August 20, 2021
Guide to Seeing Bears in The Wild

Asiatic black bears, brown bears, giant pandas, North American black bears, polar bears, sloth bears, Andean bears, and Malayan sun bears are the world’s eight surviving bear species. None of these species are found in Africa, it is Europe and North America which have the world’s largest bear populations. Asia and South America are two other continents known for their unique bear species and subspecies. Here is our detailed guide to bear viewing including the best time to visit, destinations, regions, and species of bear found at each destination.

The table shows us where to find bears in the wild in North America, Europe, South America, and Asia.

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1. North America

North America, the home to one of the world’s largest bear populations, is thought to have 800,000 black bears. In addition, of the 200,000 surviving brown bears in the world, 89, 000 can be found in North America. The brown bear population is distributed across Alaska (32,000), Canada (25,000), and the United States (32,500). Grizzly bears, commonly referred to as grizzlies, are a subspecies of North American brown bears.

1.1 Canada

Brown Bear

Canada has 500,000 black bears and 25,000 brown bears. The majority of Canada has black bears, which can often be spotted on the roadside, particularly in Jasper and Whistler. The ideal time for bear watching in Canada is April to October. Around this time, the bears come out of hibernation, and grizzlies can be seen feasting on salmon.

British Columbia

  • Vancouver Island, located off Canada’s Pacific coast, has an estimated population of 7000 black bears. It is rare to spot a grizzly on Vancouver Island. The ones that are seen are during the salmon season, swimming towards the island. Grizzlies can swim as fast as 55 kilometres per hour, which makes it possible for them to swim towards Vancouver Island. The Vancouver coastal black bear is one of the six subspecies of the black bear and is larger and darker than the mainland bear. Paleontological evidence suggests that these coastal back bears remained on the island, separate from the mainland black bears.
  • Great Bear Rainforest is a premier bear watching safari location in Canada, home to grizzlies (see below) and kermode bears. Great Bear Rainforest encompasses the Knight Inlet, which is located in the southern section of this temperate rainforest. Visitors can journey to one of its several islands on fully equipped, comfortable sailing ships. The rainforest is home to 400 Kermode bears also known as the spirit bear. Although the majority of Kermode bears are black, one in ten cubs is born with a white coat, as a result of a recessive gene, and the white variant is known as the spirit bear. These kermode bears are seen on Campbell Island, Gribble Island, Princess Royal Island, and Roderick Island. Although the bear viewing season falls from June to October, the best time for bear viewing in the Great Bear Rainforest is around August to October.
  • The Knight Inlet has a large concentration of grizzly bears. There have been reports of visitors spotting at least ten bears at a single time, in the grassland or around the water. The salmon season always attracts grizzlies creating a big spectacle. The Knight Inlet also has a floating lodge that provides a great view of the grizzlies frolicking in the water.
  • The Great Bear Rainforest also has a sizable population of grizzlies. On the northern edge of the park, an estimated 50 coastal brown bears (a type of grizzly subspecies) can be found in the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Sanctuary. The sanctuary is one of the best bear viewing destinations in Canada.
  • Nakina–inklin Rivers Conservancy, located in the Atlin town in northwestern British Columbia, has plenty of grizzlies.
  • Cariboo Mountains Provincial Park, located northwest of the Likely, a community in British Columbia, also has a decent grizzly population.

Manitoba: The seal-hunting season in the Hudson Bay acts as a beacon to the polar bears that migrate towards it, anticipating the colder freezing temperatures. The polar bears alternate between the Hudson and Churchill Bays, strategically positioning themselves so that they can have access to the plentiful food source available in the regions. The best time to visit either Churchill or Hudson Bay for bear viewing is from October to November.

To get up close and personal with the bears, visitors can get on a tundra buggy that leaves from the Lazy Bear Lodge in Churchill. The Riding Mountain National Park sits atop the Manitoba Escarpment in Manitoba, Canada, home to diverse wildlife, which includes an estimated 800 to 1000 black bears.

Yukon Territory: Yukon has an abundance of grizzlies, black bears, and polar bears. The black bears can be seen around the major highways such as Alaska highway, Dempster highway, Haines road, north Klondike highway, and south Klondike highway. The 6000-7000 grizzlies living in Yukon inhabit the mountainous region. They can be seen in the Tombstone Territorial Park, Kluane National Park and Reserve, and the Ni’iinlii Njik Territorial Park. Polar bears can only be seen in the far north of Yukon territory in the Herschel Island Territorial Park. Yukon has around 1000 polar bears, many of which migrate to shallow coastal waters in autumn.

