Want to find some of the best bear viewing in Alaska and the rest of the United States? Look no further than the national park system. The American national parks will provide some of the best chances you can find to see a brown bear, grizzly bear, or black bear in your lifetime (and even maybe a polar bear).
Some of the best bear viewing is in remote Alaska national parks near Anchorage such as Katmai National Park and Lake Clark, where visitors typically fly-in to their destination and cannot drive to or through the park. However, bears can be found in national park units across the United States, including iconic parks like Yellowstone, Yosemite, Great Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah.
Before we provide you a list, it is worth taking a moment to reiterate the importance of checking in with the park rangers at your destinations in the park system about food storage and bear safety. Having visited numerous parks with resident bear populations, we have received a variety of advice over the years tailored to keep us and the local bear population safe, including the minimum safety distance, that may vary between the parks.
Brown Bears or Grizzly Bears
In Alaska, all eight national parks have brown bears (or grizzly bears). Ninety-five percent of brown bears in the United States live in Alaska, with an estimated population there of approximately 32,000. Katmai National Park and Lake Clark National Park on the Alaska Peninsula southwest of Anchorage have large populations.
In the lower 48 states, there are only four national parks with brown bears or grizzlies. These parks are Yellowstone, Grand Teton National Park, North Cascades and Glacier National Park. All four parks contain the grizzly bear, a subspecies of brown bears that is found inland (without access to the ocean).
Approximately 700 grizzly bears are located in Greater Yellowstone, 300 are living in Glacier National Park and 10 or fewer live in the North Cascades. The North Cascades grizzlies are considered the most at risk bear population in North America, with the last verified sighting in 1996.
In Glacier National Park, grizzly bears are typically seen in Many Glacier Valley, Huckleberry Mountain or the Logan Pass area.
Seven of the eight national parks in Alaska have black bears, and across the entire state the population of black bears is estimated to be approximately 100,000.
There are approximately 1500 black bears in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. When we were there for a weekend in August, we saw the highest population of black bears while on the Cades Cove loop, though we also saw one on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail and another along the roadside between Sugarlands Visitor Center and Newfound Gap.
There are approximately 200 to 1000 black bears in Shenandoah National Park. Bears in the early 1900s were nearly eliminated from the area, with an estimated bear population as low as 10 in the park in 1944.
There are estimated to be 500 to 650 black bears in Greater Yellowstone (including Grand Teton and Jackson Hole). This is slightly lower than the estimated population of brown bears
There are approximately 300 to 500 black bears in Yosemite National Park. We did not see any bears in the Yosemite Valley while we were here for three days in mid-June. Several hundred black bears are also estimated to live in the nearby Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park units.
Olympic National Park has a population of black bears high enough that people frequently see them. There is also a significant black bear population in the North Cascades, and a handful in Mount Rainier National Park. The population of black bear in Washington state is estimated to be as high as 25,000 or 30,000 overall.
In other areas, there is less likelihood of seeing a bear because the population is lower. However, that does not mean that you can take them for granted and not prepare for such an encounter. There are a believed to be a couple dozen black bears in Rocky Mountain National Park and Guadalupe Mountains National Park.
They can even be found in Everglades National Park, with some of the state’s Florida black bear population located in the everglades.
This is the one bear that you are not likely to find in a national park. There are only two national park units where polar bears live where their home range extends into the park boundary, and neither one has the national park designation. These two units are Bering Land Bridge National Preserve and Cape Krusenstern National Monument. The polar bears typically live on the nearby ice flows and on occasion range into the parks. In the United States, polar bears are believed to be found in the wild only in Alaska, with a population of between 4000 and 7000 estimated bears.
There is a higher population in the Canadian High Arctic, where there are approximately 15,000 polar bears. Churchill, Manitoba is one of the best places in the world to see them. If you are committed to seeing one in the United States, try Kaktovik in Alaska.