Seeing wildlife in Alaska is one of the top priorities for many visitors to Alaska for good reason! Alaska has an abundance of wildlife, from brown and black bears to moose, from whales to eagles, from caribou to wild sheep and more. Add that to Alaska’s dramatic and rugged landscapes, from high mountains to fjords and rainforests, and you have an epic wildlife viewing opportunity.
I spent seven years living in Alaska and worked as a guide, so I know all about how to improve your chances of seeing wildlife in Alaska, especially bears, whales and moose. We’ll talk about what wildlife you can see in Alaska, as well as the best places to see wildlife in Alaska and the best wildlife tours across the state.
When is the best time of year to see wildlife in Alaska?
While you can see at least some types of wildlife all year in Alaska, in generally summer is the best time of year to see wildlife. This is convenient since most visitors come in the summer!
Bears hibernate in the winter and whales and some birds migrate to warmer waters for the winter, other animals like moose and caribou are in Alaska and active all year.
Animals are sometimes in different places or doing different activities at different times throughout the summer, another benefit of going on a wildlife watching tour.
Make sure you are ready for any weather, wildlife watching tours generally operate in almost any weather! Fortunately, the weather doesn’t matter too much when looking for wildlife.
How to improve your chances of seeing the most wildlife in Alaska
Of course, there is no guarantee of seeing wildlife in Alaska, but you can massively increase your chances if you:
Slow down – the slower you travel, the more likely you are to spot wildlife. If you stay in one spot for awhile, that increases your chances even more. On a wildlife watching tour, your guide will pace the tour to maximize animal viewing time. If you’re on your own, travel slow and give yourself lots of time in wildlife habitat.
Go on a tour with a guide – guides are experienced and knowledgeable about where to find animals! You will see way more if you’re on a tour with a guide (see more on this below)
Learn about the habitat different animals live in – for example, grizzly bears are often seen in late summer foraging for berries on the slopes in Denali National Park; all bears as well as eagles frequent streams and rivers during salmon runs; the more you know, the better your chances! (guides are super knowledgeable about this too)
Keep your eyes on the landscape – don’t look down at your phone! When you’re looking for wildlife, scanning the hillsides and shorelines are good places to look. Near the water, look out for distinctive whale spouts, often your first indication whales are nearby. Once you start noticing them, you’ll get better at it. I know it might sound a bit obvious, but if you keep looking, you improve your chances of seeing more wildlife
Wildlife viewing basic safety precautions
While no blog post can guarantee your safety while wildlife viewing, there are some important common sense precautions when you are looking for wildlife in Alaska. Wildlife are wild animals and can be unpredictable and dangerous.
One benefit of a wildlife watching tour is that your guide will watch out for your safety in addition to improving your chances of seeing the most wildlife possible.
The most important thing is not to get close. This is for your safety as well as the safety of wildlife. Follow local rangers and guides advice about keeping a safe distance.
Make sure to make noise when hiking and carry bear spray and always travel in groups. If you are driving and see an animal, stay in your vehicle and take in the experience from the safety of your vehicle, which is also safer for the animal.
What is the best place to see wildlife in Alaska overall?
These are my four top places for seeing wildlife overall in Alaska. I’ve chosen them because they are relatively affordable and easier to get to than some other wildlife viewing locations as well as having a variety and abundance of wildlife that you have an excellent chance of seeing.
Denali National Park
Denali National Park is a wonderful place for wildlife. In my opinion, this is the biggest draw of a visit to Denali. Seeing the mountain is amazing, but only 30% of summer visitors get to see it as it is frequently hidden behind clouds. Wildlife don’t mind clouds!
You can only access most of the park road on a bus tour, which makes it even better for wildlife, since there’s very little traffic. The further you go on a bus tour (there are multiple options, learn about the options here), the more wildlife you are likely to see.
In addition to an abundance of wildlife, Denali National Park is also home to many different animals, including grizzly bears, moose and caribou. I have spent lots of time in Denali and I have seen multiple bears on every visit!
Denali National Park is on the road system which makes it more straightforward to get to than many other national parks in Alaska.
