From bears and whales to bald eagles and moose, Alaska's animals have the power to captivate locals and visitors alike. The 49th state is home to an astounding variety of wildlife — so much so that entire travel itineraries have been built around viewing them. Here are just a few that you might see while out and about, as well as where to seek them out.
Locals will joke that moose are to Alaska what squirrels are to the Lower 48. While they're not quite that ubiquitous, they do often show up where you'd least expect them — a backyard garden or a grocery store parking lot, or the side of the highway. Adult females weight 800 to 1,300 pounds and males tip the scales at 1,200 to 1,600 pounds.
Of the three species of bears found in Alaska, the two you're most likely to see are the brown bear and black bear. Each can be found throughout the state, with some exceptions. The Kodiak bear, a subspecies of brown bear, is the largest type of brown bear in the world (there are about 3,500 of them in the Kodiak Archipelago, a density of about 0.7 bears per square mile). Black bears usually dwell in forested areas, but are also more likely to wander into town or pick through garbage cans. The third species of bear found in Alaska is, of course, the polar bear, primarily found in coastal areas above the Arctic Circle and on the North Slope.
Snow white with small, curved, golden-brown horns, this nimble subspecies of sheep thrives in mountainous terrain. You'll see populations of them roosting high up on the near vertical rock face of the Seward Highway between Anchorage and Girdwood, throughout Chugach State Park and scattered around Denali National Park and Preserve.
Five kinds of salmon can be found in the rivers and streams of Alaska: sockeye (also called red), pink (aka humpy), king (or chinook), coho (silver) and chum (dog). During the summer months, salmon return from the sea to the waters where they were hatched. Their internal homing devices bring them remarkably close to where they entered the world, and that's where they mate, spawn and die. You can watch their epic homecoming journeys throughout the state, though one of the easiest viewing areas, Ship Creek, runs through the heart of downtown Anchorage. There you can watch kings, coho and pink salmon charging upstream and eager anglers standing shoulder-to-shoulder, trying to fill their freezers. Kings start running in late May through July and cohos claim the river from August through mid-September.
While bald eagles are on the endangered species list in most of the United States, they are a frequent sight in the Last Frontier. Some towns, like Unalaska and Dutch Harbor, are practically overrun with this national emblem. It's estimated that a whopping 30,000 bald eagles call Alaska home (that's nearly 43 percent of the total North America bald eagle population).
Take a boat in Prince William Sound and, if the timing is right, you'll see the tails of humpback, bowhead and gray whales sliding beneath the surface of the water. A few of the other kind of whales in Alaska: beluga populations found in Cook Inlet and Turnagain Arm; bowheads, which come close to North Slope villages during their migration; and orcas, found in Glacier Bay area and the Aleutian Islands.
Where to see Alaska animals up close
Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (Portage)
Each of the animals at the Conservation Center has a story. Uli, the female black bear, was found wandering downtown Juneau as a 5-pound cub; Jade, the red fox, was found by joggers after being orphaned; Hugo, the mammoth grizzly, hitched a ride with snowmachiners who found her with hundreds of porcupine quills in her paws. They've all found homes at the sanctuary, which is dedicated to preserving Alaska wildlife through animal care, conservation, research and education. Now in its 25th year, the center has over 200 acres of habitat for the animals — including moose, wood bison, deer, elk, birds of prey, musk ox, coyotes and reindeer. While many of the animals find permanent homes at the center, others, like the wood bison, are raised and reintroduced to the wild. (Mile 79 of the Seward Highway, Portage)
Alaska Zoo (Anchorage)
Started in 1969 with just Annabelle, an elephant won by a local grocer in a contest, the zoo now includes more than 100 animals, including polar bears, Dall sheep, harbor seal and Arctic fox, as well as exotic species from across the globe. Beyond simply providing a way to view the animals, the zoo focuses on education, research and animal rehabilitation. (4731 O'Malley Road, Anchorage)
Alaska Sealife Center (Seward)
The only coldwater marine-science facility in the Western Hemisphere, the Alaska Sealife Center is where to go if you want to see Steller sea lions, seals, puffins and other coastal birds, salmon, octopus, crabs, starfish and sea urchins. A big part of the Sealife Center's mission is rehabilitating injured or abandoned animals from throughout the state, so you might even see infant animals (in just the last year they've saved a beluga calf and a walrus calf). (301 Railway Ave., Seward)
Robert G. White Large Animal Research Station (Fairbanks)
Bordering the University of Alaska Fairbanks, this research station spends the bulk of its energies studying musk ox for nutritional, physiological and behavioral research, a process that gives students of the university experience maintaining colonies of large animals. You don't have to be a student to meet their musk ox (and the reindeer and cattle that also live there) — LARS has regularly scheduled open hours in the summer and pre-arranged tours in the winter for visitors to stop by. (2220 Yankovich Road, Fairbanks)
The Musk Ox Farm (Palmer)
Located on a Colony farm in Palmer, this domesticated musk ox operation began in 1964. Part of the farm's animal husbandry involves collecting the hair that's shed from musk ox undercoats each spring. The fibers, called qiviut, are softer than cashmere and warmer than wool when spun into yarn, which you can purchase in the farm's gift shop. You can only get as close as the fences allow, but you'll have no problem seeing the handful of new calves born each spring. (12850 E. Archie Road, Palmer)
Reindeer Farm (Palmer)
You can pet and feed the roughly 150 reindeer at this farm in Palmer — they're friendly and will eat grain pellets out of your hand. Beyond just reindeer, the farm also owns Rocky Mountain elk, horses, a bison, and myriad other farm animals. Fun fact: These same reindeer participate in the annual "Running of the Reindeer" at the Anchorage Fur Rendezvous festival each February (think running of the bulls — but with reindeer in downtown Anchorage). (5561 S. Bodenburg Loop Road, Palmer)