Without a doubt, the majority of visitors as well as Alaska residents hope to see brown bears, black bears, and grizzlies during their adventures in the great outdoors. The growing popularity of Alaska as a vacation destination is attracting increasing numbers of wildlife viewing enthusiasts from all over the world. But the most popular bear viewing areas in the state, aside from visiting Denali National Park, have reached their saturation point for the number of visitors who are allowed into these critically sensitive areas.
The bears' welfare always takes the highest priority and it is for this reason that the number of humans allowed into the more popular bear viewing areas are limited each day throughout the prime viewing periods. Yet Alaska has thousands of bears and just about any stream with a salmon run will most likely be visited at some point in time by a black or brown bear seeking to capitalize on this valuable food source. This is especially true for the bush areas of the state where conditions remain as they were a thousand years ago and human intrusion is minimal.
Permission to visit the managed viewing areas requires attaining a permit or reservation for each person and involves special arrangements with concessionaires or private air and/or water taxis due to their remote locations. Some tourism businesses may offer package deals which include bear viewing opportunities as part of your itinerary. Other tourism operations may provide only transportation and drop-off services, giving the visitor an opportunity to plan a more open itinerary and schedule if that area makes such allowances. Much of this depends on the individual area visited as well as which government agency is managing that resource. Some viewing areas have very structured schedules with very limited time one can actually view the bears while in other areas you may spend 6-8 hours or the whole day watching and photographing.
The managed viewing areas have a permitting process and application period. Viewing time, area rules and permit fees vary from one location to the next. There is little standardization of the process and the "window of opportunity" usually begins around January 1st and application/reservation deadlines are often set for the end of February or beginning of March if you want to be considered. Familiarizing yourself with the requirements of each area is an absolute necessity due to the number of variations in the permitting process.
Some areas accept permit applications or camping reservations on a First Come, First Served basis while others use a lottery drawing approach for deciding who will make the cut. It is for this reason the Alaska Outdoor Journal has consolidated all these processes in a concise, single point of reference document you are reading now.
Bear in mind, Alaska offers many opportunities to view bears in the wild other than the areas listed here. If you will be fishing in some of the more remote salmon streams or engaging in river rafting or kayaking trips down remote salmon rivers, your chances of encountering bears in their natural state are quite good.