Coastal brown bears and their inland cousins, known as grizzlies, are larger than black bears with a more prominent shoulder hump and longer claws. They average between 400 and 500 pounds, though larger males can reach up to a staggering 1,400 pounds. You may have heard of the Kodiak brown bear, a subspecies from Kodiak Island and its southwestern archipelago that have lived separately from the brown bears of Alaska’s mainland for more than 12,000 years. They even look a bit different because of this isolation, with a slightly different skull shape and larger size.
Where to find them:
These massive and lumbering animals roam the northern, coastal and interior areas of Alaska. Since they are typically solitary animals, most viewing opportunities occur at places where they congregate at concentrated food sources, such as a shoreline to feast on fish or scavenge for dead animals.
Katmai National Park and Preserve on the Alaska Peninsula boasts one of the largest concentrations of bears in the state, with more than 2,000 brown bears known to inhabit the park. Bears here enjoy nearly 5 million acres of protected land, accessible by boat or small air taxi from communities like Anchorage, King Salmon, Homer or Kodiak. The renowned Brooks Camp offers viewing platforms, trails and a National Park Service Visitor Center.
Visitors to Alaska’s Inside Passage should make a point to visit what the Tlingit people call Kootznoowoo, or “Fortress of the Bear,” also known as Admiralty Island National Monument. Admiralty Island is truly something to admire, with the densest population of brown bears in the world — yes, world — averaging one every square mile. That’s more than all of the other state bear populations combined. Visit the island by scheduled seaplane from Juneau or via the Alaska Marine Highway, but plan well in advance — permits are required to access the area in order to limit the amount of visitors to the park. Explore the designated viewing areas on the island, including a viewing sand spit and observation tower located at the end of a mile-long trail, or the popular Pack Creek viewing area, located in the northeast corner of Admiralty Island. Pack Creek has been known for spectacular bear viewing since the 1930s.
The population of Kodiak brown bears is at a historic high in Alaska, and visitors wanting to view them should look no further than the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, covering 1.9 million acres on Kodiak, Uganik, Ban and Afognak islands. It’s only accessible by floatplane or boat but the refuge visitor center in downtown Kodiak can help make arrangements and recommend guides for bear-viewing tours conducted all summer long. Tour options include flightseeing trips, multi-day bear viewing treks and even some boat and kayak tours. Independent travelers can book special use cabins though the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge office and the Alaska State Parks office in Kodiak.
Other bear viewing opportunities await visitors in the wildlife hot spots of Lake Clark National Park and Preserve near Cook Inlet, Anan Wildlife Observatory in Wrangell, the legendary Denali National Park and Preserve, Fish Creek Wildlife Viewing Area near Hyder, Misty Fjords National Monument near Ketchikan and areas surrounding Redoubt Bay.
When to go:
Brown bears emerge from five to eight months of winter hibernation in the spring, but summer months are best for viewing. From late July to early September, look for them feeding on spawning salmon along streams and rivers. Dawn and dusk hours are typically best for viewing, when the bears are actively in search of food.
Bears are dangerous and should be given healthy distance and lots of respect. While attacks are rare, it is important to be aware of safe viewing practices. For more information, visit http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=livingwithbears.bearcountry
For more information on bear viewing in Alaska, click here.