1.2 United States

The United States has 32,500 brown bears and 300,000 black bears. For more information regarding the black bear population across American states, refer to the northeramerican.com nature’s guide.

Arkansas: Due to its abundant bear population, Arkansas was once known as the bear state. However, hunting and poaching resulted in numbers dwindling to as low as 50 black bears. In order to improve the number, 254 black bears were introduced to Arkansas in a period of 10 years between 1958-1968. Due to these timely conservation measures, the black bears have flourished in Arkansas. Today, it has 3000 living black bears, which can be seen in the Ouachita Mountains and National Forest, Ozark Highlands, and around the White River basin.

California: California has two subspecies of black bears – the northwestern black bear and Californian black bear. It has a large population of black bears, approximately 30,000-35,000 individuals in California’s north coast, which includes northwestern and cascade floristic provinces. These regions house a large portion of California’s black bear population. Black bears are also found in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The Los Padres National Forest in southern California is a large habitat where bears have ample space to roam freely. Apart from the national forest, the black bear population is spread through Monterey county and Riverside county on the south coast and transverse ranges. Furthermore, around 10% of California’s black bears are seen throughout San Diego County and Santa Cruz county.

Colorado: Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park and State Forest State Park have a healthy 19,000 population of black bears. Rocky Mountain National Park is located in front of its namesake Rocky Mountains. Black bears can be found in the sub-alpine forest of fir and engelmann spruce on the mountains. The forest’s ample seeds and berries attract the bears. Once upon a time, the park also had grizzly bears, which became locally extinct. State Forest State Park is located within the Medicine Bow Range, which is part of the larger Rocky Mountains and has a decent black bear population.

Idaho: Idaho has an estimated 20,000 black bears, which can be found in the 30,000 square miles area north of the Snake River plain. Their habitat is larger than usual, primarily due to the lack of food sources in Idaho. Yellowstone National Park, one of the world’s foremost bear safari destinations, is located in three states Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, so the states share the park’s bear population. Yellowstone is also the oldest and first established national park of the United States and one of the few places in the US to have grizzly bears.

Maine: Maine has approximately 22000-23000 black bears, and the majority of them reside in the northern and eastern regions of Maine.

Alaska

  • Alaska has around 100,000 black bears, 32,000 brown bears, and 4700 polar bears. Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge is a large wildlife refuge that covers about half of the Kodiak archipelago, including Ban Island, Red Peaks region of Afognak Island, Uganik Island, and Kodiak Island. The Kodiak archipelago has around 3,500 kodiak bears, which is one of the largest subspecies of brown bears, also known as the Alaskan brown bear. Kodiak is the second largest of the bear species, which is the only known difference between kodiak and other brown bears.
  • Denali National Park is named after North America’s highest mountain, Denali. The park is home to both grizzlies and black bears. The blueberries and soapberries that flourish on the mountain provide ample diet for the Denali bears.
  • Admiralty Island, a part of the Alexander Archipelago in Alaska, is locally known as the Bear Fortress. The island has an estimated population of 1,600 brown bears that benefit from the Island’s large wilderness area. The Island doesn’t have any black bears.
  • Katmai National Park in southern Alaska has several attractions, one of which is the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes It is also a haven for around 2000 Alaskan brown bears. The park’s unique ecosystem has nurtured salmon, which happens to be a diet preferred by brown bears and you can see them catching salmon in the rivers.
  • Wrangell St Elias National Park in south-central Alaska has both brown and black bears spread throughout the park.
  • Tongass National Forest in southeast Alaska has an estimated 10,000 brown bears.

Visitors can enjoy the peak bear watching season from July to early September when the bears are most active.

2. Europe

Europe has an estimated 22,000 wild bears, of which at least 17,000 are brown bears, with around 5000 that are seen in either the Svalbard Islands or Greenland. Below are a few of the best places to spot bears in Europe. These European bear safari destinations are fantastic for photographic safari holidays.

2.1 Slovenia

An ideal time for a Slovenia bear safari is from May to August.

