What’s the perfect creature to lure travelers to Alaska this summer? An eagle? An original? A whale?
All of these creatures are majestic in the wild. But it’s the great Alaskan brown bear that captures the imagination of millions of travelers around the world. Explore.org’s live cams have increased interest in bears to a fever pitch.
I invited some friends to hike the trails around our house in Anchorage. Heck, we even named a black bear that keeps showing up on the Chester Creek Trail: “Twinkie.” The kids enjoy trips to the Alaska Zoo and the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, where there are nice fences between us and the bears.
But people want to see big Alaskan bears in the wild.
Many air taxis, lodges and guides are doing their best to keep up with demand this year.
Ground Zero to see bears is at Brooks River Falls in Katmai National Park. Bristol Adventures has the concession for lodging and meals at Brooks Camp. There are 16 cabins available – all of which are sold out for this year and next July 2023. Accommodation is now by lottery. “For 2023 we have received nearly 2,000 lottery applications,” wrote Melissa Albert of Bristol Adventures. There are over 1,200 people on the waiting list.
In addition to Brooks Lodge, there is a National Park Service run campground with 60 spaces. There are a few individual places on certain dates in July, but they are essentially sold out. It costs $12 per night to camp, plus a $6 reservation fee. Campers can plan for 2023 and make reservations beginning January 5, 2023 at 8 a.m. Alaska Time. Time is important, since reservations fill up that day, according to Albert.
Most people visit Brooks Falls on day trips from Anchorage. Travelers can fly to King Salmon on either Katmai Air or Ravn Alaska. Alaska Airlines schedules do not work for day trips. From King Salmon, bear watchers catch a small floatplane for the 25-minute flight to Brooks Camp for a mandatory orientation by park rangers.
After orientation, park rangers will show you the way to the falls. You can not miss it. Day trips are unguided.
The cost of the full-day tour, which includes airfare, park fees, and taxes, is $990 per person. Apart from a single reservation on a few dates in July, the whole month is fully booked. “We have space from August,” Albert wrote. “There have been quite a few bears on the Brooks River throughout August for the past few years, but we have no way of knowing how that will go in the future.”
As Alaskans know, the entire state is bear country. There are several other options for travelers who want to leave now.
Rust’s Flying Service offers three half-day bear-watching adventures.
“The earlier you book, the better,” said Chris Norman, who has been booking bear watchers for more than 20 years at Rust’s.
“The best offer at the moment is the trip to Chinitna Bay. We still have availability in July and August,” Norman said.
Chinitna Bay is on the west side of Cook Inlet. Travelers fly in a Cessna 206 and land on the beach. Watch for bears in the ocean looking for clams.
Two other, closer destinations are accessible by seaplane from Rust: Redoubt Bay and Crescent Lake in Lake Clark National Park. These two trips are offered in collaboration with local lodges. Travelers board boats for a closer look at the bears.
Prices range from $795 to $995 per person plus 3% transportation tax. “Expect prices to rise because of gas prices,” Norman said.
Tom Soderholm runs Smokey Bay Air in Homer. Air Service provides year-round service between Homer and Nanwalek, Port Graham and Seldovia. In the summer, they outfit their Cessna 206s with 29-inch tundra tires to land on the beach and see the bears.
“Our pilots are the guides,” Soderholm said. “We walk with the bears for three hours.”
Guests are fitted with waders because “we may be crossing a stream,” he said. “There is a bit of a walk.”
Although July and August are prime times to see Homer’s bears, early season trips offer a chance to see bears fighting or mating. “Fighting and mating sometimes look alike,” Soderholm joked.
Groups are limited to four or five at a time. Prices start at $725 per person, but Soderholm warns that prices are rising due to fuel costs.
Amanda Jones of Sea Hawk Air in Kodiak recommends flights to Lake Frazer near the southern tip of the island. Rolan Rouss pilots Kodiak’s company DHC-2 Beaver at the lake, where there is an artificial fish ladder. This makes it easier to pick bears once the fish start running. There are several spots on a hill above the ladder where you can safely view and photograph bears.
“It’s a 45-minute flight from Kodiak to Frazer Lake,” Jones said. “From there it’s about three-quarters of a mile on a trail.”
The cost of visiting Frazer Lake starts at $725 per person.
In Juneau, Alaska Seaplanes is cooperating with Above and Beyond Alaska to offer a kayak tour to see bears at Pack Creek.
“The flight from Juneau to Admiralty Island is short – maybe 30 minutes,” said Andy Kline of Alaska Seaplanes.
From there, guides from Above and Beyond Alaska take over, allowing travelers to get into their kayaks to paddle the coastal waters.
In addition to your kayak, lunch is included, along with rain gear and rubber boots. The total duration of the tour is eight hours and the cost is $939 per person.
In Wrangell, Alaska Waters offers a jetboat trip to Anan Bear and Wildlife Observatory.
From Wrangell Harbor it’s a one hour boat ride to reach the observatory. The trail is almost three quarters of a mile from the wharf. Travelers can spend around 3.5 hours at the site, where you can see black and brown bears, in addition to harbor seals, eagles and lots of fish.
A maximum of 10 travelers can ride on each boat, according to James Leslie, president of Alaska Waters.
The high season is from July 6 to August 26. “We have openings,” Leslie said. “Regular price is $379 per person, but we can offer Alaska residents a 20% discount,” he said.
You can always watch the “superstar” bears on the webcams at Brooks River Falls. But there are plenty of other places to see bears if you can’t sit front row in Katmai National Park.