Wilderness Bear Viewing and Flightseeing in Alaska

Scenic bear viewing tours from Homer Alaska

Is seeing a grizzly bear in the wild on your bucket list?  Wilderness bear viewing and flightseeing tours in Alaska National Parks are possibly the most sought after experiences of people visiting Alaska. There is no better place to see bears than in the Alaskan wilderness!  When planning our 10 weeks in Alaska, one thing was certain, I wanted to go on a bear viewing excursion!

Grizzly bear leaving meadow and passes close to tour group

Alaska is one of the few places left where many species of wildlife are living and thriving in North America.  It offers pristine wilderness, and in spring and summer, Alaska provides an enormous food source for bears.  From berries, grasses, flowers, and salmon, it is no wonder bears thrive in Alaska.  And Homer Alaska is a fabulous access point to 3 top wilderness bear viewing areas.

Alaska Bear Viewing

Wilderness-Bear-Viewing-and-Flightseeing-Tour -in-Alaska-National-Park

Bears are majestic creatures, and delightful to watch.  Just imagine arriving on a piece of land, desolate and isolated.  After landing, either by plane or boat and taking a short hike through the woods, the view opens up to a huge field with grasses and flowers.  It’s surrounded by shrubs in the lowlands, then forests with white-capped mountains soaring in the background.  While taking in the scenery, in the distance there is movement in the grasses.  Suddenly clearing the grasses, a large brown bear appears, and then two small cubs romp beside her.  When looking left, two teenage bears, likely siblings, seem to be engaged in a game of roly-poly.  Then off to the left, another sow appears with three cubs.  Before long, 14 to 20 bears are visible all around.  Some are busy eating sedge and berries, others heading to the water to dig up and feast on clams.

Tom and I experienced all of this and more on a wilderness bear viewing and flightseeing tour in Alaska at Lake Clark National Parks with Smokey Bay Air out of Homer Alaska.

Blood-thirsty Versus Shy Bears

Many people expressed concern about our interest in seeing bears close up.  TV, movies, and media hype about bear attacks have made humans afraid of bears.  In reality, bears tend to be shy, and prefer to avoid human interaction.  Yes, bears came very close to us many times, but hardly looked at us or acknowledged our presence.  It is too bad that humans have had such fear instilled.

Fear makes us act in the opposite way than we should behave around bears.  That fear causes us to do stupid things that could incite a bear to attack, like running or screaming.  Never do these in the presence of a bear!

In 2017, a wildlife biologist from Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game stated that there have only been 6 fatal bear attacks in Alaska in 130 years.  Only 6 in over 100 years!  Compare those 6 attacks in 130 years to a yearly average of 50,000 deaths from car accidents in North America.  Based on those numbers, we should be afraid of riding or driving cars, not bears.

There are ways to stay bear safe when in the wilderness, and I will talk about those later in this article.

DISCLAIMER: Many thanks to Smokey Bay Air for hosting me. While I was hosted at no charge, and Tom paid for the tour, I received no payment for this post, and this post is Tom’s and my honest opinion.

Free Versus Paid Bear Viewing

Black bears and brown bears are found throughout Alaska.  By the time we reached Homer, we saw so many black and brown bears that I wasn’t sure the excursion would be worth it.  Boy was I wrong!  Actually, it was a highlight of our 10 weeks in Alaska.

On our travels, we had seen numerous bears, both black and grizzly, along the Alcan Highway.  In Denali, we saw bears from the camper shuttle bus, and on hikes.  We saw bears fishing in Hyder, Alaska.  Opportunities to see bears for free are numerous throughout Alaska and Canada.

If looking for an adventure for less or for free – keep your eyes open as you travel. From a car, seeing bears is often a fleeting experience.  People are likely to see bears feeding on roadside grasses, or in fields, and in salmon season fishing in streams.  We had great bear viewing on our own at Mendenhall Glacier, part of Tongass National Park, in Juneau, and in Hyder, Alaska in August.  We spent the mornings and evenings waiting for bears and watching them.

After seeing bears both on our own and on a bear viewing tour, the best way to observe bears, their behavior, and learn about them is with a guide in an uninhabited remote area.  Since bears generally stay away from noise and people, it’s less likely that they will hang around places frequented by people and cars for any length of time.

To observe bears in their native habitat, an Alaska bear tour is the best option.  For a once in a lifetime opportunity to see bears up close, and for a great chance to photograph them, a bear viewing tour is well worth it.  While these tours are not cheap, I know they are the most memorable experiences of a lifetime.  Certainly, our tour with Smokey Bay Air was very worthwhile.

