The opportunity to see wildlife is a major attraction for many visitors to the North Country. The MILEPOST® highway logs point out spots along the highways where travelers may see Dall sheep, moose, caribou and other mammals.
Booking agents packaging custom Alaska vacations can include wildlife touring on your trip. Alaska Tour and Travel, Alaska Vacations by Gray Line of Alaska and Phillips Cruises and Tours in Anchorage can help you package a trip. Also check with tour desks at motels/hotels or ask your bed-and-breakfast or campground host about wildlife viewing tour operators available locally.
A good resource for wildlife viewing information is the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game (ADF&G). Check out their list of Alaska wildlife viewing sites then choose where you want to go.
The ADF&G has teamed up with the U.S. Forest Service, the Alaska Marine Highway System and other partners to produce a series of regional guidebooks and community-based brochures that highlight wildlife viewing sites in and near communities. Those included are: Anchorage, Fairbanks, the Kenai Peninsula and coastal communities from Ketchikan in Southeast Alaska to Dutch Harbor/Unalaska on the Aleutian Islands.
Alaska has 493 species of birds, so visitors have a good chance of seeing many varieties without even trying. Birding newsletters and statewide bird checklists are available at the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game’s Wings Over Alaska web site. Audubon Alaska offers information on how to obtain birding trail maps from local chapters in Kodiak, Fairbanks and Anchorage, on their website at or see “Checklist of Alaska Birds”.
St. Paul Island boasts 248 species of birds, and is an incredible location for bird watching. In Alaska’s Pribilof Islands, St. Paul is the largest of the Pribilof Islands and lies 300 miles off the coast of Alaska in the heart of the Bering Sea. Check with St. Paul Tours for birding tours available. There’s good bird watching in summer in Fairbanks at Creamer’s Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge. Another popular bird watching spot is Potter Marsh, part of the "Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge" just south of Anchorage off the Seward Highway. The refuge supports many species of ducks and other water birds.
The Copper River Delta Shorebird Festival in Cordova and the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival in Homer both take place in May and offer an opportunity to see great numbers of migrating shorebirds. The Alaska Bald Eagle Festival takes place in Haines in November and celebrates the winter gathering of more than 3,500 bald eagles on the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve.
There are 3 types of bears in Alaska: polar bears, black bears and brown bears. Polar bears (Ursus maritimus), classified as a marine mammal, are found along the northern coastline of Alaska and Canada, nearly always in association with sea ice. Brown bears (Ursus arctos), which are closely related to polar bears, are found throughout Alaska, with the exception of some islands in Southeast Alaska, the Aleutians and the Bering Sea. Black bears (Ursus americanus), are the most abundant and widely distributed of the 3 species of North American bears, as well as the smallest, according to the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game (ADF&G).
Viewing Ursus arctos, the brown bear or grizzly, ranks high on visitors’ wish lists of activities during a trip to Alaska. Both government agencies and private businesses in Alaska offer brown bear viewing opportunities for the public.
Most private bear viewing businesses offer day trips to see brown bears, although overnight and multi-day trips with lodging or camping are available. The hot spots for bear viewing tours in Southcentral and Southwestern Alaska are West Cook Inlet, Kodiak Island and the Alaska Peninsula, where coastal brown bears congregate in large numbers to fish at stream mouths or graze sedge fields.
Access is mainly by small plane, on floats or wheels, out of Homer, Kodiak, Kenai–Soldotna, King Salmon, Anchorage and Seward. Air services offer aerial bear viewing, guided land-based bear viewing tours and round-trip transportation to bear viewing camps and lodges. Tour operators often offer sport fishing, bird watching and other activities along with bear viewing. A few tour operators offer coastal brown bear viewing by boat.
Air service to these and other bear viewing destinations is offered by Sea Hawk Air out of Kodiak; Natron Air in Soldotna; several charters out of Seward and Homer; and Rust’s Flying Service out of Anchorage.
Alaska’s public parklands also have bear viewing. In southcentral Alaska, the 2,812-square-mile Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, accessible by air charter or boat, is home to about 3,500 bears. The refuge offers a bear viewing platform at the O’Malley River where visitors can observe bears in the wild. Contact the refuge for details. On the Alaska Peninsula, numerous bears congregate at Brooks Falls, near Brooks Camp in Katmai National Park, for the red salmon run. Accommodations are available through the park concessionaire.
The McNeil River State Game Sanctuary, about 100 miles southwest of Anchorage, is a favorite site of photographers and videographers intent on documenting brown bears. Visits to McNeil are by permit only, selected in an annual lottery. Information on permits is available online from Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game. The ADF&G also oversees Wolverine Creek on the west side of Cook Inlet, a popular destination for bear viewing and fishing by chartered skiff.
Off of the Parks Highway, in Talkeetna, several flightseeing services offer bear and wildlife viewing options. And in Fairbanks, at the north end of the Parks Highway, Warbelow’s Air Ventures phone 907-474-3520, offers a September flightseeing trip to Kaktovik to see polar bears
In Southeast Alaska, the U.S. Forest Service manages 3 bear viewing sites: Anan Wildlife Observatory, located southeast of Wrangell; Stan Price State Wildlife Sanctuary at Pack Creek, located on Admiralty Island (co-managed by the ADF&G and USFS); and Fish Creek Wildlife Observatory near Hyder. For general information on these bear viewing destinations and links to related sites, go to the highlighted link above and click on Recreation, then Nature Viewing, then Wildlife Viewing.
