The World’s Best Bear Encounters

You may have seen a recent BBC documentary, The Great Bear Stakeout, in which the comedian Billy Connolly narrated the story of Alaskan grizzlies trying to survive in the unforgiving sub-arctic wild. Similar in theme to Werner Herzog’s tragi-doc Grizzly Man, with huge dollops of anthropomorphism (each bear had a name, theme music and dressing room) and a thankfully less gruesome end for its host, this show followed the experts as they spent five months getting up close and personal with Yogi’s chums.

Grizzly Bears of Hallo Bay

Grizzly Bears of Hallo Bay By Stephen Oachs

Though you’re unlikely to get anything like the close-up experience offered by TV (and, with the threatening alpha male lumbering at the camera aggressively, be thankful for that) there’s still a healthy bear-watching industry around the world, offering thrilling encounters with the eight different types of bear still to be found in the wild.

From the snow-covered wastes of the frozen north to the tropical rainforest, bears roam a vast range of climates. Let’s take a look at a few of them:

Katmai National Park, Alaska

In the interests of the armchair traveller, we’ll start with where the Connolly show was actually filmed, the magnificent Katmai National Park, south-west of Anchorage, spanning nearly five million acres. Famous for its volcanoes, rugged landscape and, of course, its population of brown and grizzly bears, Katmai’s Valley of 10,000 Smokes lays in tribute to a massive eruption in 1912 that forever changed the park’s landscape. Some of the biggest grizzlies on record have been sighted in Katmai between July and September and there are numerous tours available.

"Can't You hear me? Read my lips: I AM HUNGRY!"

Photo By guenterleitenbauer

Cayembe-Coca Ecological Reserve, Ecuador

You don’t usually associate bears with rainforests and warm climates, but strangely enough there is the Malayan sun bear, which is found in Sumatra, Borneo, Thailand and southern China, and the spectacled bear, found in South America. Looking vastly different to their Peruvian relative Paddington, with spectacle-shaped patches around their eyes (hence the name), the best place to find the spectacled bear is in the Ecuadorean part of the Andes. Though your chances of seeing the reclusive bear here are slim, with soaring condor above and cougars, tapir and armadillos on the ground, as well as pre-Incan relics, indigenous tribes, snow-topped volcanoes and otherworldly cloud forests, this makes for a spectacular trip, bear or no.

Piatra Craiului Mountains, Romania

Set in the striking Southern Carpathians mountain range, specifically the Transylvanian Alps, the Piatra Craiului Mountains host Europe’s greatest concentration of brown bears (around 5,000) alongside wolves, lynx and, probably false legend has it, vampires. With Romania’s burgeoning tourist industry and the Carpathians stretching from Poland, down through the Czech Republic and Slovakia toward Hungary and the Ukraine, this could be an essential part of a wider Eastern European adventure.

sleepy bear

Photo By therese flanagan

Svalbard Archipelago, Norway

One of the best destinations to see the endangered polar bear, Norway’s arctic islands offer a real sense of the remote. Alongside the region’s superstar, you can see Svalbard reindeer, whales, dolphins and walruses, and smaller but still charming species such as the Arctic fox and the Southern vole. For good measure, the neighbouring Barents Sea attracts the world’s largest population of visiting seabirds, making it a birder’s paradise. Tours, though not cheap, are well worth the cash and depart from Spitzbergen and Longyearbyen.

Denali National Park, Alaska

Further north than Katmai is the home of the tallest mountain in North America, Mount McKinley. “Denali”, in the region’s native Athabaskan language, means “the high one”, in reference to the gargantuan peak, (20,320 feet) that dominates this National Park. Offering everything you could want from Alaska tours, the many grizzly and brown bears are just a couple of reasons to head north.