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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.
I want to thank Rust’s Flying Service for extending their media rate to me, but as always, views are my own. If you are looking for the best bear viewing experience in Anchorage, Alaska book a tour with Rust’s for an unforgettable Alaskan Experience.
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.
Packing List for Alaska Bear Watching:
- Small backpack.
- Water bottle or camelback.
- 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.
- Hiking boots or solid walking shoes.
- 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.
Checking in at Rust’s Flying Service and Takeoff
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.
Looking for more outdoor adventures in Alaska? Don’t miss these awesome glacier view hikes near Anchorage.
Flight Seeing Tour to Chinitna Bay
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.”
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.
Finish your day with an ice-cold craft beer at one of Anchorage’s many microbreweries.
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.
Rediscovering an adventure with a loved one is so romantic. Good you enjoyed the trip.
I love this article! I would love to live in one of those small Alaskan villages in the middle of nowhere and everybody helps each other out and be part of a close knit community. I love wildlife as well so being able to see these beautiful brown bears in the wild would be a memory to treasure! Great article!
What a cool post! I can’t get my head around bears being so close to humans still. I stay in upstate New York a lot and my friend always has issues with bears in the summer. Coming from the UK it’s hard for me to comprehend! I love all the little “Facts from a local” sections too. I had no idea you could eat the pines! What a great tour!
I was totally in love with this trip until I saw the price, wow. Maybe it is quite normal for the area. The photos of the wild look stunning. I would love to visit Alaska one day!
Congrats on getting engaged! While solo travel can be fun, it’s also amazing to experience travel with a loved one (or new fiancé!). Being a native to Alaska and a tour guide lends you a special kind of authority when discussing these tours, so I’d be inclined to go on this tour. It’s unreal that you can get so close to the bears, too. I was in Alaska in 2006, and your post is reeeeally making me want to return :)
I would love to take up this eco-tour. It is an experience to last a lifetime. Bear-viewing seems to be even better than I had imagined. I particularly love the view of the red glacier. Hope to take off and get a bird’s view of Alaska sometime soon. Cheers!!
This looks so refreshing. You seemed to have done everything I wanna do. Your aerial shots and close-up shots of the Alaskan brown bear are stunning. I really liked your packing list too.
Wow I am so jalous! Such an adventure to look for bears… I like your photos and the local facts boxes.
After seeing your pictures on Instagram, I’m so glad I came across your post to read about your experience! Seems like this tour was well worth the money, especially since it included the flight as well. Will definitely make note to visit in June when the bears are most active. You took some stunning pictures, would love to see bears in the wild one day!
This looks like an incredible experience! I was really lucky to have been able to fly in small planes a couple times in Alaska when I was a kid. It’s such an amazing place (it’d be so neat to grow up there)! I’d love to watch and photograph brown bears in their natural habitat. It can be pleasantly surprising to do something a bit touristy where you grew up or live. When my friends visit me in Wyoming, I realize I need to do more camping trips right around where I live.
Love this! I can’t wait to do this exact tour next summer – thank you for the review. Amazing photos!
Ahh!! Thank you so much for sharing!! This looks amazing. I love the views and the bear encounter. Ans I can’t even imagine having Brown Bears around all the time. Thank you so much for sharing and I will be sure to do this when I make it to Alaska.
What a wonderful article! My partner is a Brit/Aussie too and he’s obsessed with bears! We’ve just moved to Vancouver and every time we go on a hike he declares that he ‘hopes we see a bear!’ Myself on the other hand…hopes we definitely do NOT! This sounds like a perfect way to see bears in their natural habitat in a safe and sensible way. I’ll be adding it to our Alaska/Yukon to do list for next year :)
What a great trip. That is so exciting. We have some land that we are slowly building on north of Denali and I love seeing all the wildlife around us every time I go. I’ve only seen bears in the park, but I’ve seen moose all over the place and on our land. Alaska is a beautiful place. If it wasn’t so cold, I could probably live there year round. I’m afraid I will have to settle for the warmer months though. Beautiful photos.
What a great visual and informative piece! I have been to Alaska and it is truly a magestic place. How amazing that a tour like this is eco-friendly but also value for money. I would love to do this!
This looks like so much fun! Alaska has been on my list for a long time, and now I want to go even more. I’m definitely making note of this tour. The views from the plane are absolutely stunning!
What an incredible, nature-filled experience! I can’t believe how close many of your photos are and that you were able to capture “bear boxing”. The landscape is absolutely breathtaking and I will definitely be adding Alaska to my bucket list. There’s clearly so much to explore and do!
Wow, this must have been such a unique experiene! Me and my boyfriend love the outdoors and wildlife and would definately do this if we went to Alaska! (Which we intend to do) Beautiful shots you got of the bears! Well done! :)
Beautiful photos, and as much as I really liked the bear close-ups I was awed by the landscape shots you took from above (I’m more of a wide-angle person). What other lens did you have besides the 100-400?
Alaska is one of my dream destinations for my honeymoon, despite the fact that I live in Sweden I would really like to visit another arctic country on that occasion. If I’ll get enough budget to fit in an experience like yours I’ll definitely do, although it will not be in June, so not this precise one. But I’m intrigued by the idea of doing an airplane exploration, so thank you for the inspiration.
I just loved reading this post – I have wanted to visit Alaska for such a long time (I’m in the UK so it’s a long way!), and this just fires it up even more. I loved all the bear facts, too. What would you recommend as the best time of year to see them?
Wonderful, love how strongly your enthusiasm and excitement comes through. I visited Alaska as a teenager back in the mid 1980s and I still remember very clearly the intense thrill when we saw a family of brown bears, I think we were either in or on our way to Denali… there was a mother and three cubs loping behind her along a grassy slope and one got distracted and left behind. It’s sudden realisation and then frantic race to catch up was just magical to see! Alaska is actually high on my list as I’d love to take my husband there, as I’ve often spoken of the beautiful landscapes and warm welcome.
Fabulous photos. If I’d be rich I’d take this tour at once! I hope to make it to Alaska one day, it look so beautiful!
I love wildlife travel and am so desperate to spot bears in the wild. I road-tripped around the Canadian Rockies for two weeks one summer and did not see one single bear … looks like I’ll have to hit step it to Alaska for brown bear viewing!
That is such a bummer. I’ve driven from Alaska to the lower-48 several times and have only seen a handful of bears in the Canadian part. I think you really have to go find their favorite food sources, like Lake Clark or Katmai National Park and protected areas and get them while they are stuffing their faces full of salmon!
Wow, what an incredible adventure! Alaska has always been on my list of places to visit but we haven’t made it up there yet. If we do go I’m definitely going to be following in your footsteps, it sounds like you did it right!
It is such an amazing place to visit with some fantastic bear and wildlife viewing opportunities. I hope you are able to make it someday soon!
We did this tour like this at Silver Salmon Creek in Lake Clarke National Park. It was amazing. We frequently see bears in Pennsylvania–usually the same way you talk about them–getting into the trash, in the backyard, swimming in the lake, in our driveway (we were in the car that time thankfully). Unexpected moments. It was quite an experience to watch them nearby in the wild.