Untamed America is glorious. From the mountains, to the prairies, to the oceans white with foam, the natural splendor of this country is undeniable. You know what else? Bears. Grizzlies, black bears, brown bears, even a polar bear or two call this vast expanse of forest, coast, and plains their home, and as you take off on your patriotic summertime adventures, they’re really what you should be thinking about. So where’s a bear lover to go to experience all that this country’s ursidae have to offer? Have Yogi and Smokey and that guy on the California state flag taught you nothing? Get thee to a national park!
There are 59 National Parks in the United States, and while they’re not all lousy with bears, there are a few solid bets if spotting one of these creatures is on your bucket list. Basically, you have three options if you’re going to really hit a home run as far as getting your car broken into, your beef jerky stolen, and scoring an Instagram photo your fellow bear-lovers will drool over (just kidding about most of that...but mmm, beef jerky). Yellowstone, home of the fictional Yogi, is a good bet if you’re trying to stick to the middle of the country. If the west coast is more your jam, Yosemite will serve you well. For the true bear enthusiast, however, “northward, ho!” to Katmai National park in Alaska, the home of the famous Bear Cam. Whether it’s fish catching bears or beer drinking bears (seriously, we’ll get there) you’re after, America the beautiful has you covered! And remember to pack up a few Coors Banquet Beers, for you and your friends to talk all about your post-bear spotting adventures.
Yellowstone National Park
Where is it? Yellowstone is located in Wyoming, although its 3,500-square miles also stretch into Montana and Idaho. It’s home to the majority of the world’s geysers, including the only one you’ve probably ever heard of, Old Faithful.
Yes but...what about the bears there? Yellowstone is one of the few places south of the Canadian border where black bears (ursus americanus) and grizzlies (ursus arctos) coexist in harmony. There are between 500-650 black bears in Yellowstone. Numbers on grizzlies are more vague, with the range between 280 and 610 total bears, but in 2009 they were placed on the threatened species list. There’s good news, though: scientists believe that the population is thriving, and grizzlies are raising cubs and generally hanging out in all parts of the Greater Yellowstone area.
When and where do I see bears when I go there? The best times to spot bears are at dawn and dusk in the Hayden and Lamar valleys, on the North slopes of Mt. Washburn, and from Fishing Bridge to East entrance. Bears hibernate from October or November until spring, so this is really a summertime activity.
Are the bears dangerous? Your chances of being injured by a bear in Yellowstone park are 1 in 2.1 million. So basically, no. That hasn’t always been true, however: from 1980 to 2002, out of the 62 million people who visited the park, 32 were injured by grizzlies. That’s an average of one injury per year from the 1930’s to the 1950’s, and four per year in the 1960’s. Black bear injuries were 46 per year from 1931 - 1969, and 4 per year from 1980 - 2002. Look at the below fact and these stats will make a whole lot more sense.
Fun Fact: Back in the day, before humans were smart enough to not do blatantly stupid things all the time (from 1910 to the 1960s) tourists were allowed to feed the bears they encountered along the roads. This is clearly a terrible plan (see above), so you can’t do it anymore.
Yosemite National Park
Where is it? Yosemite is in the Sierra Nevada mountains in California. The 1,190-square mile park is located 4 hours from San Francisco and 6 hours from Los Angeles. Getting in and out of the park can be a challenge in the winter, but for bear-viewing purposes, that doesn’t matter — you’ll be somewhere warm hibernating like your furry bretheren. Yosemite is famous for inspiring American photographer Ansel Adams, who photographed the park extensively.
Yes but...what about the bears there? Yosemite is home to between 300 and 500 black bears. Grizzlies used to call the park home, but haven’t been seen since the 1920’s.
When and where do I see bears when I go there? You might not be able to avoid it! The park’s bears are very active in campgrounds around the Yosemite Valley. They break into cars and food containers that have been improperly sealed — food should never be stored in a car or tent overnight — and are frequently seen crossing the park’s roads. This year, one bear has already been struck by a vehicle in Yosemite, so slowing down and being careful when driving through the park is essential.
Are the bears dangerous? Not a single person has ever been killed or seriously injured by a bear in Yosemite. Humans (and their cars) are more of a danger to the bears than the bears are to them.
Fun Fact: Acorns are one of the bears favorite fall foods, when they can consume up to 20,000 calories a day to prepare for hibernation, when they neither urinate or defecate for months — instead, the sleepy bears survive by re-absorbing their own waste, produced by storing up thousands of calories in the autumn.
Katmai National Park
Where is it? Katmai National Park is located in Southern Alaska. This 6,395.43-square mile park is home to the densest recorded population of brown bears, as well as 10 volcanoes, 7 of which are considered to be ‘active.’
Yes but...what about the bears there? For bear enthusiasts, Alaska is the Motherland, and Katmai National Park is Mecca. There are more brown bears than people in Alaska, with the estimated bear population at the park around 2,200. The place is teeming with bears.
When and where do I see bears when I go there? There are a wide variety of places to see bears in Katmai national park, and because it’s such a bear destination, the rangers make it really easy for bear-lovers to get their fill while still allowing the bears enough space and privacy to do bear-things, like hunt, sleep, play, and breed.
The Pacific coast of Katmai has the highest documented bear density of any place on the planet because of its abundant food sources, but the rugged terrain makes it hard to actually spot the bears that live there. The most famous bear-watching spot at Katmai is Brooks River Camp, where the bears congregate to fish for sockeye salmon. There are three wildlife-viewing platforms on the river, so visitors can safely gawk at the bears without disturbing their activities.
Backcountry bear-viewing is also possible in the park. In spring and early summer, the bears are most often seen in open meadows and mudflats, digging for clams. In summer and fall, the salmon streams are where you want to be to see the bears feasting on fish.
Are the bears dangerous? Perhaps the most famous bear attack of all-time took place in Katmai National Park in 2003, when the bodies of Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend Annie Huguenard were found the day before their scheduled pick-up after living among the bears for months. The circumstances that lead to the deaths — Treadwell had been living with the bears in Katmai for years — is documented in Werner Herzog’s 2005 documentary Grizzly Man. Short answer: if you live with the bears, they might be dangerous. If you follow proper bear safety protocol, they’re very rarely threatening to humans.
Fun Fact: Brooks Falls is home to the Brooks Falls “Brown Bear Salmon Cam,” which you can watch, live, from the comfort of your own home. [Note from our researcher, who also happens to be my mother: “when you watch the bears live, you can see injured bears and sick bears, and from what I gather from the Internet, it can be sad and upsetting.”]
These three parks are a good start if you’re trying to have a bear-filled summer vacation. You can also encounter bears in large numbers at Glacier National Park, Denali National Park, and Great Smokey Mountains National Park. Bear-watching is best combined with camping, so you can trade Grizzly tales around the campfire with your comrades and a few cold Coors Banquet Beers after a day out in nature.. Just make sure to practice proper bear-preparedness, so you don’t come back to a scene like one camper discovered in Seattle in 2004, when they returned to their campsite to an unconscious bear, passed-out after breaking into a cooler and using its claws and teeth to crack open the beer within.
Illustrations by David Saracino
Additional research by Trish Deitch
Maud Deitch is a regular contributor to Pitchfork, Paper Magazine, and The Fader. She tweets here.