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When & Where to Photograph Brown & Grizzly Bears in Alaska

Ron Levy, 2020

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Brown bear and photographer, McNeil River Sanctuary, Alaska
Introduction
We get more questions about when and where to photograph bears in Alaska than any other wildlife photography question. With over 90% of the brown/grizzly bears in the United States in Alaska, the three best areas in the state for photography are in southcentral (the northern half of the Alaska Peninsula), Denali Nat’l Park, and the “ABC islands” (Admiralty, Becharof and Chicagof) in Southeast Alaska. In this article, we will focus on the most accessible, popular and “best-bang-for-your-buck” areas in southcentral Alaska.
Though Denali can have great experiences for inland bears, there is a tremendous amount of logistics, reservations, crowds, restrictions and sheer luck in getting a close experience without a crowded, jiggling busload of people. Similarly, the ABC islands near Juneau offers great bear encounters, but they are not of the same scale and quantity as those offered in southcentral AK. If you are a serious photographer, or want more personal, consistent, rewarding and photo-filled encounters with brown bears, the Alaska Peninsula in southcentral is the place to go.
Before we dive into when and where to go to photograph brown bears, let’s clear up some confusion. You’ll notice I am referring to brown/grizzly bears here. So what’s the difference?
The short answer is, there isn’t much. Brown and grizzly are common names for the same species (Ursus arctos). There is some disagreement whether the Kodiak brown bear is a separate species, due to its immense size and geographic isolation on the island. But geography mostly determines whether bears can fish on inland mammals and plants versus fish. A diet rich in salmon gives the bears lots of fat and a more dependable, plentiful food source, so coastal brown bears tend to be bigger than inland grizzlies. Both have the distinctive shoulder hump (lacking in black bears), long curved claws, and a wide head with a concave “dish-faced” profile.
Coastal brown bear males typically weigh 600-900 pounds by mid-summer, with females averaging 1/3 less. By the time they hibernate in the fall, males can reach over 1,200 pounds, 5 feet tall at the shoulder and 7-10 feet in overall length.
Geography
As the map below shows, the Alaska Peninsula spans from Cook Inlet and Lake Clark in the north end (across from the Kenai Peninsula) down through Katmai National Park at the southern end towards the beginning of the Aleutian Islands. This peninsula houses the great majority of the most easily accessible brown bear camps in Alaska.
 
Brown bear camps, southcentral Alaska, Alaska Photo Adventures

Brown bear camps, southcentral Alaska, Alaska Photo Adventures

There are more bear camps and sites not indicated on the map as you head farther south on the Alaska Peninsula. They are of course more expensive to get to (by air or boat), take more time to get there (overnight if by boat), generally involve more frequent worse weather as you approach open ocean, and more of a commitment in general. Though they can give you superb bear encounters, you can often get the same encounters and better return on your time and money with the bear camps closer to the mainland. We mention some of these more common, affordable and dependable bear camps below.
Kodiak island lies south of Homer and east of the Alaska Peninsula. Though Kodiak has the largest coastal bears (1200 lbs +), it is not easy to get to, has almost constant rainy weather, and is not as affordable as the other spots. (By the way, we get no kickbacks or commissions of any kind for recommending one area over another. This is purely for your information.)
To a lesser extent, the Kenai Peninsula supports a healthy population of brown and black bears that can be seen on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and Chugach National Forest, especially near the Russian-Kenai River confluence during the salmon runs. Bears seen here are usually solitary but sometimes very conveniently seen from the road fishing along the rivers, and by the waterfalls at the fish ladder on Russian River (an hour hike up the trail at the Forest Service campground).

Why are they here?