Bear viewing is a big part of Alaska’s tourism industry.  When people ask what we liked best about Alaska, our Lake Clark National Park bear viewing trip immediately jumps to mind.

Bear Viewing Tours

Arriving at Smokey Bay Air

We flew from Homer Alaska, a scenic beachy, fishing community providing many different adventures. Homer has access to 3 world-class bearviewing areas – Katmai, Kodiak, and Lake Clark. Our trip flew across Cook Inlet to Lake Clark National Park.  Bearviewing in Homer provides some of the best experiences in Alaska.

We went on a scenic bear viewing tour from Homer Alaska with Smokey Bay Air.  From the time we entered the flight check-in building until we left, the excitement for seeing bears was palpable.

A film runs on the monitor while pilots/guides each prepare 4-5 people for their excursion.  We were asked to suit up in hip wader boots since we may cross streams or rivers.  Smokey Bay Air provides waders, plus offers choices of snacks for before the trip.

Preparing for Wilderness Bear Viewing and Flightseeing Tour in Alaska National Park

When our small group of 4 was assembled and outfitted, our pilot, Ian, talked about the trip to Lake Clark, and we watched a film on bear behavior and staying safe amongst bears.  At this point, I expressed interest in going to Katmai.  That’s when we learned that bear sightings were best at Lake Clark over the last several days, and the salmon were not running yet at Katmai.  I really wanted to see bears fishing for salmon and was still skeptical about whether this experience would prove worthwhile since we had seen so many bears.

Our Wilderness Bear Viewing and Flightseeing in Alaska

We follow a very tall Ian out to the 5-seater Cessna 206.  It’s a very small plane!  We put our packs in the rear to help distribute the weight.  Continuing weight distribution, Ian tells us where to sit for the ride out to Lake Clark National Park, and gives us earplugs to dull the plane noise.

Flying over Homer Spit on Wilderness Bear Viewing and Flightseeing Tour in Alaska National Park

As we climb into the air, we see Homer Spit jutting out 4-1/2 miles into Kachemak Bay.  Flying across Cook Inlet, the water below sparkles in the sunshine, and the majestic beauty of the snow-covered mountains appears in front of us.  Natural beauty surrounds us on the flight to Lake Clark.

Landing in Lake Clark

After our smooth landing on the rocky and sandy beach at the water’s edge, we deplane for an explorative walk.  We collect our packs and meet up with the 5 people from the other Smokey Bay plane.  After a quick review of safety in bear country, our 2 guides lead us down the beach to a path into the woods.

Viewing Areas in the Meadows

After a short walk through the woods, we arrive at a designated viewing area. We look out at meadows with high grasses sprinkled with wildflowers; then someone whispers – “Bear.”  Excitedly we all search the huge meadow to find the bear in the distance.  We hear more whispers – bear, bear, sow and cubs.  Bears start appearing across the meadow.  We watch the bears snacking on the sedge grasses, the cubs playing, and then the families resting.

Bear paws prints in sand at Lake Clark

After watching these bears and their activity for a while, our guides decide to take us on a walk down the beach to another viewing area in the woods.  As we walk down the beach, we are following giant bear prints in the sand.  Whoa!  This feels a bit scary – these footprints are huge – and recent!  Our guides tell us to stay together as a group, as bears do not attack large groups.  We continue talking as we walk; noise is another bear deterrent.  From the uneven, rocky sand, we turn towards the woods once again and head to our next stop – another opening from the woods to look out on the meadow.

This time we spot a sow and 3 cubs immediately.  Triplets!  The cubs are playfully romping around, rolling, jumping on each other – oh so cute!  To the left, there’s another sow with 2 cubs, and another a bit further back with 1 cub.  How exciting to watch the mama bears with their adorable cubs.  Most of these cubs are only 5-6 months old, and the sows are teaching them about their food sources.  At times the cubs stop to nurse, too.  I think it can’t get better than this!

Viewing Areas on the Beach

It gets better!  Smokey Bay guides know exactly where to find the bears, and before we actually see them, they tell us where to look and what to look for.  As we approach a mountain that ends at the beach, we learn that bears can often be found here.  Just as our guide finishes telling us a sow and cubs descend the mountain right in front of us and head down the beach.  It’s exhilarating to have the bears and those adorable cubs so close to us!

