Best Places to View Grizzly Bears
Guided groups safely observe grizzly bears up close every year in Katmai National Park, Alaska
(Photo from K Bay Bear Viewing website)
Before telling you where to view grizzly bears let me take a moment to tell you where NOT to view grizzly bears. Never bear view where trophy hunting is allowed because that teaches the bears that its safe to be close to people when in fact it is deadly. Sadly, bear hunting is only prohibited in national parks and sanctuaries. Hunting is allowed in all preserves and refuges. Watch this horrific video to see what happens when hunted bears are habituated by bear viewers (graphic video of a female bear in Katmai Preserve who does not even run from men who shoot her). The most common places for bear viewing where hunting is allowed are Katmai Preserve, Kodiak Island, and Admiralty Island. Be aware that operators bear viewing in hunting areas will try to convince you that it is okay because hunters only go after the biggest males which stay well away from all people. This is complete nonsense since bear viewers habituate mothers with male cubs as well as young males which will one day become the big "trophy" males. Also although hunters do tend to target big males they're more than happy to "harvest" small males, females, and females with cubs leaving the cubs behind to starve to death. We've also heard the excuse that it's okay to habituate hunted bears because fishermen and others already do.
and now on to the best places to view grizzly bears in Alaska...
#1 - Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park
Expect bears everywhere when staying at Brooks Camp
Located in Katmai National Park in southwestern Alaska, Brooks is one of the best places in the world to observe brown bears. The bears and humans have been peacefully coexisting at Brooks Camp for over 30 years. There are three viewing stands set up for viewing the bears while they fish for salmon at the Brooks waterfall. However, you commonly run into bears on the trails to the observing stands and campground. The bears have learned that they can trust humans in Katmai so they pretty much pay no attention to humans and simply go about their business of non-stop eating. Katmai has the largest concentration of protected brown bears in the world and there are roughly 2,000 brown bears in the 3.6 million acre park. Unlike many other bear viewing locations in the world, the bears at Brooks Camp are protected from the grossness of sport hunters so most are not scared of humans. They are not aggressive to humans either. Brooks Camp is one of the finest examples in the world of peaceful human/animal coexistence. It has almost a utopian feel to it. It's such a fun and exciting place to be with everyone excited about bears. The lodge has a bar, excellent food, and an indoor fire that people sit around while talking about bears and photography. The best time to visit is in July or early September. Overall, the world can learn a lot from Brooks and the national park service does an excellent job managing the camp.
You have several options for visiting Brooks. One option is to do a day trip; however, I strongly advise against it because between weather, flight delays, and bear jams (i.e. the bears frequently decide to take naps on the trail and you have to wait until they wake up) you may never even make it down to the actual falls (although I found getting to the falls to actually be more exciting than being at the falls). Also, once you see a few of these amazing bears you won't ever want to leave. If you do decide to overnight you have two options. One is to stay in the lodge cabins (privately owned) but there are only a few so they're very difficult to actually get (they must be reserved at least one year in advance) and they're expensive (roughly $200 per person per night). The other option is to stay at the campground which is run by the National Park. Brooks has a very nice campground that is protected with an electric fence. Coin operated showers and flush toilets are nearby. You're limited to a maximum stay of 7 nights.
Katmailand owns both the lodge and the airline (Katmai Air) that transports most people to Brooks. Katmai Air had several wolf pelts causally hanging on a hook the last time we flew with them and they transport bear hunters in the fall. After our first year we decided to not fly using Katmai Air but all pilots in King Salmon cater to hunters so the options are slim. Tell everyone at Katmailand and Katmai Air that you oppose the slaughter of bears and wolves for sport.
#2 - The Coast of Katmai National Park
Various operators offer bear viewing along the coast of Katmai National Park where grizzlies feed on sedge grass, clams, berries and of course salmon. Most operators that offer bear viewing along the coast of Katmai National Park do so out of either Homer or Kodiak.
The best bear viewing operators on the Katmai coast are...
K Bay Bear Viewing (Homer) operated by Michael Hughes is the best operator offering day trips to view grizzlies on the Katmai coast. He is both an experienced pilot and bear viewing guide and is excellent at both flying in Alaska and teaching clients about bears. Michael is highly respectful of the bears and is the safest pilot flying to the Katmai coast. We won't fly with anyone else! K-Bay Air is highly recommended and offers morning and afternoon/evening bear viewing tours May -September.
Katmai Coastal Bear Tours (Homer) is the best operator offering multi-day trips to the Katmai coast (from a large boat). Their primary guide, Brad Josephs, is one of the best bear viewing guides in the world! No one knows more about every aspect of the Katmai coastal ecosystem from plants, to birds, salmon, wolves and the bears. He has known personally dozens of Katmai bears for years which enhances the experience. He also works hard to provide wildlife photographers with the best photo opportunities and is always respectful of the bears.
#3 - McNeil River Sanctuary
Located only about 60 air miles northeast of Brooks Camp, McNeil is also an excellent place to view bears and in fact is probably the most well-known place for viewing brown bears in the world. As with Brooks/Katmai the brown bears are protected in the McNeil Sanctuary (although hunters are constantly coming up with various proposals to open it for hunting of brown bears even though the number of bears is already decreasing- gross I know!).
It's more difficult to visit McNeil because they limit the number of people at any one time to only 10 (from June 7 to August 25) in an effort to minimize the impact on the bears. Currently there is a lottery system in place that you must "win" to be able to visit McNeil. See the Alaska Department of Wildlife Conservation for more information.