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Growing up in Alaska, I’ve had a lot of interactions with brown bears. I would fall asleep to the sound of them desperately trying to get in our bear-proof trash, sometimes I narrowly avoided them hiking in the mountains, I saw brown blurs as I drove down the long winding road home, and from time to time I would chase them out of the yard, my trusty cat at my side. They were a part of my everyday life, and I, theirs. I rarely had time to pause and marvel at them because I was usually in survival mode. It wasn’t until I took off for a day trip from Anchorage on an eco-friendly brown bear viewing tour with Rust’s Flying Service in Chinitna Bay near Lake Clark National Park was I able to marvel at them. Away from urban life, and the impact of humans, it was relaxing to observe the Alaskan brown (grizzly) bears, as they grazed on salt marsh grass, napped, and played. This bear viewing tour just outside of Anchorage easily makes my top bucket list thing to do in Anchorage, Alaska.
Before we get started I think it is important to acknowledge this tour takes place on the ancestral lands o the Dena’ina Athabascan people. One thing I felt was missing from the tour was the inclusions of information about Indigenous history in the area. After some independent research, I learned that Qizhjeh Vena, is the original Dena’ina name for Lake Clark meaning a place where people gather. Today, Indigenous Alaskans still use the resources in Lake Clark National Park for subsistence living including fishing. I would love for Rust’s to incorporate more Indigenous culture and history into their tours in the future. Otherwise, this was a tour to knock it out of the park.
Alaska Brown Bear Viewing Eco-Tour to Chinitna Bay
As a lifelong Alaskan and former tour guide, this bear viewing tour was one of the best things I’ve ever done in Alaska and I had to pick my jaw up off the floor time and time again. Rust’s is a local Alaskan company providing small-scale tours in remote parts of Alaska. Supporting local companies like this, as well as watching bears respectfully in their natural wild habitat, is the perfect recipe for an eco-tour. Rust’s offers several packages and tours that range from multi-day trips to half-day trips out of Anchorage. Not only was this one of the best tour I’ve done, this time I had my new fiancé in tow, and he loved every minute of this trip. His favorite animal is the bear, but hailing from Australia the only bear he has ever encountered is the drop bear, so this was truly a once in a lifetime experience for him and it was the perfect way to celebrate our three year anniversary as a couple.
I was a bit hesitant at first to book a brown bear viewing tour with Rust’s. As a tour guide, I recommended them time and time again to my guests, but as a lifelong Alaskan, surely there was nothing I hadn’t seen before. I mean, I get bears in my yard all the time, what’s the big deal? However, I could not have been more mistaken. There was something special about seeing them in their home turf on their terms. To add the icing on the cake the 2-hour plane ride in a Cessna single engine was mind-blowing! I saw remote parts of Alaska I had never seen before and all from a unique bird’s eye perspective. We flew past volcanos and glaciers, small Indigenous villages, glacial plains, forests, lakes and mud flats. It seemed every minute brought something new and exciting. Our pilot was knowledgeable and we enjoyed our banter on the radio back and forth as he brought us safely in for take-off and landing. Once we arrived in the park we were handed into the care of Chinitna Bay Bear Mountain Lodge, where our expert guides took us to three different viewing areas for bears and allowed us to observe and photograph them at our own pace, while educating us on the species!
Alaska Brown Bear Viewing: Trip Stats
Tour Option I Booked: Chinitna Bay Bear Viewing day trip from Anchorage with Rust’s Flying Service. Length of Time: 6-7 hours, departures at 7:30 am and 2 pm.
Skill Level Required: 20-50 HP. Great for the active adventurer, couples, and small families. If you have major mobility issues reconsider, but the viewing is all accessed by easy walking trails. If you’re scared of small planes, conquer your fears, it’s worth it and the pilots are amazing!
Cost of Chinitna Bay Bear Viewing: $795 plus a 3% transportation fee per person.
Seasons: June for the Chinitna Bay, as that is when the bears are most active here. However, Rusts’s offers tours to various locations, such as Katmai National Park throughout the summer.
Telephoto lens. It’s very hard to photograph some of the bears without one, as they can be in the distance. We packed our 100mm-400mm and did fine with the closer bears. If you want serious photos of the bears in the distance, bring at least a 500mm or higher. If you don’t have a telephoto lens, the guides did have a scope and can take photos with your smartphone through it for some cool close-ups.
Tripod that converts to a monopod for great on the go animal photography.
Check the weather and dress appropriately. Alaska is notorious for moody weather. Be prepared for rain, sun, and wind, all in one day. I wore long hiking pants, hiking shirt, a fleece jacket, a scarf, sunglasses, hat, and a long shirt, with a raincoat packed in June and I was happy.
A small lunch is provided, but if you have dietary needs, pack food (there was no vegetarian option).
Binoculars are provided.
Bear mace is not needed, safety precautions are handled by the professionally trained guides.