The camps located along the coast have a combination of estuaries (tidal flats where salmon rivers meet the sea) and mountains, where bears can return to their dens in the fall. Food is plentiful in the tidal areas for 6 months from spring to fall. In addition to sedges that are high in protein and other edible plants in the salt marshes, razor clams exist throughout the tide flats, and berries grow on the hillsides. Salmon return each summer by the millions to spawn and die upstream, and sometimes seals, whales and other marine carcasses wash up with the tide for a bonus meal.
In addition to avoiding conflict in general, bears here do not have a history of thinking of people as food sources. Plus they are neither hunted, threatened or ever injured by people, which makes us about as interesting as a raven or a gull from their point of view. This combination of plentiful food that allows for a high population of tolerant bears living close but not to close to human communities creates the perfect opportunity that you will find in few other places in the world.
Because of the high abundance of food, bears in these coastal areas are more tolerant of each-other and of people than in places with less dependable food. Bears are naturally solitary animals but still establish a hierarchy when in the same areas. This involves the use of signals through vocalizations, scent, body posturing and other behavioral signs that trained guides will be looking for to ensure your awareness, safety and respect for bear dynamics.
Bears see people every day, and we behave in a generally predictable manner. Since they are not hunted here, or hurt by people, and do not have a history of acquiring food from us, we are about as interesting as a moving rock to them. I have always maintained that the biggest compliment to a wildlife photographer is to be ignored. Then you can relax and take all the photos you want of natural behavior. This tolerance to humans allows for the perfect bear viewing opportunity in a rarified and gorgeous setting.
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Brown bears and hikers, Chinitna Bay, Lake Clark NP, Alaska © Ron Levy

Where to go for great brown bear photos
Both Katmai and Lake Clark National Parks include some of the most accessible and best bear viewing areas in the state. This includes Brooks Falls (see the post on Brooks Falls here), McNeil River, Hallo Bay, Geographic Harbor, Chinitna Bay (where the shot of bears & hikers below was taken), Wolverine Creek, Tuxedni Bay, etc. These areas have supported and protected healthy, stable bear populations for many decades since they became codified in 1980 with the Alaska National Land Claims Act. Biologists and National Park personnel have been studying the dynamics of these coastal bear populations for almost 50 years now. Brooks Falls and McNeil River are the most intensively monitored and regulated areas, with on-site rangers/biologists throughout the summer season to manage humans and animals.
Other bear camps were established as private inholdings prior to the formation of the national parks. For the most part,  they offer a less crowded, more personal, flexible and rewarding experience for photographers. This still comes at a cost of several thousand dollars per trip, but you can see equally fantastic bear interactions with less hassle, less people and more flexibility. There is still quite a bit of variability in facilities, recreational pressure and bear populations at these other camps. They all involve a significant investment of time, money and mindset in terms of being out in the wild and preparing adequately.
Alaska Photo Adventures (APA) brings photographers regularly to the hot spots in both Katmai and Lake Clark National Parks. Being independent, we are not biased or locked into one camp, and can adjust our tours to take advantage of better experiences, costs, transit time, more time at the bear viewing camps, and other advantages of one area over another. Most charter flight operators have their preferences and agreements worked out with the bear camps in these areas. Thus they may try to funnel you into the 1 or 2 spots they fly to. When you get more serious about going, contact us, or do a quick internet search on the areas of your choice to see if there are any updates on access, restrictions, rules, prices, etc. 
Here is a quick synopsis on some of the most popular bear camps mentioned above and on the map.
McNeil Falls — One of the two most famous bear viewing spots in Alaska. State managed “Game Sanctuary” in northern Katmai Nat’l Park.  Visitors allowed only by permits through a lottery run by the Alaska Dept of Fish & Game. Standby slots are also available. As of this writing, you can pick two 4-day slots, a preferred and alternate. McNeil is a difficult place to plan your trip, as you won’t know if you a lottery slot for several months, and there is always the chance that weather might throw a curve to your flight or experience during your reserved days. A state biologist guide walks you 2 miles to and from the viewing areas at Mikfik creek and/or McNeil River, depending on the time of year. While McNeil is one of the oldest, safest and best spots to see brown bears fishing en masse and often up close and personal, it is still expensive. On top of the charter flight fees, there are the lottery fees and all your own expenses to calculate — there are no lodges, so you must bring your own tent(s), sleeping bags, food, etc. and be prepared to sleep in rainy and/or windy conditions.
Brooks Falls –The other of the two most famous bear viewing areas in Alaska. Federally managed. Nat’l Park rangers on-site and supervising access to the bears. Highly regulated but highly safe and accessible via numerous charters. More inland than McNeil River and slightly longer transit time. There is a 2 mile walk each way from Brooks Lake along a wide, maintained trail and raised boardwalks to the famous bear viewing falls. See our Brooks Falls post for more details. 
Wolverine Creek — Located in Cook Inlet on the upper end of the Alaska Peninsula, this is one of the closest and easily accessible bear viewing areas. As such, it can be extremely crowded with fishermen and photographers (roughly 10,000/season). It is a small river about a mile long that has huge salmon runs on their way to Big River lake. All viewing is done by boats, and you can get very close to the bears, who are quite used to humans and don’t care about us. It is not a good place to get isolated photos of bears, as there will almost always be a boat or human in the shot. But it may be a good spot to catch sows and cubs, a bear going after other animals such as beaver, or interactions with black bears.
Tuxedni Bay — South of Wolverine creek, Tuxedni Bay is another spot that is frequented by fishermen as well as photographers. It is a large bay with several beautiful coves and a guest lodge at Crescent Lake. It is a more difficult place to get closeups of bears, as they are not as accustomed to people as the other areas mentioned above. But it is closer to Anchorage and a bit cheaper to get to. 
Chinitna Bay — South of Tuxedni is Chinitna Bay. It is a large but somewhat secluded bay that allows beach access by boat as well as float plane access. It is a great place to see different interactions of bears throughout the season. There are a few lodges in the area of Glacier Meadow, and you can watch sows and cubs grazing on the sedges and/or for clams in the mud flats at low tide. Brown and/or black bears can come very close in the meadow/slough areas, and they are well accustomed to people.
Silver Salmon Creek — In the same area just south of Chinitna is Silver Salmon Lake and Creek, another series of wetlands that host large red and silver salmon runs throughout the summer. There can be numerous bears scattered around the area, including sows and cubs. There are 2 lodges here that have been in operation for many decades. A good place for isolated closeups and behavior shots.
Hallo Bay — Further south on the coast is Hallo Bay, a beautiful cove with glacier views and a nice lodge that allows great bear viewing and photography. The southern part of the bay is where, similar to Chinitna Bay, numerous bears feed on sedges in the meadows and clams on the mud flats. Contrary to the other bear viewing areas, though, mid-July is not as good a time to see bears here, due to the salmon runs. Many of the salmon have already turned upstream in the more northerly rivers. 
Kukak Bay — Similar to Hallo Bay, the eastern side of Kukak Bay is a good spot to see isolated bears in the early part of the summer.  Extreme tides prevent safe access on the west side of the bay. By end of June, bears begin to move to more northerly areas of the coast where they can find higher concentrations of salmon. The mouth of North Kukak River is good during August and September. There is one lodge here where both fishermen and photographers can stay.
Kaflia Bay — Located just south of Kukak bay, the smaller Kaflia Bay is just as gorgeous. It became famous through Timothy Treadwell, who lived with the bears here for many years before he and his girlfriend were mauled here.  They were great advocates for respecting bears and wildlife, but became careless with their lifestyles and camp practices. Many groups of photographers have visited this beautiful bay before and after Treadwell put it on the international map. There is a short hike from the bay to the lagoon and stream where most of the bears are seen. It is a wet walk — hip waders are required and bears can be seen anywhere along the heavily vegetated trail.
Geographic Harbor– one of the most well known and beautiful bear viewing spots along the Katmai coast. The “harbor” is actually at the end of Amalik bay, a huge fjord with numerous inlets and smaller bays to cruise around in. There are many places to sit and watch bears at close range, similar to Brooks Falls and McNeil River. Sows and cubs play and nurse in the fields and mud flats. 
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Brown bear and photographers, Kenai River, Alaska

