The opportunity to view wildlife in its natural habitat is one of the prime attractions of Alaska. And if you ask visitors what critters they hope to see, at the top of their wish list is bear viewing. Bears symbolize the wilderness of Alaska for many people and they hope to see some during their stay.
There are two main approaches to viewing bears in Alaska: go to a managed bear viewing tours area or take a backcountry trek.
Managed bear viewing Areas
Managed bear viewing areas are not game parks or zoos, these are special designated and controlled locations set up to provide the opportunity to view wild Alaskan bears in their natural environment. Typically these locations are set up at areas of high bear concentrations where bears are almost guaranteed to be seen. These include salmon streams where large numbers of bears may congregate during prime salmon feeding time.
If you plan to visit one of the managed bear viewing areas you will need to plan in advance and get a reservation or permit. If you wait until you arrive in Alaska you are going to be disappointed.
Some tourism businesses offer package deals which include bear viewing opportunities as part of the itinerary. Others may provide only transportation and drop-off services, giving the visitor an opportunity to plan a more open itinerary and schedule if that area makes such allowances. A lot depends on the individual region as well as which government agency is managing the resource. Some Alaska bear viewing areas have very structured schedules with very limited time that one can actually view the bears while in others you may be able to spend an entire day viewing bears and photographing them.
All managed viewing areas have a permitting process and application period. Viewing time, area rules and permit fees vary from one location to the next. There is little standardization of the process and the it's best to get your applications in early, by late fall as application/reservation deadlines are often set for the end of February or beginning of March. Familiarizing yourself with the requirements of each area is an absolute necessity due to the number of variations in the permitting process.
Brooks Falls in Katmai is one of the most well-known managed bear viewing areas in Alaska, but it is my no means the only spot. Check out our listings for tourism providers that include bear viewing opportunities among their offerings.
Backcountry bear viewing tours
Even managed bear viewing areas are in the backcountry, but what we mean by this designation is that you can have the possibility of viewing bears all over Alaska and really anywhere in the backcountry is a good place to view bears.
Standing on a bear viewing pad with a dozen other people all jockeying for position to photograph bears might not be your thing. Another approach is to take a backcountry trek and try to optimize your opportunities for bear viewing and wildlife spotting in general. Any salmon stream is going to be a good spot when the salmon are running. But not all areas include salmon streams. August is prime blueberry season and if bears can't get to the salmon then they are going to be heading for their favorite berry patch. So good bear viewing areas would be anywhere with high berry concentrations.
Denali is known as great area for wildlife spotting in general and for Alaska bear viewing in particular. Denali is a popular destination however and permits are required for backcountry hiking. These permits can't be obtained in advance but only when you arrive at park headquarters.
If you will be flying into the backcountry then your pilot is going to be an excellent resource for tips on bear viewing opportunities in the area that you will be visiting. While you could see bears anywhere in Alaska there are always areas that have higher bear densities than others. Bush pilots know their regions... and their bears better than anyone.
Whenever traveling in bear country, which is most of Alaska, you need to be prepared. Learn about bear behavior, how to avoid encounters and what to do if you meet up with a bear at close range. Everyone wants the chance to view and photograph Alaska bears but don't let the desire to get that great shot get you into trouble One of the best books out there is Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance by Stephen Herrero.
Whether you will be visiting a managed bear viewing area or heading off on your own backcountry trek, you will want to carry some pepper spray and know how to use it. The stuff is quite effective.