Where are America’s best bears?

Mention the Smoky Mountains, especially Gatlinburg, Tenn., and bears are probably the first thing that you’ll hear about.

Black bears, to be exact. The nearby Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the last remaining places in the eastern United States where they can be found in the wild.

But this Tennessee tourist town, where images, wood carvings and sculptures of black bears are literally everywhere, isn’t the only place that claims to be America’s bear capital.

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A few years ago, after my family checked into our vacation rental in Big Bear Lake, Calif., we were greeted by a large black bear on our porch. No one could believe it. After all, we were just a short drive from Los Angeles, and you’d think the only creatures here would be, you know, animatronic.

But no, it turns out grizzlies (now long gone in the area) roamed these mountains more than a century ago. The black bears were actually introduced to the region in 1933, and can sometimes be seen lumbering through the neighborhoods foraging for food. And of course there’s the name: Big Bear Lake.

Other places promise bears. On several visits to Jackson Hole., in-the-know locals advised us to be on the lookout for the grizzlies that live in Yellowstone National Park. But those bears remained elusive, at least to us.

Granted, we were at a disadvantage. We arrived in mid-March, when male grizzlies are only beginning to emerge from hibernation (the females wait an extra month), so our chances of sighting a bear were slim. Still, that didn’t in any way curtail Jackson Hole’s bear craze, which continues uninterrupted without any seasonal pause. Bear murals, bear carvings, and bear-themed hotels are de rigueur in this Wyoming ski town.

And then there’s Alaska. I can’t think of one town in the Last Frontier that plays up the potential for bear encounters more than any other. The whole state seems to be in on it.

But there’s one place I can recall talking about bears more than any other: Girdwood, home of the underrated Alyeska ski resort. But even there, we were not meant to see any bears, despite promises that they were “everywhere.” The locals failed to mention that the bears were shy, particularly of tourists with large cameras and small kids.

By the time you’ve visited enough “Beartown U.S.A.s,” you roll your eyes when you see yet another place that claims to have bears. Or so we thought when we pulled up to our week-long vacation rental in Gatlinburg.

If they have bears, I thought, show us.

We remained skeptical even as we road construction signs that read, “Please bear with us.” (Bear with us — get it?) And I shook my head as I saw row after row of carved wooden bears doing all kinds of things. My favorite: The carved wooden bear cub toilet-paper dispenser. Classy.

Gatlinburg is a tourist town in every sense of the word, from the budget motels that line the highway to the proliferate chain restaurants to the five separate Ripley’s attractions. Oh yeah, and there’s a theme park in nearby Pigeon Forge. Maybe you’ve heard of Dollywood?

But there’s one thing Gatlinburg has going for it that Las Vegas, Reno and Branson, Mo., don’t — and that’s bears. We wouldn’t have believed it unless we saw it ourselves, but on the second morning of our stay, we noticed three dark shapes moving on the steep hill just beyond our balcony.

And there they were: two yearlings playing in the rain under their mother’s watchful eye.

Was it a fluke? Being a skeptic, I thought — nah, we just got lucky. But the next day, on an excursion into the national park, we hit the bear jackpot again. Driving along a scenic 11-mile loop in Cades Cove, we spotted wild turkey, some deer, and at long last, a lone black bear.

On our way back to Gatlinburg, the family got into a heated argument about what ranks as the best bear town in America. Our kids voted for Gatlinburg and the Smoky Mountains (probably because they don’t remember California or Wyoming), but I still think Alaska has it beat when it comes to bears. But then again, I’m a fan of the Werner Herzog documentary film that involves the protagonist ending up as a grizzly snack.

We could use a little help settling this question. Who’s right about the bears?

20 thoughts on “Where are America’s best bears?

  1. You are wrong about the few places where there are wild black bears. In SouthEastern North Carolina where I have a farm there are a lot of black bears. You don’t see them often as they are shy creatures but they are there. I am sure that is the case in many other areas of North and South Carolina and not just the Great Smoky Mountains.

    1. I mentioned in the original version of this article that there are plenty of bears on the Eastern US in Pennsylvania, upstate New York, and of course Maine.  Their populations have definitely increased over the years, such as this claim that the population in Mass has gone from about 100 to over 3,000. Every state in New England (even Rhode Island) has a population of wild American black bears.