When to go
Depending on where we go, some rivers and lakes have one, short salmon run in the summer, while others have 2-3 runs covering a few months. That doesn’t mean each run has millions of fish, but it does give us options depending on how the runs are doing at each area during a specific tour. There are many factors that determine when the salmon start their run up the rivers and sloughs, and there are factors like weather, fog, bear populations, etc. that determine how easily we can access each area and whether it will be worth your time.
We want you to get the best bang for your buck every time, so again, the best benefit for going with an independent operation like ours is that we have the freedom and flexibility to pick the best spots for maximum photo opps, and small group sizes to shift quickly when weather and logistics dictate.
June: This is the best time to witness bears mating, socializing and searching for razor clams at low tide. Though bears search for clams at low tides throughout the summer, most of the salmon haven’t reached this area yet until late June, so more bears are searching for clams. Later in the month, when the tide rises, bears will look for salmon in the water and protein-rich sedges in inter-tidal meadows that are temporarily flooded. Cubs may or may not be present, depending in large part whether the boars are around or aggressive. Male bears will kill cubs and can be aggressive towards females and other bears as well. June is also the longest month of daylight, so you will have longer hours to watch and photograph bears. Wildflowers will also be out in their glory.
July: Mid-June through July is generally the best month for the most quantity of bears in coastal areas. This is due to the higher numbers of red (sockeye) salmon in Cook Inlet at this time. Sockeye salmon have a little more fat than the other salmon (silver, coho, king and chum), so bears seem to like the taste and sheer quantity of fish. They will still graze in the meadows and eat clams at low tide as well. Mid-July thru early August is generally the best time to photograph sows with cubs. Cubs are usually born in January and are about 6 months old July. It is the best combination of time when they are old enough to be outside and active enough to follow the sow around, play around, explore. That doesn’t mean you will get the type of interactions you may want (see above). The females with their 6 month old cubs start to leave the den in late June-early July. It is a great month for watching bears play, graze, and nurse, though it is also the most crowded for visitors. Logistics and (plane/boat) traffic will be at its peak, and some lodges and flight operators price July visits higher than other months.
August: At this time, huge bears and females with cubs are still patroling the river banks looking for spawning salmon from the ocean. Bears are either snorkeling or diving into the rivers to catch pink salmon. Salmon is a great source of protein in preparation for Alaska’s harsh winters. You may see some rather large solitary boars and sows after a summer of feasting on salmon, grasses and clams. Cubs are getting older and yearlings will be out on their own as well. Fall colors begin to appear in early August, and in this part of Alaska, consist mostly of yellows and pink-orange. You won’t see the deep reds that are more common inland and in the northern interior of Alaska. But even a hint of color can really add a great splash of color to bear shots of any kind. Combine that with the golden light of sunsets or morning sunrises (coming later the morning now!), and you can have a saturated shot of some great bear interactions.
September: Fall colors continue through September, as the days and nights can get brisk, sometimes down into the 40s at night. Again, bears will be getting bigger from a summer of feasting on salmon, clams and grasses, against a backdrop of an increasingly brilliant palette.Bears will still be fishing for salmon, but most likely pinks, chum and silvers by now, as the red/sockeye runs are usually over. Berries will be more plentiful and you may catch feasting bears with splashes of blue across their faces and tongues. By mid-September, most of the cottonwoods, birches and willows lining the rivers have turned brilliant gold. In terms of weather, days can be brilliant sunny with brisk mornings and cool evenings. As September is the equinox month, days and nights will be about the same length. Rain is more frequent in the fall, but clouds can offer some fantastically dramatic low-angle light and “God-light_ breakthroughs. Add to that the splashes of fall colors and glimmers of light on a huge grizzly’s eyeballs, and you’ve got a winner shot.

