We know. Some of you are staring at today’s post wondering Why on Earth would you want to put together a list of national parks with bears? We get it. For many campers and hikers, a bear is the LAST thing you want to see when you’re in a national park.
But it continues to be one of our most asked about questions when we talk to people about our national park trips. Every time someone hears about our 2017 trip to Alaska, we get asked about bears. (The answer is yes. We saw them every day we were in Denali!). And every time we talk about our visits to Glacier National Park, we can’t help but talk about encountering bears.
So if you’re like us, and you frequently get asked about national parks with bears, we hope you’ll enjoy today’s list of the 13 most popular national parks to (safely!) see a bear. Be sure to keep reading to the end to see some tips on how to safely watch bears and what to do if you encounter one on the trail.
Types of Bears in the National Park Service
There are three species of bears you can encounter while #parkchasing in the more than 400+ units of the National Park Service.
American black bears (Ursus americanus) are the most common of all bears in North America. At about 3 feet in height at the shoulder and 5-7 feet tall when standing, black bears also have the widest habitat. You can spot them in national parks anywhere from sandy beaches to alpine meadows. Black bears are commonly mistaken for other types of bears because they can look very different depending on where they live. When you arrive at a national park with black bears, check in with a ranger to find out what the bears look like in the area.
Brown Bears/Grizzly Bears
National park visitors flock from all over the world to catch a glimpse of a brown bear (Ursus arctos), otherwise known as the grizzly. The names brown bear and grizzly both refer to the same species, although brown bears typically refer to bears that live on the coast like in Alaska. ‘Grizzly’ is generally used for bears that live inland in areas like the Rocky Mountains.
How do you know if you’re looking at a brown bear and not a black bear? Don’t trust the fur color since grizzly bears can range in color from black to blonde. Instead, brown bears have large and distinct humps on their backs, a flatter dish-shaped face, and much longer claws.
Most American’s don’t think about seeing polar bears in our national parks. Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) have special adaptations for living in only the coldest of climates. Two national park units in Alaska make our list of national parks with bears because they are within the territorial range of polar bears.
If you’re on a quest to visit all the national park units, why not also add seeing all three species in the wild to your bucket list? Start by planning a trip to one of these 13 national parks with bears.
Brown Bears/Grizzly Bears
1. Denali National Park & Preserve, Alaska
Denali National Park in Alaska is one of the most famous places in the National Park Service to see Alaskan brown bears in action. We saw bears with bear cubs on multiple days while taking the park bus rides. We’ve written about this before, but it’s a myth that it’s unsafe to camp in Denali because of bear activity. In fact, the bears here tend to avoid front country areas because the park offers so much undisturbed, protected wilderness.
- Camping in Denali National Park: The Riley Creek Campground
- 4 Myths About Camping in Denali National Park
- Alaska Vacation Recap: Denali National Park and Preserve
2. Katmai National Park & Preserve, Alaska
With the installation of the Brooks Falls webcam, the Alaskan brown bears in Katmai National Park and Preserve are some of the most watched bears on the planet. However, because the park is only available by small aircraft or boat, only a few thousand people see them in person each year. It’s one of the least visited national parks in person, and one of the most visited on a virtual vacation!
To check out the Katmai bears on the webcam, log on in the summer months of June, July, and August during the height of the salmon run:
- The Least Visited National Parks in 2018
- Visit all the National Park Sites in Alaska
- 11 Best National Park Webcams for A Virtual Get-Away
3. Glacier National Park, Montana
The first time we visited Glacier National Park, we saw one grizzly bear on our very last hike of the trip. During our second trip, we saw thirteen in four days! Among national parks with bears, Glacier is one of our favorites. The hiking trails here can’t be beat, taking you right through the heart of Rocky Mountain bear territory.
Depending on the season, black bears and grizzly bears can be seen throughout the park. Glacier also has one of the most advanced grizzly bear research programs in the National Park Service. Stop in at any ranger station to find out about the latest studies being conducted in the park.
- Glacier National Park Trip Planning Toolkit
- 3 Best Places to See Wildlife in Glacier National Park
- Park Chaser’s Best of Glacier National Park
4. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Visitor’s love the bears of Yellowstone National Park so much that they now have their own Facebook group. Daily postings from tourists and local wildlife photographers provide updates on sightings, bear activity, and ongoing park management efforts. With more than 14,000 members, it’s the best resource to check out if you’re interested in wildlife watching during your visit to the park.
- Which National Parks Are Like Yellowstone?
- Hiking in Yellowstone National Park: The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
- 5 Ways to Rock A Winter Visit to Yellowstone National Park
- Camping in Yellowstone National Park: The Madison Campground
5. Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
World-renowned nature photographer Thomas D. Mangelsen has spent much of his time photographing wildlife in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park in part because of the grizzly population that inhabits the park. Part of the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem, the grizzly population here can frequently be found in the Willow Flats and Oxbow Bend areas of the park.
