What’s the perfect critter to draw travelers to Alaska this summer? An eagle? A moose? A whale?
All of these creatures are majestic in the wild. But it’s the big Alaska brown bear that captures the imagination of millions of travelers from around the world. The live webcams from explore.org have increased the interest in the bears to a fever pitch.
I’ve invited friends to walk the trails around our house in Anchorage. Heck, we’ve 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 Alaska’s big bears in the wild.
Lots of air taxis, lodges and guides are doing their best to keep up with the demand this year.
Ground Zero for seeing the bears is at Brooks River Falls in Katmai National Park. Bristol Adventures has the concession for accommodations and meals at Brooks Camp. There are 16 cabins available — all of which are sold out for this year and next July, 2023. Accommodations now are done by lottery. “For 2023, we received almost 2,000 lottery applications,” wrote Melissa Albert of Bristol Adventures. There are more than 1,200 people on the waitlist.
In addition to Brooks Lodge, there’s a campground run by the National Park Service with 60 spaces. There are a few single places on select dates in July, but it’s essentially sold out. It costs $12 per night to camp, plus a $6 reservation fee. Campers can plan for 2023 and make reservations starting Jan. 5, 2023 at 8 a.m. Alaska time. The time is important, since reservations fill up on that day, according to Albert.
Most people visit Brooks Falls on day trips from Anchorage. Travelers can fly to King Salmon either on Katmai Air or Ravn Alaska. Alaska Airlines’ times don’t work for the day tours. 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, the park rangers will point the way to the falls. You can’t miss it. The day trips are not guided.
Cost for the daylong tour, which includes airfare, park fees and taxes, is $990 per person. Aside from a single reservation on a couple of dates in July, the entire month is sold out. “We have some space starting in August,” wrote Albert. “There have been quite a few bears on Brooks River throughout August the past several years, but we have no way of knowing how it will be in the future.”
As Alaskans are aware, the entire state is bear country. There are several other options for travelers who want to go right now.
Rust’s Flying Service offers three half-day bear viewing adventures.
“The earlier you book, the better,” said Chris Norman, who’s been booking bear-watchers for more than 20 years at Rust’s.
“The best offer right now is the trip to Chinitna Bay. We still have some availability in July and August,” said Norman.
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 digging for clams.
Two other closer destinations are accessible by Rust’s floatplanes: Redoubt Bay and Crescent Lake in Lake Clark National Park. Both of these trips are offered in conjunction with local lodges. Travelers get into boats for a closer look at the bears.
Prices range from $795 to $995 per person, plus a 3% transportation tax. “Expect prices to go up because of gas prices,” said Norman.
Tom Soderholm runs Smokey Bay Air in Homer. The 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,” said Soderholm. “We walk with the bears for three hours.”
Guests are outfitted with hip waders, because “we may be crossing a stream,” he said. “There’s a bit of walking.”
Although July and August are prime times for seeing the bears from Homer, early-season trips offer a chance to see bears fighting or mating. “Fighting and mating kind of look alike at times,” quipped Soderholm.
Groups are limited to four or five at a time. Prices start at $725 per person, but Soderholm cautions that prices are going up due to fuel costs.
Amanda Jones of Sea Hawk Air in Kodiak recommends flights to Frazer Lake near the southern tip of the island. Rolan Rouss pilots the company’s DHC-2 Beaver from Kodiak to the lake, where there’s a man-made fish ladder. That makes easy pickings for the bears once the fish start running. There are several locations on a hill above the ladder where you can safely view and photograph the bears.
“It’s a 45-minute flight from Kodiak to Frazer Lake,” said Jones. “From there, it’s about three-quarters of a mile on a trail.”
Cost for the Frazer Lake tour starts at $725 per person.
In Juneau, Alaska Seaplanes cooperates with Above and Beyond Alaska to offer a kayak trip 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, the guides at Above and Beyond Alaska take over, getting travelers fitted in their kayaks to paddle in the coastal waters.
In addition to your kayak, lunch in included, along with rain gear and rubber boots. The total tour length is eight hours and the cost is $939 per person.
Down in Wrangell, Alaska Waters offers a jetboat trip to the Anan Bear and Wildlife Observatory.
From the Wrangell Harbor, it’s a one-hour boat ride to reach the observatory. The trail is almost three-quarters of a mile from the dock. Travelers can spend about 3.5 hours at the site, where you can see both black and brown bears, in addition to harbor seals, eagles and lots of fish.
A maximum of 10 travelers can go on each boat, according to James Leslie, Alaska Waters president.
Peak season is July 6 to Aug. 26. “We have openings,” said Leslie. “The regular price is $379 per person, but we can offer a 20 percent Alaska resident discount,” he said.
You can always watch the bear “superstars” on the webcams at Brooks River Falls. But there are lots of other places to see the bears if you can’t get a front-row seat out in Katmai National Park.