Looking for Smokey
We have a lot of bears up here. In fact, Alaska contains about 70% of all bears in North America. Naturally, people who visit our great state want to see one so they can go home and tell their friends, “Hey, we went to Alaska and saw a bear!” After all, if you go to Arizona, you’d expect to see cactus, right? Well…not so fast.
It’s true that, because we live here, we see bears. Maybe not every day, but they’re around. They even roam public places, usually looking for food – like city parks and neighborhoods, where they turn over garbage cans and flying butter wrappers and beer cans all over the yard. Anchorage residents are accustomed to looking left and right for Mr. Brown when taking out the trash – or walking along a woody trail with a stringer of salmon or just going out for a jog. The local newspaper recently featured a front-page photo of a big brown bear running across the highway during rush hour. But it’s not always easy to find one when you’re actually trying.
We can increase your odds of finding – and photographing – bears. In fact, we guarantee you’ll see bears at the first two spots on our list.
1. Alaska Zoo
Seems like the obvious choice, but it’s a good one. Located on the south side of Anchorage, the Alaska Zoo is a nonprofit that provides a safe home for orphaned, injured and abandoned wild animals. The zoo is kid-friendly and is a great way to see just about every animal native to Alaska, including black, brown and polar (!) bears, moose, mountain goats, Dall sheep, and wolves. (Wolves are awesome. You should go.)
2. Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center
Our personal favorite – and the place we always take visiting friends and relatives – the AWCC is also a home for orphaned animals. But there’s one key difference: AWCC attempts to place its animals back in the wild when possible. No polar bears, but just about every other type of animal native to Alaska, including black and brown bears, wood bison, caribou, moose, lynx and bald eagles. The entire AWCC is outdoors, with very large pens for the animals. You can walk or drive from pen to pen. Located about 40 minutes south of Anchorage, across from the little ski town of Girdwood.
3. Chugach Mountains
Okay, we’re done with supervised bear-viewing and moving on to the actual wilderness. The Chugach are the mountains you see towering over the city of Anchorage. Nearby and very accessible from a large number of entry points, these mountains are chalk-full of wildlife, including – yes – bears. It’s definitely hit-or-miss when looking for any wild animals in their natural habitat, so you’re advised to make bear-viewing part of either a paid expedition with a professional guide or some other activity, such as fishing, rafting or ATV riding. Which, of course, are all really fun.
4. Brooks Falls
This one is cheating because it’s not in Anchorage. But it’s easy to get a flight there from Anchorage. Brooks Falls is absolutely, hands-down the best place to see wild brown bears standing in a roaring river catching salmon jumping up a waterfall. And isn’t that what you really want? It’s within a national park, so you can ask the friendly rangers questions, enjoy the nice boardwalk conveniently located above bear-reaching height, and even fish for salmon downstream – with bears walking around you. Seriously. Check out the live webcam of bears catching salmon here.
5. Far North Bicentennial Park
Located on the northwest side of Anchorage, Far North Bicentennial Park is between busy Tudor Road and a very nice neighborhood. It’s also nestled in the lower Chugach mountains and site of the most bear activity in the entire city. It’s packed with great hiking and biking trails. But if you don’t want to hike, just drive up and down the hilly, winding road. If you see a couple cars pulled to the side, chances are they’re looking at something big and furry in the trees. Sometimes not in the trees at all, but walking along the road.
The bottom line is, if you want to see bears in the wilderness, go into the wilderness. Grab a backpack and go hiking. Most of the time, bears see you but you don’t see them. They’re generally shy, and they’re really good at ducking into the trees when they hear or smell you coming. But if you go to a river with salmon in it, your chance of finding bears gets a lot higher. So go fishing.
We have black and brown bears in the Anchorage area, but no polar bears. Sorry. You’ll have to catch a flight to Alaska’s Arctic north if your goal is to see the most dangerous predator on Earth outside a zoo. Personally, we’d go ahead and avoid polar bears. But that’s just us.
If it’s any consolation, both black and brown bears are dangerous. But the vast majority of bear attacks happen in Canada, which is not in Alaska. Statistically, there are five times more fatalities in the U.S. from dogs than bears and 30 times more people killed by lightning. So, relax. Alaska has lots of bears, but you’re most likely going home safe and sound. (Then again, we do have dogs and lightning…)
One last note: bears hibernate in winter. You can see them only in summer months. Except for polar bears. But if you’re going up to Alaska’s Arctic during winter, bring a jacket. Maybe two or three. Thick ones. It gets wayyyyy below zero up there. Way below.
There are many more great spots to look for bears in the Anchorage area that are not on this list. Ask Puffin Inn’s staff and we’ll point you in the right direction. Take bear spray.