The opportunity to see wildlife is a major attraction for many visitors to the North Country. Opportunities for wildlife viewing include visiting bear observatories or taking a bear viewing tour; chartering a boat or taking a scheduled wildlife cruise; staying at wilderness camps and lodges that specialize in wildlife viewing; visiting birding hotspots, like bird festivals and refuges; and touring wildlife parks. Most wildlife viewing activities take place in spring and summer.
Booking agents packaging custom Alaska vacations can include wildlife touring on your trip. Also check with tour desks at motels/hotels or ask your bed-and-breakfast or campground host about wildlife viewing tour operators available locally. Wildlife tour operators are listed in The MILEPOST® and available on our e-directory.
A good resource for basic wildlife viewing information is the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game, Department of Wildlife Conservation website. Their Wildlife Viewing Section lists all wildlife species found in Alaska, with details on their habitat, range, physical characteristics, etc.
There are 3 types of bears in Alaska: polar bears, black bears and brown bears. Polar bears (Ursus maritimus), classified as a marine mammal, are found along the northern coastline of Alaska and Canada, nearly always in association with sea ice. Brown bears (Ursus arctos), which are closely related to polar bears, are found throughout Alaska, with the exception of some islands in Southeast Alaska, the Aleutians and the Bering Sea. Black bears (Ursus americanus), are the most abundant and widely distributed of the 3 species of North American bears, as well as the smallest, according to the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game (ADF&G).
Viewing Ursus arctos, the brown bear or grizzly, ranks high on visitors' wish lists of activities during a trip to Alaska. Both government agencies and private businesses in Alaska offer bear viewing opportunities for the public.
Most private bear viewing businesses offer day trips to see the bears, although overnight and multi-day trips with lodging or camping are available. The hot spots for bear viewing tours in Southcentral and Southwestern Alaska are West Cook Inlet, Kodiak Island and the Alaska Peninsula, where coastal brown bears congregate in large numbers to fish at stream mouths or graze sedge fields.
Access is mainly by small plane, on floats or wheels, out of Homer, Kodiak, Kenai-Soldotna, King Salmon, Anchorage and Seward. Air services offer aerial bear viewing, guided land-based bear viewing tours and round-trip transportation to bear viewing camps and lodges. Tour operators often offer sport fishing, bird watching and other activities along with bear viewing. A few tour operators offer coastal brown bear viewing by boat.
Among the camps and lodges which emphasize bear viewing as one of their major attractions are: Hallo Bay Bear Camp, a private camp in Katmai National Park offering complete 1- to 7-day trip packages and accommodations; Silver Salmon Creek Lodge, a private lodge in Lake Clark National Park offering 1-day tours or multi-night stays in their lodge; and Afognak Wilderness Lodge on Afognak Island.
Alaska's public parklands also have bear viewing. In Southcentral Alaska, Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, accessible by air charter or boat, is home to about 3,000 bears. On the Alaska Peninsula, numerous bears congregate at Brooks Falls, near Brooks Camp in Katmai National Park, for the sockeye salmon run. Accommodations are available at Brooks Lodge through the park concessionaire.
The McNeil River State Game Sanctuary, about 100 miles southwest of Anchorage, is a favorite site of photographers intent on filming brown bears. Visits to McNeil are by permit only, selected in an annual lottery. Information on permits is available online from Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game. The ADF&G also oversees Wolverine Creek on the west side of Cook Inlet, a popular destination for bear viewing and fishing by chartered skiff.
In Southeast Alaska, the U.S. Forest Service manages 3 bear viewing sites: Anan Wildlife Observatory, located southeast of Wrangell; Stan Price Wildlife Sanctuary at Pack Creek, located on Admiralty Island; and Fish Creek Wildlife Observatory near Hyder. Summer visitors can watch bears catch salmon headed for upstream spawning grounds. Anan Observatory is accessible by boat from Wrangell. Pack Creek is a 30-minute flight by floatplane from Juneau and visits are by permit only. Fish Creek is accessed via British Columbia’s Cassiar Highway 37 and the spur road to Stewart/Hyder. For general information on these bear viewing destinations and links to related sites.
Alaska has 493 species of birds, so visitors have a good chance of seeing several varieties without even trying. Birding newsletters and a bird checklist are available at the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game’s Wings Over Alaska web site.
