When Should I Go Bear Viewing?
Updated: Dec 7, 2020
Timing matters when planning your bear viewing adventure. You’ll want to ensure that your visit to Alaska lines up with the bear viewing season. By exploring the timing of the bear viewing season, we hope to give you a better idea of what to expect during your visit to Alaska and your visit to Katmai National Park and Preserve for some of the best brown bear viewing sites in the world.
Bear Viewing is Seasonal
Bear viewing follows the life of the bears. They emerge from their dens in the spring, searching for fresh food and new mates. Spring cubs born in January and nursed inside their mother’s den begin to experience the world for the first time. Other young cubs continue honing their own foraging skills while still under the governance of their mother. When the salmon arrive, they gorge themselves in anticipation of winter. After the salmon run, bears continue feeding on berries and seeds as they make final preparations for denning.
In this article, we’ll break up our look at the bear viewing season (June through August, for our purposes) into three chunks in order to give you a better idea of what you might expect during your own journey to Katmai National Park.
Bear Viewing Throughout the Summer
Bear viewing takes place from May to September, typically. However, Emerald Air Service operates only during the months of June, July, and August, months in which we find the most predictable and highest concentrations of bears.
Early Summer—June to Middle/Late July
June to middle/late July finds us along the coastal sedge flats of Katmai National Park (e.g., Hallo Bay). We watch the bears comb the beach and graze on succulent spring grasses, beginning to replace the fat reserves used to preserve them through hibernation. It is mating season during this time, so we may see males pursuing the females in a sometimes weeks long courting process. June is the time new spring cubs are being introduced into the general population of bears. Young sub-adults are playfully celebrating the return of summer.
Middle Summer—Middle/Late July to Middle of August
In middle/late July to mid August, many of the streams and rivers along the Alaska Range fill with salmon returning to the very streams in which they were spawned. The bears with hefty appetites after a long winter’s fast are waiting for the salmon. Each bear has their favorite fishing spot and unique fishing style. Some bears wade shoulder-deep into the river, searching for fish and waiting for the perfect time to pounce. Others forage for weak fish or for leftovers on the banks from other bears. Some drive the salmon to shallow pools before stunning a fish with their paws. And still others plant themselves at the top of falls and wait for the salmon to quite literarily leap upstream right into their jaws. Each brown bear develops a unique fishing style, and some of the best bear viewing allows us to sit not-too-far from the banks of the shore while the bears fish. During the peak of the sockeye run in the middle of July, you may be able to see 12 to 15 bears fishing at Brooks Falls at the same time. In the Katmai Preserve, bears congregate in large numbers along several different streams.
Late Summer—Middle to Late August and Beyond
Middle August to September finds the bears fat and sleek from calorie-rich salmon, continuing to move between the salmon streams and the abundant ripe berries on the hillsides—blueberries, crowberries, bearberries, and cranberries. Alaskan Coastal Brown Bears are among the largest in the world. By this time, male bears can grow up to 1,000 pounds, with exceptionally large bears sometimes reaching 1,400 pounds and standing up to eleven feet in height. The fur of brown bears can be anywhere from blonde to brown to nearly black, and their fur appears most glossy by this time late summer. Bears become increasingly more difficult to find during September, as bears may begin digging their own dens during this time, usually on moderate to steep slopes, often weeks before they go into hibernation. Denning depends on both heavy snowfall and how long food sources remain available.
When Is the Best Time to Go Bear Viewing?
The “best” time to go bear viewing, in one sense, is during the peak months of summer—June through August. However, in another sense, the “best” time to go bear viewing all depends on what you hope to see while bear viewing. Are you wanting to see fresh spring bear cubs? Then going bear viewing earlier in the season—early June, for example—will be best for you. Are you wanting to capture that perfect photo of a bear catching a salmon mid-leap? Then you might want to go bear viewing after the salmon run has begun, beginning sometime in middle to late July, for example. But, honestly, anytime is a great time to see a bear. We hope this article gives you a better glimpse into the bear viewing season and helps you plan your own trip into Katmai National Park and Preserve.