I’ve had some of the most amazing wildlife experiences imaginable while visiting Alaska. After my recent trip, I had to share! Getting up close to bears was truly life changing, but over the last few years, I’ve had the priviledge of seeing many animals in this state that most people never see beyond a screen or a magazine.
If you’re looking for an adventure that brings some of the best wildlife watching experiences in Alaska, you can’t go wrong with any of these.
Brown Bears: Lake Clark National Park
Seeing bears in the wild has been on my list for many years. I’ve had glimpses of them on several occasions, including a bear cub that peered into the floor-to-ceiling windows of the Flagstaff House restaurant in Boulder, Colorado, apparently curious about what the diners had to eat. But being out in the wilderness surrounded by bears was an entirely different experience. When I booked a tour with Scenic Bear Viewing in Homer, Alaska I had no idea just how close I would get.
After months of anticipation, I climbed into the co-pilot seat of a bush plane with Martin, the pilot/guide/owner – that was a thrill in itself. Flying over Homer, Kachemak and Bristol bays, towering mountains, jewel-like alpine lakes, and wild rivers was surreal. We landed on the beach just outside of Lake Clark National Park, known for its large population of Alaska brown bears – grizzly bears, but different in that they live on the coast with access to marine-based food like clams, salmon, and other fish.
Thanks to Martin’s eagle eyes, bears were immediately spotted. He explained that the bears have bad eyesight, relying on smell, and when a group of three or more people huddle together, they think it’s one large creature and won’t attack. There have been no attacks in the over 30 years the bears have been visited. Despite that knowledge, my heart was pounding as we stood on the grass edging the beach. A female bear began to walk in our direction, passing only a few feet away. She acted as if we weren’t even there and continued sauntering down to the sand for a feast.
In the hours that followed, we watched two young adult males have fun roughhousing in between clamming, as well as little romance between young male and female bears.
There was a lot of drama that unfolded right in front of us, bringing numerous opportunities for fantastic photos. But just being there, in the moment, surrounded by nearly a dozen bears while getting a glimpse of their daily lives in the wild is something that made me feel like one of the luckiest people on Earth. And I’m still giddy about it. Thanks, Martin!
You can see more photos and videos posted by Scenic Bear Viewing on Instagram, including one that recently went viral with Martin calmly scaring a charging bear off with a growl.
Bald Eagles, Puffins, Sea Otters, Seals & Orcas: Homer
I have to confess, I fell in love with Homer. Surrounded by mountains and water, with a long list of wildlife, not to mention the halibut, it’s one of the world’s most magical places. In addition to the bear-viewing tours that depart from Homer, there are many ways to encounter all sorts of animals. On my trip, I saw countless bald eagles and puffins, seals, and sea otters. A pod of orcas passed right by the window of my apartment rental.
I joined a wildlife boat tour with Coldwater Alaska. It was pouring rain that day with little visibility but right after hopping on the vessel, the rain stopped and the skies cleared. While we didn’t see any whales on that trip, there probably hundreds of sea otters floating around and the close-up views of bald eagles made for fabulous photo ops.
The highlight was Gull Island where over 20,000 birds nest on the cliff faces. It was a rather chaotic scene, puffins were buzzing around while the sounds of thousands of screaming kittiwakes and countless other birds could be heard, and smelled. Suddenly, a bald eagle appeared and it seems every one of those birds took off like lightening, with the huge bird searching for a feast, a moment that was most unforgettable.
Bears, Moose, Dall Sheep, & Caribou: Denali National Park
Denali National Park & Preserve covers 6.1 million areas. While it’s focused around Mount Denali, the tallest mountain in North America at 20,310 feet, it’s best known for its wildlife. That includes the “big five,” moose, caribou, bears, Dall sheep, and wolves. Covering such a large region, it’s not always easy to see them all, but I managed four out of five. The wolf remains elusive.
The best way to see Denali’s wildife safely is the park’s Tundra Wilderness Tour. It brings visitors deep into the park with a a certified driver-naturalist. During the rougly 5.5-hour tour we were surrounded by majestic snow-capped mountains and alpine tundra, in addition to seeing a ton of animals. We were a bit too far for photos, but were treated to a sighting of a mother bear and her three cubs, lots of Dall sheep on the craggy peaks, a caribou herd, and a lone moose.
Humpback Whales, Bears, Mountain Goats, Moose & Bald Eagles: Glacier Bay National Park/Juneau
Glacier Bay National Park can only be reached by boat or plane. By staying at Glacier Bay Lodge, the only lodging within its boundaries, a shuttle will be provided from the airport in the tiny town of Gustavus. The park may best be known for its tidewater glaciers that can be visited on the Glacier Bay Boat Tour, but along the way, there’s a wealth of wildlife to watch for. On my trip, not only did I get to watch and hear an iceberg calf, but the animal sightings were numerous. That includes humpback whales, sea lions, and sea otters in the water while bald eagles flew overhead. Along the shore, coastal brown bears roamed, a moose munched on tree leaves and mountain goats skillfully climbed the rocky cliffsides.
As most people reach Glacier Bay via Juneau, this is a two-in-one. You’ll want to spend time in Juneau as it’s one of the best places to see humpback whales – go on a tour with a local by booking with Jayleen’s Alaska. There are countless bald eagles nearly every where you look, so they’re impossible to miss. At Eagle’s Beach, about 30 minutes from downtown, you can get a close look as they feast on salmon.