There's good bird watching in summer in Fairbanks at Creamer's Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge. Begin your visit to Creamer's Field at the Alaska Bird Observatory located at Wedgewood Resort off College Road. The center includes a nature store and trailhead to Creamer's Field. Guided bird walks and bird-banding demonstrations from May to September.
Another popular bird watching spot is Potter Point State Game Refuge just south of Anchorage off the Seward Highway. Sometimes called "Potter's Marsh," the refuge supports many species of ducks and other water birds.
One way to check some birds off your list is to attend one of the state's bird festivals. The Copper River Delta Shorebird Festival in Cordova and the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival in Homer both take place in May and offer an opportunity to see great numbers of migrating shorebirds. The Alaska Bald Eagle Festival takes place in Haines in November and celebrates the winter gathering of more than 3,500 bald eagles on the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve outside Haines.
Wildlife cruises in Southeast Alaska and in Southcentral Alaska can’t help but include birds along with sea mammals on their sightseeing tours of Alaska’s glaciated coastline. The same goes for bear viewing tour operators, whose main focus may be on bears but peripherally takes in an impressive variety of birds.
Both charter cruises and scheduled day cruises are available to view wildlife along Alaska's magnificent coastline. Passengers on day cruises have the opportunity to see some of Alaska's most famous glaciers and also its wildlife. Commonly seen on these cruises are sea otters, Steller sea lions, dolphins, harbor seals, Dall porpoises, whales (minke, gray, fin, humpback), puffins, eagles, black-legged kittiwakes, common murres, cormorants, parakeet and rhinoceros auklets.
In Southeast Alaska, day cruises concentrate on whale watching and sightseeing such gems as Misty Fjords National Monument (out of Ketchikan), Tracy Arm (out of Juneau) and Glacier Bay (also out of Juneau). There are whale-watching cruises and charters available in Juneau, Petersburg and Gustavus. There is also a roundtrip wildlife cruise between Juneau and Skagway or Haines.
In Southcentral Alaska, charter and scheduled wildlife cruises depart from Whittier, Seward, Ninilchik, Homer and Seldovia for sightseeing Prince William Sound, Resurrection Bay, Cook Inlet and Kachemak Bay.
Full-day, half-day and dinner cruises of Kenai Fjords National Park depart daily from Seward, located 127 miles south from Anchorage. These scheduled cruises explore the park’s glaciated coastline and the substantial populations of marine mammals and birds that make their home there. Full-day cruises also visit Chiswell Islands National Wildlife Refuge. Charter boats are also available out of Seward for wildlife viewing.
Daily scheduled cruise tours and custom sightseeing cruises of Prince William Sound’s glaciers and wildlife depart from Whittier and Valdez.
Marine wildlife cruises are available out of Homer to destinations around Kachemak Bay, such as Gull Island, and out to the Barren Islands, are available from Inlet Charters and Central Charters. A narrated 2-hour natural history and wildlife cruise tour between Homer and Seldovia is also available.
Wildlife Parks and Wildlife Tours
The Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center at Milepost 79 Seward Highway, 48 miles south of Anchorage, is a great place to see Northern wildlife up-close and personal. A drive-through animal park, the center is dedicated to the rehabilitation of orphaned and injured animals. Rescued bears, lynx, caribou, moose, musk-oxen, bison, elk, Sitka black-tailed deer, eagles and owls are among the residents at the park.
See reindeer up close and personal at the Williams Reindeer Farm in Palmer. Hand feed their reindeer (feed provided with admission), but remember to hide your hands when they are empty!
The Yukon Wildlife Preserve, located about a half-hour's drive from Whitehorse, is a 700-acre animal park. Mountain goats, caribou, moose, elk, wood bison, musk oxen, mule deer and mountain sheep may be viewed in their natural habitat.
The largest wild animal park in Alaska has to be 6-million-acre Denali National Park, located 237 highway miles north of Anchorage. Because wildlife is not captive at the park, spotting a grizzly, dall sheep, caribou or moose is not guaranteed, but visitors on one of the wildlife tours through the park have a pretty good chance. The park concessionaire offers a bus tour out the Park Road. Or visitors can take the free shuttle buses operated by the Park Service within the confines of the first few miles.