    2. Here’s a map of the US with areas of wild American black bears in orange. Every state in the East (from Florida to Maine) is in the current range of the American black bear habit.

  2. Why would anyone in their right mind stay in Gatlinburg?  Townsend, on the other side of Cades Cove, is a lovely town without the throngs of tourists and row upon row of kitschy shops.  Oh, and we saw bears there a year ago during our stay (3rd week of March).

    I rather like Seward and Sitka (both in Alaska) for bears, rather than Girdwood, myself.  The ones in the Elk Mountains of Colorado are welcome to hang out in the woods, far from where I’m hiking.

    1. Well they don’t call Gatlinburg the redneck alps for nothing. We did drive by Pidgeon Forge to get to Gatlinburg a while back and it was a bumper to bumper oversized 4×4 parking lot. We felt out of place driving a Volvo wagon with bike racks.
      We did not see any bears. But we did see some on my brother’s backyard when he lived in Pennsylvania. Lots of bears over there eating from garbage cans.

  3. Where there are higher class bears….

    Bear drinks 36 cans of favorite beer

    LAKE, Wash. (AP) — Rain-eeeeer …. Bear? When state Fish and
    Wildlife agents recently found a black bear passed out on the lawn of
    Baker Lake Resort, there were some clues scattered nearby — dozens of
    empty cans of Rainier Beer.

    The bear apparently got into campers’ coolers and used his claws and teeth to puncture the cans. And not just any cans.

    “He drank the Rainier and wouldn’t drink the
    Busch beer,” said Lisa Broxson, bookkeeper at the campground and cabins
    resort east of Mount Baker.

    Fish and Wildlife enforcement Sgt. Bill Heinck said the bear did try one can of Busch, but ignored the rest.

    “He didn’t like that (Busch) and consumed, as near as we can tell, about 36 cans of Rainier.”

    A wildlife agent tried to chase the bear from the
    campground but the animal just climbed a tree to sleep it off for
    another four hours. Agents finally herded the bear away, but it returned
    the next morning.

    Agents then used a large, humane trap to capture
    it for relocation, baiting the trap with the usual: doughnuts, honey
    and, in this case, two open cans of Rainier. That did the trick.

    “This is a new one on me,” Heinck said. “I’ve
    known them to get into cans, but nothing like this. And it definitely
    had a preference.”

  4. I know people who live in New Jersey(!) who complain about bears frequenting their yards.

    Strictly by the numbers, I believe Alaska dominates in terms of overall bear population density, and high-concentration viewing areas (although I understand the latter often take some effort to reach).

    1. I don’t have exact numbers, but I believe that wild American black bears are found in the majority of US states.  Some people think they’re only cold climate animals, but they range as far as Mexico.  They’re found in all the Southwestern US states including Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah.  All the Gulf states from Texas to Florida have bears.

      There are a few states where there hasn’t been a steady population of bears in decades, including Kansas.  I believe the term is “extirpated” although they occasionally get one from a different state wandering in and then leaving.

  5. This sounds like it’s primarily about the American black bear.

    I don’t know how there can be any mention of American’s best bears without mention of two places in the west – Yosemite and Lake Tahoe.  The phrase “Yosemite bear” will cause wildlife management dealing with bears to think thoughts of bears going into garbage, sneaking up on people as they place food into vehicles/bear boxes, and peeling open car doors with their claws and clawing through upholstery to get into the contents of trunks.

    And it’s not quite true that Reno, Nevada doesn’t have bears.  They’re found in the hills to the west of Reno, and they occasionally get disoriented and have even come into Reno where they’ve gone through trash.


    “RENO, Nev. (AP) – A state wildlife official says a young black bear that was tranquilized and removed from the back yard of a northwest Reno home will be released back into the wild.

    Nevada Department of Wildlife spokesman Chris Healy tells the Reno Gazette-Journal the young male bruin captured Wednesday morning will be weighed, measured, tattooed, given an ear tag and released into the Mount Rose foothills.”


    “A black bear, shown Sept. 17, rests in a tree in Reno. Wet weather in June has increased food sources for bears, leading to a decrease in interactions with humans in the Sierra, wildlife biologists said.”