Anan Observatory is accessible by boat from Wrangell. Summer visitors can watch bears catch salmon headed for upstream spawning grounds. Alaska Waters Inc. offers trips to Anan from Wrangell. Both the Forest Service and ADF&G provide information about Pack Creek, where brown bears feed on salmon from June to early September. Pack Creek is a 30-minute flight by floatplane from Juneau and visits are by permit only. Click here for more information.
Also in Southeast Alaska, accessed via Cassiar Highway 37, is the Fish Creek Wildlife Observatory, located near Hyder. A U.S. Forest Service day-use recreation area is located at Fish Creek. Both brown and black bears may be photographed here as they fish for salmon from mid-July to early September. Click here for more information.
For those wanting to see bears but not wanting to go on a tour to do it, wherever the salmon are, you can typically also find bears. Bears are frequently in residence, for example, at the Russian River on the Kenai Peninsula, during the salmon runs. If you drive down the peninsula and see bunches of fishermen, it means the fishing is good, so bear viewing will likely be also.
If you are fishing (or just viewing) where bears are present, be sure to read and follow posted instructions regarding bear etiquette. The best defense against bears: Do not surprise them, do not approach them, and do not underestimate their speed or destructive potential. Be “Bear Aware” at all times—the streams that cross Anchorage, for example, are salmon spawning routes in summer, and bears follow those streams to find their food source. Remember: feeding wildlife is illegal.
Both charter cruises and scheduled day cruises are available to view wildlife along Alaska's magnificent coastline. Passengers on day cruises have the opportunity to see some of Alaska's most famous glaciers and also its wildlife. Commonly seen on these cruises are sea otters, Steller sea lions, dolphins, harbor seals, Dall porpoises, whales (minke, gray, fin, humpback), puffins, eagles, black-legged kittiwakes, common murres, cormorants, and parakeet and rhinoceros auklets.
In Southeast Alaska, day cruises concentrate on whale watching and sightseeing in such gems as Misty Fjords National Monument (out of Ketchikan), Tracy Arm (out of Juneau) and Glacier Bay (also out of Juneau). Juneau’s Adventure Bound Alaska Cruises offer daily trips to Tracy Arm, a long, narrow fjord that extends into the heavily glaciated Coast Mountain Range, 50 miles southeast of Juneau, to see wildlife, waterfalls and glaciers. Adventures with Whales, Orca Enterprises offers wildlife and whale watching cruises around Juneau.
Viking Travel in Petersburg arranges whale-watching and custom sightseeing trips.
Glacier Bay National Park offers wildlife and spectacular glacier scenery. Glacier Bay is on the itinerary of most Inside Passage cruise ships and now on the Alaska Marine Highway ferry route, and it is also a popular destination for day cruises out of Juneau. Charter boat tours of Glacier Bay, Icy Strait and Point Adolphus are available in Gustavus, the small community just outside the park boundary. Wildlife cruises may be arranged through local accommodations, such as Annie Mae Lodge and Glacier Bay Lodge and Tours.
In southcentral Alaska, charter and scheduled wildlife cruises depart from Whittier, Seward, Ninilchik, Homer and Seldovia for sightseeing Prince William Sound, Resurrection Bay, Cook Inlet and Kachemak Bay. Full-day, half-day and dinner cruises of Kenai Fjords National Park depart daily from Seward, located 127 miles south from Anchorage. These scheduled cruises explore the park’s glaciated coastline and the substantial populations of marine mammals and birds that make their home there. Full-day cruises also visit Chiswell Islands National Wildlife Refuge. Charter boats are also available out of Seward for wildlife viewing. Scheduled cruise tours and charter service out of Seward for wildlife viewing include: Kenai Fjords Tours; Major Marine Tours; and Sunny Cove Sea Kayaking Co. And while you are in Seward, visit the Alaska SeaLife Center and learn about the birds and marine mammals of coastal Alaska.
Daily scheduled cruise tours and custom sightseeing cruises of Prince William Sound’s glaciers and wildlife depart from Whittier and Valdez. Prince William Sound tour operators include: Phillips’ Cruises & Tours; Stan Stephens Glacier & Wildlife Cruises; Major Marine Tours; Prince William Sound Eco-Tours; and Lu-Lu Belle Glacier Wildlife Cruises.
Marine wildlife cruises out of Homer travel to destinations around Kachemak Bay. Both the Seldovia Bay Ferry and the Danny J to Halibut Cove cruise Gull Island.
Wildlife Parks & Tours
The Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center at Milepost S 79 Seward Highway, 48 miles south of Anchorage is a drive-through animal park, the center is dedicated to the rehabilitation of wild orphaned and injured animals. Rescued bears, lynx, caribou, moose, musk-oxen, bison, elk, Sitka black-tailed deer, eagles and owls are among the residents at the park.
Two destinations specializing in musk-ox viewing are the Musk-Ox Farm in Palmer (which also houses a gift shop of Musk-Ox qiviut items) and the UAF Large Animal Research Station in Fairbanks. Both locations offer guided tours of these ancient animals.
The Yukon Wildlife Preserve, located about a half-hour’s drive from Whitehorse, is a 700-acre animal park. A 1.5-hour passenger van tour reveals mountain goats, caribou, moose, elk, wood bison, musk-oxen, mule deer and mountain sheep in their natural habitat.
See reindeer up close and personal at the Williams Reindeer Farm in Palmer. Hand feed their reindeer (feed provided with admission), but remember to hide your hands when they are empty!
The largest wild animal park in Alaska has to be 6-million-acre Denali National Park, located 237 highway miles north of Anchorage. Because wildlife is not captive at the park, spotting a grizzly, dall sheep, caribou or moose is not guaranteed, but visitors on one of the bus tours through the park have a pretty good chance. The park concessionaire offers a bus tour out the Park Road.