Glacier Bay is a close runner up for the best place to see wildlife in Alaska, and I would put it at the top for those who are most interested in marine mammals and whales.
Glacier Bay is only accessible by boat and plane, though it’s a short flight from Juneau so it isn’t as hard to get to as it seems. For a couple of months in the summer there is even jet service on Alaska Airlines!
While you can often see whales even from the shore in Bartlett Cove, those who want to see wildlife should head out on the day boat tour into the park. In addition to wildlife, you’ll get to see the park’s namesake glaciers up close and lots of amazing scenery!
As far as wildlife, you may see humpback whales on this tour (I have seen them breaching here which is SO COOL) as well as seals and sea otters and many shore birds. You also have an excellent chance of seeing bears lumbering along the beaches here (both black and brown bears). Bears are also often visible along with moose near the lodge and campground at Bartlett Cove and along the road to Bartlett Cove from the town of Gustavus.
Kenai Fjords is another excellent place for marine mammals and birds! Another relatively easy to access park located near the town of Seward, the way to see wildlife in Kenai is to take the boat tour into the park.
There are several excellent options for the boat tour ranging from 3-9 hours depending on how much time you want to devote to wildlife watching. Expect to see humpback and orca whales, seals and sea otters and possibly bears and moose on shore. This is a wonderful place to see puffins and other shorebirds.
You might also see bears or moose near Exit Glacier and the trails nearby.
The Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center is located near Portage, about an hour drive from Anchorage. If you want to safely see all of Alaska’s wildlife up close, this is the place to do it!
Most of Alaska’s famous and not so famous animals live here, and you can see them relatively close up and get some great photos. This is the perfect location for those who want to get some great photos without spending a long time waiting around, or for families with kids who will be thrilled with all the animals.
Bears, moose, caribou, musk oxen, wood bison, porcupines, foxes and even the rarely seen lynx are here. This is also a great place to learn about the different animals that make their home in Alaska.
Benefits of taking a wildlife tour
If seeing wildlife in Alaska is a high priority for your trip, I want to strongly encourage you to take at least one wildlife watching tour. Yes, it costs money and lasts for a specific amount of time, and you won’t get to know what the weather will be like in advance! Despite this, if you really want to see wildlife in Alaska, you should invest the time and money in a wildlife tour because the value is high and the experience will be awesome. In addition to seeing more wildlife, you’ll also see some gorgeous scenery. Some reasons I recommend a wildlife tour include:
Your guide will be an expert in where to go to see wildlife! Trust me, as a former guide, guides learn where animals are as well as their habits and they regularly communicate with each other about where they have been seeing animals recently. Going on a wildlife tour with a guide massively increases your chance of seeing wildlife and seeing a variety of different animals in a relatively short amount of time.
Your guide will pay attention so you don’t have to pay as MUCH attention – paying attention and watching is a key to seeing wildlife, but why not have your guide watching for wildlife for you?? If you’re on a tour with other people, you’ll all be watching which massively increases your chances of seeing more animals.
You can go places you may not be able to go on your own – if it’s a whale watching tour, you’ll be able to go by boat to places you wouldn’t be able to get to on your own. In Denali, you can’t drive far on the park road but on the tour you’ll get to go much further and see more animals.
Your guide will watch out for everyone’s safety and instruct you and the group in essential safety precautions (make sure to follow them!).
Don’t forget to tip your guide! It’s customary to give your guide a tip of 15%-20% of the cost of the tour. This is an important part of their income and part of what ensures you have an amazing experience with a knowledgeable guide who is being compensated for their skills and knowledge.
Best places to see Bears in Alaska
When I worked as a guide in Alaska, bears were what most of my guests wanted to see more than any other wildlife in Alaska, except for perhaps whales. Alaska has black bears as well as brown bears and grizzly bears. There are also some polar bears in the far north arctic, but it requires an expensive and long flight tour to see them and even then it has to be just the right time of year. I love seeing bears as they snuffle around for bugs and berries on a mountain hillside or turn over rocks and logs on the beach or stand next to a river fishing for salmon with their giant paws.
