How to View Alaska's "Big 5" Wildlife
Alaska’s magnificent and diverse wildlife are undoubtedly one of the top reasons why visitors come to the 49th state. Locals and visitors alike marvel at seeing massive brown bears, large herds of caribou, breaching humpback whales, and agile Dall sheep. And, you don’t have to go too far to see Alaska’s amazing animals – moose can sometimes be seen wandering city streets, eagles soar overhead, and marine animals like whales, otters, and sea lions can be spotted right from the shoreline of many coastal communities.
While Alaska is home to hundreds of species of animals both large and small, most visitors are keen to see Alaska’s “Big 5”: bears, moose, caribou, Dall sheep, and wolves. Read on to learn more about how to see the "Big 5" and other amazing Alaska animals.
Three distinct species of bears can be found in Alaska: black bear, brown bear, and polar bear, including some unique sub-species: the Kodiak brown bear – one of the largest bears in the world only found on Kodiak Island – and the rare glacier bear – a subspecies of black bear that has silver-blue fur and lives in Alaska’s Inside Passage region.
While bears can be seen across almost the entire state, the best and safest way to see them is on a guided wildlife or bear viewing tour. Full-day and half-day bear viewing tours by plane, bus, or boat will take you to top bear viewing destinations in Alaska’s vast network of parks and public lands including Katmai National Park, Lake Clark National Park, Denali National Park, and Pack Creek Bear Viewing Area.
Guided tours allow you to access remote areas that you couldn’t access on your own, typically visiting salmon-rich streams or tidal flats where bears congregate to feed. If you aren't booking a bear-specific tour, keep an eye out for bears on almost every activity or tour on your Alaska adventure, from hiking to fishing to train and bus tours. Don’t forget that bears hibernate in winter, so you’ll want to plan your trip from May – September for the best chances of seeing them.
Around 200,000 moose live in Alaska and they are the most commonly seen of the “Big 5.” They can be found across most of the state but are most abundant in the Southcentral and Interior regions. If you’re visiting the Anchorage area, Kenai Peninsula, Mat-Su Valley, Copper River Valley, Denali National Park area, or the Fairbanks area, chances are pretty good that you are going to see a moose any time of year.
Bull moose are the most impressive to see, standing over six-and-a-half feet tall at the shoulder and weighing up to 1,600 pounds, with stately antlers spanning up to 6 feet wide. Baby moose, called calves, are born in early summer and are particularly endearing to see as they learn to walk on their long, spindly legs.
You don’t have to join a special tour or get a guide to see moose in Alaska. Simply keep your eyes peeled while hiking, driving, sightseeing, or even walking through town, with your best viewing opportunities in Southcentral and Interior Alaska.
Caribou are migratory species that can travel up to 50 miles per day. There are 32 distinct herds of caribou in Alaska, some numbering over 200,000 animals. The best chances for viewing large herds are on the tundra in Alaska’s Arctic and Interior regions, particularly in Gates of the Arctic National Park, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and Kobuk Valley National Park. These remote areas are only accessible by plane and most visitors explore them on multi-day guided or independent backcountry trips.
If backcountry adventures aren’t your thing, you can see smaller groups of caribou closer to the road system including the Denali, Dalton, and Steese Highways in Interior Alaska; the Glenn Highway - Tok Cutoff Road that travels through the Southcentral and Interior regions; and four small herds in the Kenai Peninsula. One of the best places to view caribou is Denali National Park, home to the Denali caribou herd numbering around 1,700 animals.
If you’re driving along the Seward Highway between Anchorage and Girdwood and see people in roadside pullouts looking up towards the mountains, they are more than likely watching Dall sheep. This scenic stretch of road, tucked between the Turnagain Arm and Chugach Mountains, is one of the best places to view these agile white animals.
Dall sheep are skilled at climbing steep, mountainous terrain, and it’s a thrill to watch them make their way across rocky cliffs and perch on steep hillsides. They can be seen in mountainous terrain in the Southcentral, Interior, and Arctic regions of the state, with good chances of seeing them in the Chugach National Forest, Brooks Range, Denali National Park, and Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.
While viewing wolves is high on the list for many wildlife enthusiasts, those who do see wolves on their trip to Alaska should count themselves very lucky. Alaska is home to 7,000 – 11,000 wolves covering a range of about 85% of the state. However, these pack animals avoid people as much as they can, making wolf viewing an activity for the very fortunate - and usually very patient - wildlife observer. Two of the best places to view wolves in Alaska are Katmai National Park and Denali National Park.
OTHER WILDLIFE VIEWING IN ALASKA
It’s no wonder why seeing Alaska’s Big 5 draws visitors from around the world – and that’s just the beginning of wildlife experiences that you can have in the state. From unique birding experiences for life list species to witnessing the epic migration of gray whales to watching a lynx stepping soundlessly through the snow, Alaska offers incredible wildlife experiences year-round.
For guaranteed wildlife viewing, pay a visit to one of the state’s wildlife conservation centers, where orphaned and injured animals are rehabilitated and sometimes released back into the wild. Here, you’ll have up-close views of Alaska animals and have opportunities for behind-the-scenes tours while supporting the centers’ important conservation and rehabilitation efforts.
No matter where or how you view Alaska’ animals – from tiny hummingbirds to massive moose – you’ll be sure to leave with wildlife viewing memories that will last a lifetime.
Learn more about wildlife viewing in Alaska.
COVID Travel Updates:
The health and safety of Alaska’s visitors and residents, along with its member businesses, remains a top priority to the Alaska Travel Industry Association. We encourage travelers to review the latest COVID-19 travel updates and check with tour operators for individual requirements. To ensure the best travel experience possible, be sure to plan early, be patient with local businesses and staff during busy times, and have a backup plan if your desired tour, accommodation, or restaurant is full. Explore more things to do and planning tools to help you plan your Alaska adventure.
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