  • Dinaric Alps or Dinarides are a mountain range that stretches across European countries Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, and Albania. The northern Dinaric mountains and alps in Slovenia have an estimated 3000 Dinaric-Alpine brown bears, considered to be amongst the largest population of bears in Europe. They belong to the Dinaric-Pindo bear population. Due to scarcity of food, these bears spend the duration of November to March in their dens, conserving their energies. Not all of them hibernate in the winter, some stay active throughout the year. Brown bears are typically shy and tend to avoid people, retreating unnoticed.
  • The Kočevsko forest in southern Slovenia is known for its hidden primaeval forests that are home to numerous brown bears. These primordial forests are, in essence, hidden corners where wildlife flourishes. It can be a bit hard to spot bears within the forest, but visitors can have the opportunity to visit the forests and bears by participating in guided tours led by experienced tour guides. The bear’s footsteps hiking trail is one of the paths that take visitors through the forest.

Book Safari: Discover the Natural Habitat of Bears

The Lož valley (Loška dolina) and Notranjska hills are other locations to spot bears in Slovenia.

2.2 Finland

  • The Martinselkonen Reserve of Eastern Finland is a hotspot for bear activity with a high probability of numerous bear sightings. A few lucky visitors have also spotted bear cubs in the region. An ideal time to spot bears in the Martinselkonen Reserve is from May to August. The bears have woken up from hibernation and are voraciously foraging for food. May-end is also the mating season for the bears, which lasts until the end of June. Female bears and cubs start appearing in June, making it the best time to capture pictures.
  • Kuikka Lake in the Kuhmo region of Finland is located opposite the Russian border. The lake is surrounded by marshlands and boreal forests, which makes a great habitat for brown bears.
  • Not far from Kuikka lake is Lake Lammasjarvi surrounded by the Taiga forest. There are many lakeside retreats such as Hotel Kalevala that offer visitors stellar views of the lake. Such retreats are equipped with outdoor lounges, terraces, and specially designed hides for bear watching.

2.3 Bulgaria

Bulgaria hasn’t always been kind to bears. Before the 1990s, bear dancing, an ancient tradition, was quite popular in the country. Owners used hot plates to teach stolen bear cubs to dance. These bears were held captive with methods such as muzzle and ring through their nose. Bear dancing was banned in 1992 but was fully eradicated recently in 2002.

Bulgaria has put in conservation measures, protecting the surviving brown bear species and allowing them to flourish without persecution. Bear watching is a common activity in Bulgaria. A small group of safari visitors are eager to go tracking bears on foot. The best place to spot bears is the Rilo-Rhodope massif in southeast Sofia. Brown bears also prefer to feed at the Buynovsko Gorge and Devinska Reka River Valley. In Bulgaria, especially in the Rhodope massif region, September to October is considered an ideal time for bear watching.

2.4 Greece

Contrary to popular belief, Greece isn’t just known for its picturesque ambience and sandy beaches. It also has a decent population of brown bears which reside in either the northern Pindos National Park or the Pindos Mountains region. Visitors can go bear tracking with experts who will follow the popular bear trails. They’ll spend most of their time on foot. Even when visitors aren’t actively looking for bears, they are bound to come across scratch marks and bear tracks. The best time to visit Greece for bear watching is from April to October when they are most active.

2.5 Russia

polar bears

  • Wrangel Island is known not only for polar bears but also as the last known place where woolly mammoths survived. But due to the limited fodder, they were smaller in size compared to the typical mammoths. It is a mountainous island located above the Arctic Circle in Russia and has a high concentration of polar bears and their dens.
  •  Kronotsky Nature Reserve, with its labyrinth of geysers and volcanoes, has been called the land of fire and ice. The reserve is home to more than 700 brown bears who cross paths near the salmon streams. These streams offer an excellent vantage point to spot the bears who are freely socialising. The reserve is located in the far east of Russia in Kamchatka.

Visitors can plan a bear safari trip to Russian for the late spring season, from May to August.

2.6 Romania

  • Romania has over 4,500 bears, which is considered to be the largest bear population in the whole of Europe. Despite the large population, it isn’t easy to spot them in the wild. The Piatra Craiului Mountains in the southern Carpathians is an ideal place for bear watching. The entire mountain range is located within the Piatra Craiului National Park.
  • Located in Romania’s Zarnesti town is the Liberty Bear Sanctuary. The sanctuary also lies within the Carpathian mountains. The sanctuary was created in memory of Maya, a captive bear who couldn’t recover from the abuse and fell into depression. The sanctuary rescues captive bears, providing them with an open environment with grass under their paws. The bear sanctuary has around 100 brown bears. Visitors can read stories about these bears before the trip to Romania and can also adopt these bears.

2.7 Spain

  • Picos de Europa National Park within the Picos de Europa mountain range is home to a small number of Eurasian brown bears. The Picos de Europa mountain range is a part of the larger Cantabrian Mountains. In the central region of the Cantabrian mountains lies Somiedo Natural Park, which also has a small population of Cantabrian brown bears.