Model of what you should wear for this tour.
Don’t forget your tripod and telephoto lens!
Checking in at Rust’s Flying Service and Takeoff
Rust’s float planes at Lake Hood, Anchorage
Arrive at Rust’s 30 minutes early. Rust’s is located at Lake Hood, Anchorage, by our international airport. There is limited parking available and you must leave your keys at the front desk if you drive. If you don’t have a car, don’t worry, Rust’s will pick you up from the airport or your hotel! We arrived early to take photos of the cool planes docked at the seaplane base.
Facts From a Local: Lake Hood is the largest and busiest seaplane base in the WORLD, hosting over 200 daily operations! You’ll find plenty of old and quirky planes from single-engine Cessnas to larger Beavers.
We were weighed in at check-in to ensure the plane would be well balanced. Our pilot called us by name when he was ready to have us load up. You can ask your pilot to sit up front and co-pilot as I did, but it will come down to safety and weight balance, so don’t have your heart set on any one seat. Once everyone was loaded up, we began to taxi around the Lake Hood seaplane base. We loved seeing all the planes as we drove by. I was prepared for a bumpy takeoff in this small plane, but I barely felt the lift-off and before I knew it Lake Hood was getting smaller and smaller.
I love bears, don’t get me wrong, but this was one of the best parts of the trip and at the end of the flight Ganesh said, “that alone was worth the money we spent.” He was not wrong. I’ll let some of the photos do the talking, but you really get a taste of how diverse and stunning Alaska is.
Cook Inlet, Alaska
Facts From a Local: Did you know that Alaska has everything from arctic desert to rainforest?
The flight started out over large glacial mudflats and marshy tundra to one side and the murky Cook Inlet to the other. Here you could spot little duck huts, that are used for duck hunting in the autumn. Wide braided rivers carved through the glacial flats. Out in the inlet, you could spot some of the oil rigs and operations that happen close to Anchorage. There are also some natural gas plants below. You fly past sleeping lady mountain, pictured as the smaller mountain with no snow on it. Sleeping Lady is named as she looks like a lady sleeping, this mountain is an iconic image of the Anchorage area.
Sleeping Lady mountain resting beyond Anchorage and the glacial silt rivers.
Red Glacier at Mt. Iliamna Volcano in the Aleutian Range
Mt. Redoubt, Volcano in the Aleutian Range
Facts From a Local: These large braided rivers and gray muddy areas are a sign a glacier is near. The rivers bring and deposit glacial silt, which is a fine gray mud. It’s incredibly dangerous to walk on and acts almost like sinking sand, avoid these areas at all costs if you ever visit Alaska.
As we left the vast marshy plains behind, mountains rose before us. This snowy range, called the Aleutian Range, is an extension of the Alaska Range, home to Denali, the largest peak in N. America. You will also spot two, and if you’re lucky three, active volcanoes as you fly. Sprinkled through the mountains glaciers rest, including a red glacier – caused by mineral deposits from the volcano! Alaska is huge, and this reminded me how little I’ve seen of my home state. I felt giddy inside as we flew, I couldn’t stop smiling and saying, “WOW!”. The flight really put into perspective how diverse Alaska is. Our pilot was one of those guys that knew everything about everything. I learned so much just talking to him, and every question I asked from geological to economic, he knew the answer. He’s been a pilot in Alaska for 13 years and before that a commercial pilot in Seattle. Alaska is a great place to be a pilot and he seemed very happy doing his job. Alaska has very few roads, in fact, the small state of Rhode Island has more miles of road than our huge state. We rely on small planes for travel and supplies to remote areas. I wanted to keep flying all day, however, I was excited to see the bears. They are what we came for, after all.
Bird’s eye view of beautiful Alaska
Facts From a Local: The fastest way to tell a local from a tourist is by what they call Denali. Often tourists know it as Mt. Mckinley and locals will refer to it as Denali. Denali is the traditional Athabaskan (interior indigenous peoples) name for this mountain. It wasn’t until a gold miner, campaigning for President Mckinley, saw the mountain and decided to call it after him. On all federal documents it was listed as Mt. McKinley, but all state documents had it listed as Denali. Alaskans have been fighting for a federal name change since the 70s and finally, in 2008 Obama succeeded. #thanksobama Be respectful and use the name, Denali.
We landed on a beach in Chinitna Bay!
Our pilot turned the corner into Chinitna Bay and I looked around, wondering where we might land. The beach, it was on the freakin’ beach! How cool is that? We landed smoothly, unloaded and were greeted by the wonderful hosts at Bear Mountain Lodge in Chinitna Bay.