Black bears are common throughout much of Alaska and live in a range of environments from beaches to mountains to forested river areas.
Brown bears and grizzly bears are technically the same species though they have some differences, mostly in where they live. Coastal brown bears live in coastal areas and are much bigger than grizzlies, which live further inland in places like Denali National Park and Gates of the Arctic National Park and elsewhere in Alaska’s interior. Grizzlies are smaller than coastal brown bears.
The classic place to see coastal brown bears is in Katmai National Park, home to the world famous Brooks Falls as well as the annual fat bear contest. Getting to Katmai is expensive and logistically challenging, but if it’s your lifetime dream to see the bears of Brooks Falls, plan a trip to Katmai in mid to late summer and join the crowd watching them at the falls. There are a variety of ways to do bear viewing in Katmai, from staying a few days to just a few hours or doing a flightseeing trip. You can book these tours from Anchorage, Kodiak or King Salmon.
If a trip to Katmai isn’t in your budget, don’t worry, there are plenty of other ways to see bears in Alaska! Other places I highly recommend for bear viewing include:
Denali National Park – I have never, ever failed to see a bear on the bus trip into Denali! You do need to take the bus tour into the park to increase your chances, although you might also see bears closer to the main park entrance area
Southeast Alaska – I’ve often seen bears on shore during whale watching tours in Southeast! They are a bit easier to see along the shore than in the deep and thick rainforest of Southeast Alaska, though bears are abundant here
Russian River on the Kenai Peninsula – especially if you’re not doing a wildlife tour, check out any river with lots of salmon running, you are sure to see bears! Make sure to keep your distance, travel in groups and make plenty of noise. Along the Russian River, very popular with locals fishing, I’ve almost always seen bears looking for their dinner too! A bonus here is that you’ll get to see an impressive number of salmon making their way upriver to spawn.
Best places to see Whales and other Marine Mammals in Alaska
Along with bears, seeing a whale in Alaska is on the must-see list for many travelers! Nothing beats seeing a whale in the ocean, with its distinctive blow of water as it takes a breath or when it jumps out of the water, showing its majestic tail.
Alaska has several kinds of whales, but the most common you’ll see are orca (killer) whales and humpback whales. Less often you may see a Minke, Gray or Beluga whale also.
In addition to whales, there are plenty of other marine mammals in Alaska to love, including seals, sea lions and adorable sea otters.
If you want to see whales on your trip to Alaska, I highly suggest taking a whale watching tour. Your guide will know where whales have been recently and how to keep a respectful distance while also giving you the chance to watch them. Guides also communicate with each other and have up to date information about where whales are located and whale behavior.
In my experience, the best places to do a whale watching tour in Alaska are:
Kenai Fjords National Park – Kenai Fjords is the best place in Southcentral Alaska to go whale watching. The boat tours depart from Seward and have varying lengths. This is closest to open water and therefore better for whale watching that areas further inland such as Whittier. You’ll see plenty of other marine mammals and puffins too.
Glacier Bay National Park – whales and other marine mammals are a feature of Glacier Bay, and you also have a great chance of seeing bears as well.
Sitka – if you’re going to Sitka on your own or on a cruise ship, this is a really good place since it’s close to the open ocean. I once saw a brown bear swimming between two islands on a whalewatching trip out of Sitka (along with many whales)
Juneau – if you’re visiting Juneau on your own or on a cruise ship, you’ll have plenty of whale watching options and this is a great place to do it
Petersburg – if you’re lucky enough to be visiting the small town of Petersburg, the waters north of the island Petersburg is on have some of the best humpback whale watching in all of Alaska!
If you’re taking a cruise or riding the Alaska ferry, you also have a good chance of seeing whales if they are in the area. Spend some time with binoculars watching the water to improve your chances (and become a hero to your fellow passengers!).
Best places to see Moose in Alaska
Great news! Moose are abundant in Alaska and relatively easy to see while you’re doing nothing in particular as long as you’re paying attention and looking for them.
Keeping an eye out for them is also an important safety precaution. Moose are HUGE and can easily trample you if spooked, and cause many fatal traffic accidents in Alaska. In addition to an unforgettable wildlife encounter, you need to keep your eyes out for them for your safety as well.