Our guides ask us to stop and stay together quietly to watch this sow and her 2 cubs.  Momma bears with cubs are particularly protective.  We are treated to fun, endearing cub antics as they jump up toward mom and try to get her attention, roll around, and lie down from exhaustion, and then run to catch up with her.

Wilderness Bear-Viewing-Tour-in-Alaska-National-Park

In the distance we see full-grown bears clamming at the edge of the sea.  The tide was going out so the bears begin to leave the vegetation to go for the protein – the clams.  Watching the bears at the sea’s edge, we see them sniffing out the clams through the wet sand.  They dig up the clam, open it and eat the delicious meat.  We are watching bears fatten up for next winter’s hibernation.

Bear Behavior

Wilderness Bear Viewing in Alaska National Park

There’s still more “Wow!”  We make our way to the beach viewing area that overlooks both the beach and the meadow.  Now we get to watch bear behavior – 2 bears play-fighting; teenage bears playing or maybe courting, and a third bear being chased. Bears come toward us to use the viewing area as a path toward the water.  The bear seems not to know a group of people are right there.  Ian says, whoa/hey bear, so the bear takes a wider berth around the group.  What a crazy experience to have a full-grown grizzly within 2 arm’s length, yet not care one bit that people are standing there.  All the bear wanted was the clams on the beach.  At this time of year with food plentiful, the bears don’t care about humans unless people are blocking them from the food, taking it, or threatening their cubs.

If a bear pops its jaw or looks at you while huffing and salivating, it signals the possibility of an attack.  This is the time to deploy something very quickly.  Smokey Bay Air recommends marine flares since they are quick, very easy to use and deploy.  We saw bears over a 4 month period on this trip, and never witnessed any behavior that looked like a potential attack.  It is a very rare occurrence.

The Best Time to See Bears in Alaska

The best time to see bears in Alaska is between May and August.  Bears wake up hungry from winter hibernation and are driven from their dens in spring as the snow and ice thaw when their food sources begin to grow.

Sow and older cub when bearviewing at Lake Clark National Park in Alaska

Sows, or adult female bears, with cubs in tow, are especially hungry.  She needs to replenish her food reserves so she can continue to produce milk.  Sows and their cubs make their way down the mountains and across valleys and streams from the winter den to reach spring’s fertile feeding grounds.

All summer long bears are in search of berries, sedges, grasses, and salmon to prepare for the next year’s hibernation.  They must nourish their bodies and add 20-30% body weight to ensure enough reserves for winter.  For a female with cubs, she’ll need those reserves to ensure that she produces milk for her cubs in the long winter.  Summertime in Alaska will provide the best chances of seeing bears.

How to Stay Safe when Bear Viewing

Most people who have not been around bears think of them as dangerous, blood-thirsty, and downright scary.  For the most part in Alaska, this is as far from accurate as you can get.

In North America, yes, bears are the top of the food chain, and they roam Alaska freely.  Unfortunately, fear of bears and their attacking humans has been so hyped up, so most people fear them.  Bears generally live a peaceful life unless provoked. 

Attacks can happen when a sow is protecting cubs.  Sows are VERY protective mothers, and most viewing opportunities are in the summer when cubs are present. If a sow with cubs is surprised, has her food source threatened, or her path blocked, she may be provoked to attack.

If you are going to be in bear country, there are several things you can do to stay safe:

  1. Watch the bear safety films at the Visitor Centers.  Watch the videos provided by your tour operator and implement the precautions you learn.
  2. Stay with your guide or park ranger when walking amongst bears.
  3. Make sure you are in a group of 4 or more.
  4. Have and know how to properly use and store bear spray.  (Many more people get injured from bear spray than from bear attacks. Smokey Bay prefers marine flares since they scare bears and are easier to use.)
  5. If encountering a bear, stand your ground, and talk firmly without screaming, to the bear.  Slowly back away.  Do not run, as that causes a bear’s instinctive reaction to chase.
  6. Stay 100 yards from bears, and if they wander closer, slowly back away.
  7. When hiking make noise so bears are not surprised.
  8. Always give the bear right-of-way, an escape route.
  9. A bear standing on its hind legs does not necessarily mean it is going to attack.  It may only be trying to identify you.

Personally, I recommend going with an experienced guide if you want to get up close to bears and learn about them.  It is well worth the cost.  Smokey Bay Air is one of the longest-running bear viewing companies with the most experienced guides.  After all, their head guide guided Disney!