    1. According to NPS estimates, there are ~400 black bears in Yosemite (1200 sq/miles or 1 bear per 3 square miles) vs. ~1500 black bears in the Smokies (800 sq/miles or nearly 2 bears per 1 square mile).

      I’m not sure why the Sierra black bears are (apparently) more aggressive and harder to manage.  Maybe more contact with humans and campsites?

      Alaska is estimated to have 100,000+ black bears (and 40,000 brown bears) state-wide.  That works out to ~1 black-bear per 5.5 square miles on average, but that rate includes vast areas (especially in the Arctic) where there are none.  

      Kuiu Island (Alaska) is estimated to have 4 black bears per square mile (double the concentration found in the Smokies).  

      Various Alaska outfitters make competing claims about Kuiu Island, Prince Wales Island, and various parts of the Kenai coastline each having “the highest black bear concentration in the world.”





      1. Maybe I didn’t quite get the question.  Chris wasn’t terribly specific about what was meant by “best bears”.

        Is it qualitative?  You mention density, but I really didn’t see that mentioned.  The likelihood of seeing a bear was mentioned, and although Yosemite isn’t super dense with bears as a whole (there’s a lot of high country where bears wouldn’t want to live) the concentration in Yosemite Valley or Tioga Road is high because the bears look for human foods.

        I mentioned that the campground raiding bears in Yosemite aren’t that shy about being seen.

  6. There is a big difference between the black bear and the brown bear (aka grizzly). Black bears are common across the entire US, but the grizzly bear is restricted to few points in the lower 48.

    Alaska, on the other hand, has everything. Perhaps the best brown bear viewing area is Katmai National Park during the Salmon runs in the summer. Another great place is Pack Creek in Tongass National Forest. Both are expensive places to get to.

    In the lower 48, Yellowstone is way better than Jackson for bear viewing. Again, it is timing, but Pelican Creek, Hayden Valley, Fishing Bridge, Lamar Valley are hot spots. Likewise, Glacier National Park also has a healthy bear population.

    Anywhere along the high mountain range of California is prime black bear territory, but if you want to see bears, check out Yosemite valley where you can watch them break into cars at night. The problem is so bad that simply having a cooler visible in your car makes it a mark.

    Regarding Gatlinburg, Jeanne is right. It can compete for the tackiest place on earth. Unfortunately, parts of the Smoky Mountains cannot be easily reached without going through Gatlinburg. Cades Cove is probably the best place for bear watching, if you can tolerate the incessant traffic. As a ranger buddy once said, when people see bears, their brains go out the window.

    In the Smokies, bear hot spots seem to be Abrams Falls trail, Gregory Bald trail, Cades Cove loop road, Walnut Bottoms, but bears can be seen anywhere in the park. However, for the BEST bears in the Southeast, Martin is right. Eastern NC/SC bears statistically come in at 1 1/2 – 2X the weight of their mountainous counterparts. The reason is simple, better climate, better food supply. There are GREAT places to view bears in the coastal plain, but I will not divulge all my secrets!

    The above is my experience as a wildlife photographer!

    1. I am a newcomer to eastern nc & I want to see some bears. Please reveal how/when. I’m a woman & wouldn’t hurt or feed one, but I’d love to go somewhere and sit quietly and just watch. Especially a mama & cubs. I got lost in Bladen co. Last summer & saw a cub crossing the road, but otherwise haven’t seen any. Joanna

  7. Chris,
    I do not know where the best bears are, but they are much more
    widespread in the eastern US than you knew.  In my state of New Jersey,
    the most densely populated state in the nation, bear sightings have
    reportedly been made in all of our 21 counties.  In fact, the bear
    population has grown so much that the state has been having a season for
    bear hunting in recent years to reduce their numbers, which has
    generated much protest from some quarters.

  8. We’ve photographed bears all over the US, but Great Smoky Mountain National Park is the best place to see them in numbers. Second best place to see them and not mentioned here is in Florida around Orlando, especially the Wekiwa to Blue Springs area. The area around Yosemite is always good viewing. 

  9. in the smokeys the bear are black and acclimated to people. believe me in alaska you do NOT want a close encounter with a grizzly they see humans as a source of protein or an invader into what they consider their’s, either way its not a happy place to be.

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