Alaska Brown Bear Viewing in Chinita Bay
4×4 bus we drove along the beach to our three viewing spots
Rust’s handed us over to the friendly staff of The Bear Mountain Lodge at Chinitna Bay. They welcomed us in with snacks and genuine conversation. We were allowed a quick break before loading up in the 4×4 monster green bus. We took off down the beach to our first stop. We lucked out as there was a beautiful female brown just a couple dozen feet away! She’s the cute one you see in most of the close-up photos. I scanned the area and counted almost 8 bears, including some large solo males, and a few mommas with two or three babies. The babies were about three years old, so they look almost as big, if not bigger than their mom. This would be the last spring with their mother before they set out on their own.
The bears were so interested in feeding they minded their own business, as we mind ours. They’re used to people in the area and it was so relaxing watching them do their thing. We had plenty of time to photograph and observe them feeding and playing and we had a perfect spot for photos! Our guides did carry a weapon in case of emergency, but at no point was there any threat, or did I ever feel scared. Our guide even showed us how to take photos from professional binoculars, so if you don’t have a telephoto you can still get some close-ups.
Facts from a local: Bears are omnivores and they are in this protected area to eat high protein salty marsh grass. After they wake up from hibernation- the salmon aren’t running yet, so they need the nutrition and protein these grasses provide. Once the salmon start running they’ll move on to feast on the tasty fish. Bears stay with their mothers until they’re three years old.
As the tide was coming in, we needed to load up and head to the second stop. Further down the beach we parked and went down a little trail into the woods. We came out on the bank of a river, still sheltered by the woods. The bears here were quite far away, so photography was difficult, but I didn’t mind too much, as just watching them from a distance was enjoyable.
Facts from a local: Female bears and marked by being smaller in stature and lighter in color. Their ears and face tend to be more round and soft. Male bears tend to be a dark brown with a larger build and a boxier face. The average Alaskan male brown bear weighs 900 pounds! Can you spot the male and female bears in my photos?
The third and final stop was again further down the beach and a small walk through the woods. A lone wolf was in the field with the bears and he ran off just as we emerged from the woods. We got a quick view, but it was too fast for photos. Wolves are very rare to spot and I’ve only ever seen a few in my life. All the action startled a bear and it began to run through the marshy river bank. It stopped at the other side and gave us a nice show while relieving itself. I guess that answers the question, “Do bears poop in the woods?” No one in the group thought my dad joke was funny :(We kept an eye out for the wolf, but he never came back into view. So, we spent our time watching a new set of bears, eat and meander.
Facts from a local: Did you know that you can eat the new growth on pine trees? The tender bright green bits. We nibbled on them as we walked through the forest and they go great in salads!
There was a large family at this stop, a momma with three larger cubs. The bear siblings enjoyed playing together and we got a good view of some rough and tumble action and bear boxing!
Did you know that Alaska grizzly and brown bears are the exact same species? The only difference is the access to salmon and fresh fish. In the landlocked interior of Alaska, salmon options are limited, so the coats of the bears are haggard and rough, making them look grizzly. Bears near water with access to salmon have shinier and healthier looking coats. Just think, if you give your dog fish oil its coat will shine!
I almost filled up my camera by the time it was to pack up and head back to the lodge. In total, we saw about 10 bears at each site. It was an incredibly satisfying day. Back at the lodge, our pilot was waiting for us with a snack lunch to bring back on the plane. As we loaded up, I let Ganesh take the co-pilot seat. I realized that the back seat was better for photos, so I happily clicked away as Ganesh asked plenty of Alaskan questions.
We weren’t done seeing wildlife for the day, looking down at the Cook Inlet we saw pods of belugas and lots of seals, getting their fill of fresh salmon. Alaska comes alive with the first salmon runs as everyone fights for their chances to fatten up for the winter. Salmon fuel most of Alaska’s wildlife and economy, but as our pilot said, “sometimes you have to root for the salmon, everyone wants them.”
Small remote villages accessible only by plane are common in Alaska
Sleeping Lady mountain resting beyond Anchorage and the glacial silt rivers.
Landing at Lake Hood in Anchorage
As we came back in for the landing I observed my little home city from the air. This thrilling Alaskan bear viewing eco-tour gave me a new appreciation for Alaska and the beautiful animals I share a home with. We could not thank Rust’s Flying Service and Bear Mountain Lodge enough for the truly wild and thrilling excursion into Alaska’s wilderness. No one on the tour knew I was a member of the media and yet I still received 5-star service from everyone. If you’re visiting Alaska in the summer and looking for incredible things to do in Anchorage I highly recommend an eco-tour with Rust’s to view bears at one of Alaska’s great National Parks.
Have you been on an eco-tour recently or maybe an Alaska brown bear viewing eco-tour is on your bucket list? Tell me about it in the comments, and remember to share this with all your friends and family.
Susanna grew up in small-town Alaska where the changing climate was always on her mind. Through traveling, she gained an interest in the power of sustainable and regenerative travel. She now attends a Master's program for Ecology and bridges sustainable travel with the science of ecology.