 

 

brown bear and bald eagle both with salmon

Brown bear and bald eagle with salmon, McNeil River, Alaska © Ron Levy

Conclusion
All the above notwithstanding, you can have fantastic bear experiences at any time of the season. At unexpected times, we have witnessed poignant mother-cub interactions in blazing colors and/or foggy mornings, boars fighting, and human-bear close encounters throughout the summer, so don’t get too stressed if you can’t come when there are “the most bears present” or “the best fall colors”. As is true with all wildlife photography, it is better to spend as much time as you can in bear country, rather than trying to pinpoint an exact location or set of days.
A lot of people go to Brooks Falls because it is world famous and there are a lot of bears there. But the scene is somewhat static, even though the falls are always moving. It’s still a great place to get a lot of bears with fish jumping in their mouths. But just keep in mind that unique synchronicities of events, colors, moments, interactions and “god-light” can happen anywhere – e.g. on the hikes to see the bears, rather than at the actual destinations.
The more time you give yourself in the wild, the more you will be rewarded with moments you couldn’t plan even if you consulted all the weather and animal behavior charts you could get your hands on. Astounding moments await those who are patient and prepared. Best wishes and I hope to see you on one of our tours!

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(For other tips on photographing bears, also see Photographing Bears + 1 Dirty Little Secret, Tips on Photographing at Brooks Falls, Alaska, Camera Tips for Travel, Wildlife, Landscapes, and How to Avoid a Bear Attack)

 

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Ron Levy started leading tours back in 1980 when he was stationed as a Park Ranger on San Miguel Island off the coast of California. He has guided hundreds of travelers on nature, photo and historical excursions in Alaska, California, Arizona and Ecuador over the last 35 years, both as an NPS and USFWS ranger and independently. His images have been published internationally for over 3 decades, including exhibitions in museums and galleries in the US, Europe and Asia. He has also been a photography instructor at the University of Alaska, and provides assistance to agencies and NGOs specializing in health and conservation issues worldwide.

 

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