There are several well-known bear viewing sites in Alaska. The best Alaska bear watching is Kodiak Island, especially Katmai National Park. But our experience shows that you don’t have to fly to Kodiak to see brown bears.
On an Alaska Highway road trip, Alan and I chose a convoluted itinerary to reach the actual Alaska Highway. Why? We wanted to include watching bears at Fish Creek in Hyder, Alaska.
It takes determination to go wildlife watching at Fish Creek. Situated in a remote section of the Tongass National Forest, Fish Creek Wildlife Observation Site (official website) is definitely an off-the-beaten-path travel experience.
This tiny sliver of the U.S. that’s mostly surrounded by British Columbia requires a drive on the Cassiar Highway (Highway 37). To reach Fish Creek, turn onto Highway 37-A at Mezladin Junction for the 41-mile scenic ride along a fjord to Stewart, B.C.
Drive 3 miles more and you’ll arrive in Hyder. It’s the southernmost community in Alaska that’s reachable by car. This remote location offers access to Fish Creek Wildlife Observation Site as well as Salmon Glacier.
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Tips for watching bears at Fish Creek
From July to early September, salmon spawn at Fish Creek in Hyder, Alaska. The silver backs of chum salmon flash in the sunlight as the salmon swim up the creek from the Portland Canal.
Bears (both black and grizzly), wolves, eagles and other wildlife aren’t far behind, attracted by the convenient food source. And where there is abundant wildlife, humans are sure to be found—watching and photographing.
Like most wildlife watching experiences, early in the morning and dusk offer the best Hyder bear viewing. Also, as the salmon run slows down in early September, bear sightings become less frequent.
Photographers should arrive early, stake out a spot at the end of the platform and stay there. You’ll loose your place at the railing if you move up and down the viewing platform.
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Our Fish Creek experience
During an Alaska Highway road trip, Alan and I made two visits to Fish Creek Wildlife Observation Site. After settling into accommodations at Ripley Creek Inn in Stewart, we drove a gravel road that crossed the border into Hyder, continuing three miles to Fish Creek for a late August afternoon of bear watching.
Joining a few other wildlife watchers, Alan and I walked up and down the long, wooden boardwalk that parallels Fish Creek. Salmon flipped and flopped in clear, shallow water while many of their dead companions littered the creek bank. Several seagulls feasted on salmon remains but the bears—the reason we had come—were nowhere to be seen.
The next morning, we arrived just as the Tongass National Forest Service personnel opened the gates at 6:00 a.m. The crowd grew as we waited in the early morning cold, most toting camera gear with hopes of capturing the photo of a lifetime.
Soon, a brown grizzly bear lumbered up the creek. The crowd watched as the bear fished and ate, fished and ate, approaching closer and closer, oblivious to the humans on the platform above her. A park volunteer moved up and down the path to answer questions or remind a noisy visitor to tone it down.
Eventually, between foraging for berries on the creek bank and fishing for salmon, the bear had her fill and moved out of sight.
But the animal watching wasn’t over. A wolf wandered up the creek in the bear’s footsteps. The agile wolf pounced on the swimming salmon, catching them quickly.
We watched as the wolf bit off the heads of the salmon dining on their brains and discarding the rest. Scavenger birds hung in the trees or flew overhead waiting their turn to finish off the salmon.
The action lasted about two hours, leaving us cold and hungry. On the drive back to Stewart, we stopped at the Glacier Inn for breakfast. Many of our fellow wildlife watchers were there, making for a fun morning of comparing notes.
Another option, after watching the wildlife at Fish Creek, is to continue up the road to Salmon Glacier. It was too foggy and misty during our visit to make the drive worthwhile. But there’s always next time.
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Read about our itinerary and other Alaska adventures at Alaska Highway Road Trip.