eagles and occasionally even wolves along with dozens of other birds and small mammals.
Plan your bear viewing experience here.