Look for furry creatures at the Anan Creek Bear Observatory. // © 2017 Creative Commons user Andrew E. Russell
Feature image (above): Denali National Park and Preserve offers a variety of wildlife viewing. // © 2017 Creative Commons user denalinps/Daniel A. Leifheit
Alaska is among the top destinations for adventure travel. But the most cherished part of adventures here is the opportunity to observe and interact with big wildlife. While new visitors often believe Alaskan critters are hiding behind every bush, waiting to be photographed, the opposite is true. It’s tough to find big wildlife unless you know where to look.
“Wildlife numbers are best found in areas that offer food and shelter,” said Jim Bailey, a longtime Alaska guide. “Geography, migration routes and weather each play a factor, too.”
I’ve spent more than 43 years searching for Alaska’s best wildlife viewing areas and have narrowed down destinations and tours that won’t disappoint your clients.
Anchorage for Beginners
For those with only one day in Anchorage, Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center near Girdwood offers moose, bears, musk ox, blacktail deer, caribou, lynx and bison in free-range areas that mimic their natural settings. The walking tour — with the scenic coastal mountains in view from the highway — offers a superb backdrop for wildlife photos. The animals are easy to approach, as well as a hit with kids.
No wildlife adventure would be complete without first stopping off at the Alaska Zoo in Anchorage. The interpretive displays prepare visitors with fun facts and education on Alaska’s wildlife, as well as a few other non-native species such as Siberian tigers and camels. Try out its “Zookeeper for the Day” program, available during the winter, spring and fall seasons, where clients go behind the scenes to work with the caregivers to help feed and take care of the animals.
Black Bear Observatory
Anan Creek Bear Observatory out of Wrangell is my favorite black bear viewing experience. Breakaway Adventures offers a one-hour, guided boat ride from Wrangell to the observatory where you can see whales, otters and seals. View bears from an enclosed, open-platform deck or from a hidden blind 20 yards from the bears and 11 feet above the creek. The bears are preoccupied with feeding on tens of thousands of pink salmon that surge into the tiny creek in July and August. It’s easy to see several to a dozen bears in a single day, along with bald eagles, seals and the occasional brown bear.
Bristol Bay Brown Bears
From July through September, Brooks Falls and other destinations in and near Katmai National Park are world-renowned for brown bears up to 10 feet tall that feed on huge runs of sockeye salmon. Various air charter services, such as Rust’s Flying Service operating out of Anchorage, offer daily brown bear viewing flights and ground photo safaris to brown bear hot spots across Lower Cook Inlet and throughout Bristol Bay country. Dedicated bear watchers can use cabin camps at Katmai National Park or the tents at Hallo Bay Wilderness Camp as a base.
For the Alaska Interior, few places beat Denali National Park and Preserve for viewing 169 species of birds, 14 species of fish and 39 species of mammals that include moose, grizzly bears, caribou, wolves, lynx and Dall sheep. The Tundra Wilderness Tour with Denali Park Village is a daylong bus ride that offers a good wildlife viewing opportunities from the park road.
Others opt for a weeklong stay at Camp Denali, located near Wonder Lake. Due to its location on high ground, it’s a prime place to photograph Alaska big game, all with the possibility of 20,310-foot Denali mountain as a backdrop. A professional naturalist will be your guide on daily excursions to explore Denali’s backcountry and observe its wildlife. Learn how caribou are uniquely adapted to travel over steep and slippery terrain, and watch grizzly bears feed nearly 24 hours a day on berries, insects and roots. The camp invites flora and fauna experts throughout the summer to lecture and accompany guests afield.
Glacier Bay Whale Watching Cruise
There is no shortage of sea mammals along Alaska’s coastline. One of the best concentrations of humpback whales is Glacier Bay National Park.
Un-Cruise Adventures offers a variety of tours that focus on touring this area from a smaller cruise vessel. On one trip, we observed more than 200 whales breaching, and many approached the ship and stopped within 15 yards, making for great photos. When the whales exhale, observers will get covered with whale snot, which is a bragging right visitors often delight in claiming. For an endorphin rush, try a guided whale watching tour via kayak with Spirit Walker Expeditions, based in Gustavus.
Prince William Sound Marine Smorgasbord
For a slew of wildlife, the Northwestern Fjords Tour with Seward’s Kenai Fjords Tours is a nine-hour cruise that ventures into the wildlife-rich outer edge of Prince William Sound. Expect great viewing opportunities for orca and humpback whales, sea lion colonies, sea otters, black bears, mountain goats, sea bird rookeries and puffins.
Out of Valdez, Stan Stephens Glacier & Wildlife Cruises offers up-close-and-personal glacier viewing with a superb wildlife component. Highlights include pods of orca whales as well as seals basking on ice floes near Meares Glacier. Boats for both tours are designed to not only minimize seasickness but also to aid in stability for better viewing and photography.
For do-it-yourselfers, Valdez offers prime black bear viewing along the road system near The Solomon Gulch Fish Hatchery. Early morning or late evening in July and August are the best times to view brown and black bears feeding on hundreds of thousands of pink salmon, which are vulnerable to predation at low tide.