It is not an exaggeration to say that our bear expedition to Lake Clark National Park was one of the single best days traveling I have ever had.
This post is part of a series on travel to Alaska. You can read my primary post with our full itinerary here.
During the first few days of our trip, gloomy weather had won out over sunny skies. When this day came around, our luck finally turned. We ended up with great weather for the rest of our trip, starting with this spectacular day. The bear tour I’m talking about in this post was the Lake Clark tour through Rust’s Flying Service.
To start our very full day, we boarded a float plane in Anchorage, contending with the rather unusual task of climbing onto a swaying plane from a dock. Fortunately, boarding was the only nervous part of our flying experience. Sea spraying behind us, we lifted into the air, immediately gaining views of the many mountain ranges all around us. We spotted a pod of beluga whales down below, like little grains of rice gliding through the water.
We popped over a mountain range and the most beautiful lake appeared before us, glacier-fed and gloriously jewel-toned. We landed on that lake, the water providing a gentle cushion, surfing to a slow stop across shining aqua waters.
We had arrived at the eastern edge of Lake Clark National Park. Contrary to what the name suggests, we were actually on Crescent Lake, a smaller (but still sizable) lake compared to the park’s namesake. We pulled up to Redoubt Mountain Lodge, a remote establishment only accessible by float plane. The lodge is mostly patronized by visitors interested in fishing and wildlife viewing. Unfortunately we did not stay at the lodge during our trip, but it looked totally charming and the setting was utterly gorgeous.
Once our plane was pulled onto shore, we hopped onto our next carriage for the day: a small pontoon boat. The only other occupants of the boat were another a couple and our guide, rounding out a wonderfully relaxed group. There were a few other boats out around the lake for various activities, but we were never near any of them. We puttered away, our guide orienting us to the day. Our guide was a younger woman and budding naturalist. She was a thoroughly knowledgable guide for guests and a respectful steward of nature, always careful to respect the wildlife and natural spaces we encountered.
Within 10 minutes from when we left shore, we spotted the day’s first bear at the mouth of the river and motored our way over. We floated idly as the bear roamed the shores, keeping our voices low and snapping photos. It was an early omen of how we spent most of our day: cruising around the lake until we spotted a bear (which never took long), and then floating along as we watched the critters go about their days.
Please note, these photos were taken with up to 400 mm zoom and/or cropping, so we were not nearly as close to the bears as these photos may make it appear. Most of the bear photos in this post were taken using a Sony 100-400 mm f/4.5-5.6 lens.
Each bear had its own unique personality and behaviors. Some bears we could easily spot for long periods, and others only offered a brief glimpse before they disappeared into the brush. The most awesome part was spending some time marveling at this mama bear. She had two cubs with her, so young they’d surely been born that spring. We spotted them ambling along the shoreline, and followed from a distance as they made their way over to a fishing hole.
The baby bears frolicked joyfully, wrestling with each other and delighting us with their heart-melting cuteness.
At the fishing hole, we watched her fish for several sockeye salmon, hauling a feast onto the shore for her little family. After one of her catches, she disappeared into the brush, hiding from her young so she could eat her catch alone. It’s not just human moms who need a little alone time. We heard her and her cubs crying out to one another for a few minutes before they found each other again. She scored a few more catches, sharing plenty of the rest with the little ones. If you’re ok with a little fish guts, click here to see one of her cubs munching on raw salmon.
It was magical to see this wild Alaskan brown bear do the kind of thing I’m only used to seeing with David Attenborough narrating in the background.
You can even see the salmon roe bursting from her catch! Click to view the last photo above in high resolution.
In the middle of the day, we returned to shore for lunch. We were served up baked salmon crusted in honey mustard and pecans and a side of fresh greens. I’m not a fish gal, and I still dislike salmon in any other context, but to my surprise, I eagerly gobbled up the tender, flavorful fish not unlike the mama bear from that morning.
After lunch, full of fish and just a little sleepy from the delicious meal, we boarded the boat for the second half of our tour. The cool breeze and warm sun on our faces was utterly dreamy. For a little while, we boated around the lake with little agenda, just soaking up the incredible sights and impeccable weather. We stopped at a small island, getting off the boat for a few minutes to stretch our legs. We spotting bear tracks in the sand and pointing out other signs of wildlife.
The last bear we saw of the day was this young male. His behavior was so different from the others we saw that day. He was still clearly learning how to be a bear, picking up sticks in his mouth and frolicking around the shoreline like a playful dog. He was an expressive, goofy showman, unlike the all-business attitude of mama bear and the others we’d seen earlier.
In total, we spent about 8 hours at the lake, including about an hour break for lunch. Adding in the flights back and forth from Anchorage, and this was one very full day. I’m so glad we got to spend ample time here to really soak it up and not feel rushed.
Seriously, this day was right out of National Geographic. While it was also the single most expensive day out of the whole trip, it’s one I will absolutely treasure forever.
To round out this post, here are a couple practical tips for bear viewing in Alaska.
Where to see bears depends on the season. The best locations for bear viewing is highly dependent on the time of year and bears’ natural rhythms. The tour company I booked with created a handy calendar showing the best timing for each tour. My tour was right at the beginning of the recommended timing for this location, but we clearly still had great luck. Our guide said she’d never run a tour and not seen bears–these folks definitely know what they’re doing.
Beforehand, I had a lot of anxiety about whether I was making a mistake by going off the beaten path to Lake Clark National Park instead of the famous Brooks Fall viewing area in Katmai National Park. But after going, I have absolutely zero regrets. The Lake Clark tour was hands down the perfect choice for us.
Plan for the unexpected. Take note, these tours are frequently canceled due to weather that is unsafe for flying. With that in mind, and because this tour was one of my top priorities, I intentionally scheduled this tour in the middle of our trip, so that we would have contingency plans in our back pocket (namely, day 12) in case our original date was canceled. If you have a flight tour that is particularly important to you, be sure your trip has at least one day you can flex to reschedule if needed.
Got questions about Alaskan bears? What’s the difference between a brown bear and a grizzly bear? How long do cubs stay with their mothers? The Katmai National Park website has a wealth of answers to all your bear questions.