It’s true that you may see bears in several locations throughout Alaska, including Denali National Park. But the best “up close” bear viewing spots are in the southern part of Alaska. That includes Katmai National Park, Kodiak Island and Lake Clark National Park. Visit during the height of the salmon season, which starts in mid-late July (when the number of salmon swimming upstream to spawn grows exponentially), for a real eye-opening experience.
Bears in Alaska
If you’re traveling to Alaska with or without your family, one not-to-miss experience is viewing Alaskan bears up close. So, while I was in Alaska in June with my family, I made sure viewing bears was part of our experience.
Mid-late July is a better time to see the bears. That’s salmon season.The best place to see the bears catching salmon as they literally jump out of the water is Brook Falls in Katmai National Park. There are many companies that offer day tours to Katmai, including Rust’s Flying Service (which we used successfully 15 years ago to view bears in a different location–). The average price is between $750-900/person for a full-day tour (including a round-trip flight from Anchorage, and bear watching on the three different viewing platforms at Brook Falls).
There are other, less expensive options if you are already on the Kenai Peninsula (south of Anchorage):
- Take a flight from Homer, located at the southern tip of the peninsula, to Kodiak Island to see grizzly bears (a subspecies of brown bear). They might be hunting for clams along the shores or, when in season, enjoy salmon. Prices start at $600 for a 3-4 hour trip, including a little over one hour of bear watching on the island.
- Take an even shorter trip (2-3 hours in duration) from Soldotna (also on the Kenai Peninsula) for bear viewing tours along the coast of Lake Clark National Park ($375/person).
Up Close with the Bears
We were visiting Alaska in mid-June (instead of the height of the salmon season in July) in conjunction with our Disney Alaskan cruise. Because of the timing, we didn’t want to miss an “up close” bear encounter. So we opted for a visit to Silver Salmon Creek Lodge, a private bear lodge in Lake Clark National Park.
This 24-hour adventure starts at $875/person with flights from either Homer or Soldotna (on the Kenai Peninsula), and more expensive flight options from Anchorage. Since we were traveling with two small children (ages 4 and 8), I asked about any potential discounts and we were able to save about 10 percent, bringing our total to approximately $3,200. While this was the single most expensive tour of our 3-week Alaska trip, it was well worth the expense! Our 30-minute flight on a 6-passenger plane from Soldotna gave us great aerial views of the mountains and lakes as we headed up the coastline of Lake Clark National Park. When we landed, we were greeted by a mother bear with her two 18-month-old cubs on the beach runway (a terrific start to our visit)!
We were also greeted on the runway by our private guide in an ATV who drove us 10 minutes to our lodge. There we found lovely views of the snow-covered peaks of Iliamna Volcano and Slope Mountain. Our lodge was a nicely decorated two bedroom/one bathroom stand-alone house, one of several on the property.
Soon, my husband and I were fitted for rain boots (we had been told to bring the children’s rain boots as they don’t carry such small sizes) and we were ready for the first of three bear watching excursions.
Mom and Cubs
We enjoyed seeing another mother with her two bear cubs playing in the tall grassy marsh area. We walked behind them as they ambled a few hundred yards to the tidewater flats. That’s a spot where the huge water level differences between low and high tide in this area of Alaska leave the silty bay floor exposed. It extends several hundred feet from the beach during low tide.
Without salmon to catch, the bears spent their time eating razor clams buried in the mud of the tidewater flats. As it was still low tide, we were able to walk out onto the muddy flats and actually get within 30 feet of the bears, close enough to hear them digging for the clams in the mud and cracking the shells with their teeth. Being so close to the bears was a highlight of our entire Alaska trip!
After returning to camp, we had lunch with the other 10 guests in the upstairs room of the main house. We enjoyed the lovely views as much as the delicious clam chowder, made with the same clams we had just seen the bears enjoying! My daughter, husband and I loved the chowde, but my little boy was not a fan. The kitchen staff was happy to accommodate him with a ham sandwich.
For our afternoon excursion, we joined up with another of group of lodgers who were already in position watching a mother with two baby bear cubs on the marshland. The bear family was settling in for a nap.
During our first excursion, we tramped along with the bears as they moved around on the tidewater flats. This time, however, the group included professional photographers who didn’t mind standing still and taking hundreds of photos any time a bear moved a muscle. My children soon got restless ).
After about 30 minutes, our guide could see that our little ones needed a distraction. He suggested a motorized rowboat ride on Silver Salmon Lake. It was a perfect decision for our family. Both children loved the 30-minute round-trip walk through the tree-lined path (seeing moose prints along the way), and had a great time helping to paddle during our private 50-minute boat ride. They also loved getting to lean over the boat and pick a few water lily flowers from the seemingly endless millions of lily pads blanketing the picturesque lake!
Even More Bears
After a yummy chicken and ratatouille dinner, we enjoyed our third bear viewing tour. With almost 20 hours of daylight this time of year in Alaska, we were able to clearly see the bears until very late in the evening. The children especially liked seeing the set of two bear cubs playing and wrestling in the grass.
We topped the day off with roasted marshmallows by the lodge (definitely a highlight for our son and daughter) although the ferocious mosquitoes chased most of the guests away.
We flew back to Soldotna the following morning after enjoying eggs and fresh baked muffins for breakfast, taking back with us hundreds of photos and even better memories. While you can find other, less expensive bear viewing options in Alaska, based on the fact that we got three separate bear viewing excursions during our 24 hour tour (viewing a total of 7 different bears), as well as all meals and accommodations, we definitely found our tour to be the best overall value. Whatever bear viewing excursion you chose, I’m sure you’ll enjoy this amazing experience!