World-Class Bear Viewing Locations

Wilderness Bear Viewing at Lake Clark National Park in Alaska

There are several top wilderness bear viewing places in Alaska.

  • Lake Clark National Park – Landlocked, Lake Clark is located off the Cook Inlet coast with easy access from Homer by small plane or boat.  It is where brown bears congregate in high numbers to feed.  This is where some of the Disney Nature movie ‘Bears’ was filmed.  The head guide for Smokey Bay Air advised Disney on bear behavior and lived here with them during the filming.  Smokey Bay Air offers tours here and to Katmai too.
  • Katmai National Park – This is a great place to see bears, especially when they are fishing for salmon in July and August.  Camping and a lodge are available for those who want to spend several days.  Homer Alaska airport is one of the closest places from which to travel to Katmai.
  • Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge – In Southwestern Alaska, usually accessed by ferry or small plane from Homer, is where to find Kodiak brown bears on the 1.9 million-acre refuge.  Bears are largest here – up to 1500 pounds.
  • Anan Wildlife Observatory – In Southeast Alaska on Wrangell Island on the Inside Passage, brown and black bear excursions are accessible only by boat or plane. Passes are required in July and August; a limited number of passes are available. 
  • Admiralty Island – Pack Creek Bear Sanctuary on Admiralty Island National Monument is considered one of the best places to see brown bears with 10% of Alaska’s population of brown bears.  It is accessed from Juneau by boat or plane.  Permits are required during the summer.

Conclusion

On our return flight as part of the Smokey Bay Wilderness bear viewing and flightseeing tour, our pilot took us on a scenic trip to see the Kenai Range, over some of the Aleutian Chain, the tops of the snow-covered peaks, and to see the active volcanoes.  What a treat to see these mountains, volcanoes, and glaciers up close!

Bear viewing in Alaska is a once-in-a-lifetime adventure – to watch the bears’ behavior in their natural habitat.  I continue to picture the amazing experience we had watching and coming so close to these magnificent animals.  Smokey Bay Air guides did such a wonderful job that I have absolutely no recollection of fear, just exhilaration at being able to peer into the life of a wild grizzly bear.  If bear viewing interests you, I highly recommend Smokey Bay Air and their experienced staff.

The flight is about 1 hour each way, for a total of 5 hours for the whole excursion.  Smokey Bay Air operates 6 planes and has a staff of 13 year-round.  Their pilots and guides are very experienced and safety-conscious.

Truly the best way to see black or brown bears is by going on an Alaska bear viewing tour.

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Two grizzly bears watch a third grizzly walk by
grizzly bear family walking along the rocky beach

13 thoughts on “Wilderness Bear Viewing and Flightseeing in Alaska

  1. Wendy,
    thanks soooo much for this absolutely wonderful, informative article about viewing bears and flightseeing in Alaska!
    &, as always, Tom’s photos are fabulous!

    • Like you, we saw many bears on the trip – so many that I stopped counting. The bear viewing excursion topped all of the other times we saw bears. It was amazing!

    • From watching the tours from the boats and knowing what we did, you can do so much more and more in-depth on your own! A cruise is good if you have limited time and want to get a flavor for a bunch of tings.

  2. What a nice package you’ve put together for optimizing the chances of seeing a bear up close and personal! It is good you included some helpful hints on bear watching, but I would personally want to stay way, way back and away . . . just in case.

    • It’s best to stay close to the group. There are no documented bear attacks of groups of 3 or more, so you would be best to stay close to the group even if they are not as far as you’d prefer. It’s interesting how our instincts have us want to do the opposite of what is actually safest.

  3. Seeing bears in the Alaska wild is definitely a thrilling experience. We saw them in Alaska’s inside passage when we were hiking with our guide/naturalist. We definitely were not as close as you were in that top picture! Wow!

    • Yes, the grizzly was 2 arm’s lengths from the group. He came from across the field and was heading to the shoreline to do some clam digging. He must regularly use the route through the viewing area since it is cleared. He hardly looked at the group when the guide said, “Whoa bear.” He just turned and walked a bit further from away. Pretty amazing!

  4. The bears are so gorgeous (and those cubs are totally cute), but I’m sure I would have kept a little bit further away from them! But that’s just me … Great tips for staying safe when bear viewing. Such an adventure!

  5. Pingback: Pleasantly Surprised by Unexpected Adventures in Juneau AlaskaAdventurous Retirement

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