Before the 1970s, hunting was rampant in Spain, which brought down the bear population to a mere 80. Once the threat to bears was realized, measures were taken to protect them. Now Spain has around 230 Cantabrian brown bears.  Bear watching tours are organised during the months of March to October.

2.8 France

The Pyrenees, a mountain range located on the border of France and Spain, blends with Spain’s Cantabrian Mountains. It has around 43 Pyrenean brown bears. Some can be found in Fos commune in southwestern France, and others in the Aspe Valley of Pyrénées-Atlantiques. The best time for bear viewing in these regions is during autumn, hunting for seals in the waters.

2.9 Norway

The Svalbard archipelago, located between the north pole and Norway, is home to a sizable polar bear population. Along with the Franz Joseph Land, a Russian archipelago, Svalbard shares 3,000 polar bears. The largest concentration of polar bears within the Svalbard archipelago are present on the Kong Karls Land, but it is closed for visitors. The ideal time to visit the archipelago is from May to September. It is when the polar bears are most active. The best way to take in the island as well its largest land carnivore is via cruise ships. Cruises for the archipelago depart from the Longyearbyen, the Arctic town known for its northern lights. A great time to visit Svalbard for bear viewing is from June to September.

3. South America

South American has only one bear species, the spectacled bear. It is the last remaining species of short-faced bear.

spectacled bears

Peru

Peru is known for its spectacled bears. It is the only surviving South American native bear species. They are known by many names, such as mountain bear, Andean bear, and Andean short-faced bear. Spectacled bears have either jet black, reddish, or dark brown fur, which is interrupted by light-coloured markings on the face, neck, and chest, giving the appearance of the bears wearing a spectacle. The Chaparri Conservation Area in northern Peru offers spectacled bears an ideal habitat consisting of grassy rolling hills, trees, and cacti. The bears are most active from July to April.

4. Asia

Asiatic Black Bear

India and Sri Lanka

Indian and Sri Lanka together have a total of 29,000 sloth bears. Sloth bears have voluminous shaggy coats and long curved claws. They live in the Indian national parks and forests.

  • Satpura National Park in Madhya Pradesh offers the highest chance of spotting these bears. Visitors might come across sloth bears hanging upside down from the tree branches in the park. These can also be seen in the Gir Forest National Park, Kanha National Park, Jim Corbett National Park, Indravati National Park, and the western ghats.
  • Nanda Devi National Park and Valley of Flowers, located atop the West Himalaya in Uttarakhand, has a good concentration of Himalayan black bears. It is an Asian black bear species also found in neighbouring countries such as Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan, and China. The park is also home to Himalayan brown bear, which is a critically endangered subspecies of brown bear. They are also found in the Great Himalayan National Park in Himachal Pradesh. The valley of flowers is home to Asiatic black bears, a species threatened by poaching and deforestation.
  • Bark Valley Wildlife Sanctuary in Assam is the only place in India to house the Malayan Sun Bear, named because of the crescent-like patch that appears on their chest. They are also referred to as honey bears. In India, a majority of parks are closed during the monsoon. So, the ideal time to visit would be the beginning of the summer season when the heat is bearable.

Borneo

Borneo, an island belonging to the Malay archipelago in Southeast Asia, has Malay sun bears. Hunted and poached for their medicinal properties, the sun bears are a vulnerable species. A conservation project, the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre, takes in the rescued sun bears. It helps them get acquainted with the wild. It is one of the best places to watch bears in the wilds of Borneo, and the world’s only conservation project for sun bears.

China

After decades of research, the Giant panda was deemed a true bear. It is a species native to south-central China. Contrary to popular belief, pandas aren’t all herbivores. Bamboo shoots might be a major part of their diet, but they can also survive on occasional wild tubers and rodents, carrions or birds. The last updated estimate for the number of giant pandas living in the wilds of China is 1,864.

Giant Panda

The Wolong National Nature Reserve section of the Giant Panda National Park is located in the Wenchuan County of Sichuan Province. The nature reserve was incorporated into the Giant Panda National Park in 2020. It was done to improve the living and mating conditions of the giant pandas. It has also allowed the pandas a larger habitat.

About author

MD and Co-Founder. Born in Zimbabwe, Robin has a long history in Africa, and safaris in general, from running lodges to marketing. He is always on the look out for new ideas and products from around the safari world.

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