You have an excellent chance of seeing moose on an wildlife tour, but you can also see them along the road while driving from place to place or even wandering neighborhoods in Anchorage and Fairbanks. While you’re driving or hiking, keep an eye out especially in marshy areas and wetlands for their distinctive brown selves, browsing on leaves and bushes.
There are plenty of moose in Alaska, but a few places where I’ve seen a lot of moose (besides in neighborhoods, which is kind of a matter of luck) include:
The marshy area along the Parks Highway between Anchorage and Wasilla
Potter Marsh along the Seward Highway just outside of Anchorage (also a great place to see birds)
Eagle River Nature Center trails
Chena Hot Springs Road near Fairbanks (especially in the marshy areas)
The Haines Highway between Haines and Haines Junction
Lots of other places! Keep an eye out especially in wetlands and ponds near the road or trail you’re on
Best places to see Caribou in Alaska
Caribou are abundant in Interior and Northern and Western Alaska, but that doesn’t mean they are easy to see! Caribou travel in herds and migrate very long distances in search of food in their tundra habitat. Seeing a caribou is often a matter of luck, so if you really want to see caribou I recommend arranging a tour from Fairbanks. There are tours that go up the Dalton Highway as well as flightseeing tours that can take you to Alaska’s remote national parks such as Gates of the Arctic and Kobuk Valley.
You can also see Caribou at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center.
Best places to see Eagles and other Birds in Alaska
Eagles are another popular and abundant creature in Alaska. Eagles can be seen all over the state and are most commonly seen perching in trees along shorelines and rivers. Look for white spots that look like golf balls in the trees and when you look closer you will see you’re looking at an eagle.
I’ve never been on a boat in Southeast Alaska without seeing a bald eagle, so if you do a wildlife watching tour or fishing charter you’ll definitely see them.
Head to rivers and beaches and look to the trees and you are very likely to see them.
If you’re really a fan of eagles, I consider heading to the Alaska Bald Eagle festival in Haines, which happens in November during the largest congregation of bald eagles in the world along the Chilkat River during the salmon run.
A wonderful place to see migratory birds is Creamer’s Field in Fairbanks, which comes alive with Sandhill Cranes in spring and fall and sees many other migratory birds passing through.
Bird lovers should also visit Potter Marsh near Anchorage, with it’s boardwalk perfect for viewing migratory birds, salmon and moose.
Other wildlife in Alaska
Alaska has many other animals and there are plenty of opportunities to see other wildlife in Alaska. Dall sheep and mountain goats are quite common, keep an eye out for white spots on the mountains as you’re driving or traveling around the state.
Wolves, musk oxen, walrus and polar bears are much more illusive and generally require more effort to see, although if you’re going to Fairbanks make sure to check out the Musk Ox farm at the University of Alaska Fairbanks! Here you can take a tour to see the musk ox up close and learn about their amazing adaptations to the bitter cold of arctic life.
For wolves, walrus and polar bear, I recommend researching which animal you really want to see and what your options are. In most cases, you’ll be looking at a tour involving an airplane and a lot of good luck!
Seeing wildlife in Alaska is a unique and unforgettable experience! If you prioritize and commit to investing in at least one wildlife tour, you’re sure to walk away with a wildlife experience to carry with you forever.
I want to end by encouraging you to spend some time NOT taking photos and just experiencing the wildlife you’re seeing. You can always buy an incredible photo of a whale to remember that experience, but you can’t get back the time you spent fussing with your phone or camera and missing out on the full experience. I’m not saying don’t take pictures, just make sure to spend a little time soaking it in without worrying about the camera!
Whether it’s bears, whales, moose or puffins you’re drawn to, take your time to soak it up and you won’t regret it.
Hi! I'm Jennie. I’m a fourth generation Seattleite who lived in Alaska for 7 years. I've been a tour guide in both Alaska and Washington and I love to share the places I love with visitors, newcomers and my fellow locals. I’m so glad to have you along on the journey to experience your best low key adventure in Washington, Alaska and Western Canada!
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