Bear watching in Alaska

“It doesn’t matter how many times it’s happened before, I still get a huge thrill every time I see a bear. And it’s even more of a buzz when I can show someone else their first too,” says Dave Patrick who, with his wife Natalie, runs our specialist Alaska operator Infinite Adventures. “The reason why we started this company, and the reason we chose to come to Alaska, is the same. It’s all about the wildlife for us.”
If you want to see bears in the wild, Alaska is about the safest bet you can make. There are about 30,000 brown bears, or grizzlies, in America’s northernmost state, which is to say 98 percent of the total. And about 100,000 of the smaller black bears. Then there are polar bears, with around 5,000 thought to wander Alaska’s Arctic coastline. In Glacier Bay National Park in southeast Alaska, you’ve got glacier bears, which are a subspecies of black bears, with silvery or grey hair. And in the Kodiak Archipelago you can find the Kodiak bear, which is the biggest of the grizzlies. Bears roam vast Alaskan national parks such as Denali and Wrangell St Elias, as well as the Kenai Peninsula, and Lake Clark which, along with Kodiak Island, is among the best places in Alaska to watch the thrilling salmon spawn.
You can see bears in Alaska on a specialist photography tour led by expert naturalist guides. You can see them foraging for clams on the beach from the observation deck of a cruise ship going up Tracy Arm fjord. You can see them off in the distance while hiking the backcountry in Denali. And in Arctic communities, such as Kaktovik, you can see polar bears constantly on the outskirts, scavenging for whale meat. Alaska is bear country, but if you want to maximise your chances of seeing them, and do it safely, then join an organised tour.

The bear necessities

Lake Clark National Park and Preserve lies just southwest of Anchorage and is one of the best places in Alaska to see bears. Cornelia Kinley joined a brown bear photography vacation there in 2019. “We spent almost every available hour looking for, finding and photographing bears. Being able to be so close to them, to watch their behaviour and get such good pictures in the process was amazing. It felt safe, yet the bears were in their normal habitat, and we were not confined to a hide or platform which made the experience incredibly special.”

But a typical Alaska wildlife vacation is going to take you to several locations across a week or more. You’ll find them grazing in meadows (bears are omnivores, they’re just as content with berries and roots as they are with fish and caribou), wandering roadsides in search of carrion, nosing around rocky beaches and snapping at salmon in rivers. If you’re incredibly lucky, you might see a mama bear plodding along with her cubs. In comparison to more accessible USA national parks further south, such as Yosemite, those in Alaska see relatively few visitors. Bears don’t see people as a threat, or a potential source of food. So as long as you don’t get in their faces, they don’t tend to be too bothered by your presence.
North of Lake Clark is Denali National Park. It’s estimated that there are around 300 grizzlies and 200 black bears in Denali, with the latter sticking mostly to forests. The moose and caribou here also need to keep an eye out for a healthy population of wolves. Black bears are only found in North America, and the name is actually misleading as their fur can be many different colours. You’ll know a grizzly when you see one, they’re huge. Usually solitary predators, the grizzly can reach two-and-a-half metres when standing upright. Size-wise, they’re second only to polar bears, while the subspecies found in the Kodiak archipelago is the biggest of them.
On a typical wildlife vacation in Alaska you’re almost certain to encounter a bear at some point, given how prolific they are in the most popular destinations, and how knowledgeable your guides. They pose very little threat to sensible hikers, and the chances of a bear attacking a group are minute. Given that many trips do involve backcountry trekking however, expect your tour leaders and guides to provide extensive briefings on how to stay safe. “What it really comes down to is being smart and aware of your surroundings,” says Dave Patrick who, with his wife Natalie Morawietz, runs our specialist Alaska operators Infinite Adventures. “Believe it or not, a moose actually presents more of a threat than a bear does. We aim to give all of our travelers a good understanding of wildlife in Alaska to ensure they only have positive interactions with animals.”

Our top Alaska wildlife Vacation

Denali National Park holiday in Alaska

Denali National Park vacation in Alaska

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Specialist wildlife tours

If you really want to super charge your opportunities of a sighting rather than just taking your chances as you go along, then you can opt for a specialist wildlife tour, such as a brown bear photography vacation that focuses on Lake Clark. Vacations of this kind will likely be led by an expert in bear behaviours, which could potentially be very useful – “This group appears to be encircling us, and do you see how some of them are licking their lips? I wonder what that means?”

You may also be accompanied by a professional photographer, able to offer pointers on technique and composition. You’ll stay in accommodations such as wilderness lodges, located right in the bears’ habitat. In this kind of situation, you’ll not only be encountering bears close-up regularly, but there will be someone next to you able to anticipate and interpret what they’re going to do next, helping you get great shots. Cornelia Kinley found the experience immensely rewarding: “Lake Clark is an incredibly special place, and there are restrictions on the number of people who can stay in lodges within it. The lodge guides were careful to restrict the numbers photographing individual bears and made sure people kept a respectful distance from the bears. The bears therefore seemed at ease with us and continued their usual behaviour.”

Best time to see bears in Alaska

Brown bears and black bears hibernate in winter to conserve energy. From around October or November through to March, they’re hunkering down in their dens, while in the summer, especially August to September, they’re very active. Bear-watching season in Alaska really gets going around late June, when the salmon are spawning, making for a movable feast. This is the time of year that you really want to be in places such as Kodiak Island or Lake Clark.
Dave Patrick: “One optional extra we recommend when in Lake Clark is an amazing flight out of Homer, going over the Cook Inlet and glaciers, landing on a beach. It is expensive, but you’re almost guaranteed to see lots of bears there. You’ll also often see black bears along the Russian River on the Kenai Peninsula, and in Wrangell St. Elias too, especially later in the season because there are lots of berries around for them. Solomon Gulch, outside of Valdez, is another good place for bear spotting, blacks and browns as well as sea lions descend on a salmon hatchery there.”
Polar bears, on the other hand, don’t hibernate, though in winter they move around a lot less. The best time to find them is the spring and autumn. You don’t want to get anywhere near these guys though – especially as they are vulnerable to extinction. Anything that makes them less wary of humans is to be avoided. Polar bear-watching vacations typically involve small plane flights to the remote Arctic from Fairbanks, and then boat cruises around bays and islands. They are also an excellent way to explore indigenous culture in the far north, such as how communities are adapting to climate change and the decline in the whaling industry.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Brent Jones] [Bear and cubs: Infinite Adventures] [Black bear: Infinite Adventures] [Katmai National Park: Katmai National Park and Preserve]
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