- 3 Best Spots to See Wildlife in Grand Teton National Park
- Hiking Grand Teton National Park: Inspiration Point
- The Most Visited National Parks in 2018
- Visit all the National Park Service Sites in Wyoming
6. North Cascades National Park, Washington
North Cascades National Park, Lake Chelan National Recreation Area, and Ross Lake National Recreation Area make up some of the most remote wilderness areas in the Lower 48. While both grizzly bears and black bears inhabit the park, sightings are less frequent than other national parks. The rugged terrain and the difficulty visiting remote areas of the park give bears plenty of space to roam without human influence. The relatively low visitor count to North Cascades also helps in avoiding bear encounters.
7. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennesee
With approximately 1,500 black bears, Great Smoky Mountains National Park has one of the highest densities of black bears in the National Park Service. There are approximately 2 bears per square mile of
Bears can be seen at all elevations in the park. Sightings are most common in early mornings and late evenings during the summer months.
8. Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
The National Park Service estimates there are between 300 and 1,000 black bears in Shenandoah National Park. Bears can be spotted in all locations of the park and sightings are frequent on the 500+ miles of trails. Keep watch along roadways and trails during the day and early evening.
Both of the park’s visitor’s centers also maintain wildlife sighting logs. It’s worth checking with a ranger about recent bear sightings when you arrive in the park.
9. Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota
Voyageurs National Park in northern Minnesota is not always well-known for its wildlife. After all, more than a third of the park’s protected area is water. However, more than 150 black bears call Voyageurs home. It’s one of the most popular places to spot bears in our home state of Minnesota.
If you visit the park, your best chance of spotting a bear might not be on land. Canoe and houseboat passengers frequently spot bears along the lake shores from their spot on the water. Bears are especially visible in the summer and early fall at the peak of foraging season.
10. Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas
Bears in Texas?
We have to be honest, we were surprised about this one too. Black bears are considered threatened species in Texas, but they do inhabit the mountain areas in and around Guadalupe Mountains National Park. The population is small but the park service is working hard to recover their natural range, decimated by population and habitat destruction.
One unique thing about the black bears in Guadalupe Mountains National Park? The climate here is warm enough year-round that the bear population doesn’t hibernate.
11. Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
While Rocky Mountain National Park used to be within the historical range of the grizzly bear, today only black bears inhabit the park. Visitors frequently get them confused because many of the bears in Rocky Mountain appear brown or cinnamon in color. It’s estimated that only twenty to thirty bears live in the park and they can be spotted in all of the alpine areas. Check in with ranger stations around the park for recent sightings.
12. Cape Krusenstern National Monument, Alaska
Cape Krusenstern National Monument in northwestern Alaska is home to all three species of bears: black, grizzly and polar bears. At nearly 650,000 acres of protected land north of the Arctic Circle, finding a polar bear in the park can be a bit like finding a needle in a haystack.
Access to the park and region is only by air and snowmobile for much of the year. Your best chance of spotting a polar bear is to charter a guided trip to the park with a local expert on where and when the best opportunities to spot a bear might be.
13. Bering Land Bridge National Preserve, Alaska
Also near Cape Krusenstern National Monument is Bering Land Bridge National Preserve. Considered one of the most remote and least visited areas of the National Park Service, the land within Bering Land Bridge is in the range of polar bears, although sightings are rare. The park is also home to Alaskan brown bears and a variety of whales.
Same as Cape Krusenstern National Monument, no roads to the park exist. Your best chances of viewing a polar bear are via chartered
- Visit all the National Park Sites in Alaska
- Project Alaska (Part III): Traveling North of the Arctic Circle
Visiting Bear Country
Now that you know the best national parks with bears, we want to give some reminders about wildlife viewing in bear country. The National Park Service constantly deals with the impacts of bear-human encounters. Thousands of bears have been removed or euthanized because of the careless behavior of humans. When you visit a national park unit with bears, you MUST take these precautions to keep you, your belongings, and the bear population safe:
- Use bear-proof food storage. Bears that encounter human food sources can become aggressive and need to be killed.
- Know what to do when you encounter a bear. Whether you are in your vehicle or on the trail when you encounter a bear, it’s up to you to know the best practices to keep yourself safe. Know the best practices for hiking and camping in bear country to avoid a dangerous situation.
- Follow pet guidelines. National parks with bears frequently have different pet regulations. For example, dogs are not allowed on any of the trails in Glacier National Park because of the risk of a dog-bear encounter. Know the guidelines for each park about bringing a pet.
- Carry bear spray. Not only has bear spray been found to be highly effective when used properly, but it’s also a non-lethal bear deterrent. Know how to use it and remember to carry it with you in bear country.