People come to Homer, Alaska, for a lot of reasons — to hike, try their luck at fishing or just to explore the quaint town full of art galleries and gift shops.
But Homer is also an excellent launching pad for bear viewing in nearby Katmai National Park. The park is undoubtedly one of the most gorgeous parts of Alaska (and that isn’t an easy accomplishment!). After all, we just spent the past 5 days on a road trip adventure exploring the spectacular Kenai Peninsula. Yep, we are definitely far from Los Angeles!
There is so much of Alaska to explore — however, as soon as I saw it was prime bear viewing season (stretching roughly from June through the end of August), I knew that we had to make a stop in Homer. We ended up visiting the first weekend in September, which is technically towards the end of bear viewing season. But clearly, the bears didn’t get the memo. In total, we saw more than 20 bears on the trip!
When you’re getting this close to wild animals (we’re talking bears weighing over 1,000 pounds!), finding the right tour company is essential. I mean, we are adventurous but we’re not crazy! After researching nearly every tour operator in Homer, there was no doubt in my mind that we’d go with Smokey Bay Air. And I’m so glad that we did — they went above and beyond our expectations. We’ll take you along our 5 hour journey — an adventure that became our favorite activity we did in Alaska.
Smokey Bay Air’s bear tours last about five hours total—including flights and about three hours on the ground. But there was one huge benefit that we didn’t realize until the day of the tour. They get out ahead of the crowds — with a 7 AM arrival time and 8 AM departure. We were the very first people to arrive at the park and had the bears all to ourselves for the beginning of the tour. That alone is worth going with Smokey Bay. And this is coming from 2 people who aren’t exactly morning people. Let’s just say, I tend to set the alarm at least 20 minutes before I actually need to get up (and hit the snooze button a good 2-3 times!). But we were ready to go! I even held back downing my usual 2 cups of coffee (especially since I knew we were about to go without bathrooms on the plane!).
Within minutes of arriving at the Smokey Bay Air office, we were greeted by the Director of Operations Thomas Soderholm, who has worked at the company for the past 3 years. Prior to Smokey Bay Air, he flew commercial planes. But he was ready for a change and began working there to show adventurous travelers the beauty of Alaska and its wildlife. After signing a few waivers (the usual disclaimers when doing an adventure activity), he helped fit us with some hip waders. So don’t worry about getting your shoes dirty and muddy.
The tour groups are kept very small — in fact, our group was just 5 people total, including myself. This is part of their efforts to make as minimal of an impact as possible (as well as ensure everyone stays safe). Once the rest of our group arrived, our pilot Andrew gave us a quick safety briefing and shared with us what to expect for the day.
The total flying time is 1 hour 15 minutes, but it goes by so quickly as you’ll pass over 5 volcanoes and fly above the famous Homer “spit” (Homer’s deep-water dock filled with boats).
KATMAI NATIONAL PARK
Within seconds of landing, we spotted a mama bear with her two cubs. We followed Andrew’s instructions to approach them in a single file line and to move slowly. He explained that while bears have an incredible sense of smell, their eyes aren’t quite as good. If you approach in a group, we will look like one big bear and scare them away.
But why don’t these bears attack? Or even seem to care that we’re tramping around on their territory? And why didn’t the mama bear pounce on us immediately? Does she not care for her cubs? All the MANY questions Kevin had shortly after being told to keep quiet! But definitely good questions! It turns out that these Alaskan Brown Bears haven’t had bad interactions with humans. The park and the tour operators are careful to not disturb the bears. Or associate humans as a food supply. Also, they have an ample food supply so don’t feel threatened.
But what would happen if a “curious” bear would happen to approach us? None of the guides carry guns or bear spray (that pretty much works ONLY if the wind is blowing in the right direction). They use flares to deter the bears. But they rarely to almost never have to use these.
We were visiting during the prime salmon run (which generally runs from July – mid-September. We loved watching the bears chow down. Our guide explained that a lot of people like to also come during mating season when the bears can be more aggressive and where you might see some battles for dominance (mid-May to mid-July). But we were more than happy to see the bears just enjoying the fish — besides, it seems a little skeezy to come for some bear action!
TOURING THE BEACH:
The park is spectacular — and you may be so taken up by the bears that you might miss the other scenery. It honestly felt like we were in a National Geographic documentary. But wait… that’s because the park is actually regularly featured in documentaries including the big Disney nature film Bears.
Andrew told us more interesting facts about the bears — such as the cubs can stay with the mama bear up until 3 years. Though, he saw some cubs with their mom along the shore that looked even older. But one of the most interesting facts we learned is that Grizzly bears and Coastal Brown bears are the same species. In North America, Coastal Brown bears have access to coastal food resources like salmon. While Grizzly bears live further inland and typically do not have access to marine-derived food resources. This is why Grizzlies have such a tough and ferocious reputation. Our minds are blown!
WRAPPING IT UP:
Where did the time go? In total, we saw over 20 bears and took probably about 200 photos. This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. And well worth the journey. And best of all? The trip will get you back early enough to head back into Homer to explore the shops and grab a coffee. After all, we were exhausted! We’re not used to waking up this early!
THE LOW DOWN:
- Smokey Bay Air offers small group tours right into the heart of brown bear country.
- When picking a tour company, you must make sure it has a strong safety record and offers quality service. We highly recommend this company.
- Tours last about five hours total—including flights and about three hours on the ground. Best of all? They leave early, so you’ll get some quality time to explore Homer before it gets too late.
- Tours cost $670 per person including tax.
- This is a once-in-a-lifetime adventure — and you’ll be accompanied by an experienced bush pilot who will be your bear viewing guide.
- Smokey Bay Air has a guarantee — you’ll see bears or get your money back!
- For more information visit their website, or call (907) 235-1511