British Columbia has one of the densest bear populations in the world, and this was our chance to finally see one. We set aside a month to road trip the western Canadian province, hike temperate rain forests, scale glaciers, and hopefully, spot bears in the wild. There are said to be upwards of 150,000 black bears in British Columbia, more than half of Canada’s grizzly population, plus the legendary white Spirit Bear … but we weren’t going to get our hopes up. We’ve lived in Vermont, California, and Pennsylvania (all with healthy bear populations), but Yogi, Smokey, nor their cousins ever appeared. Time to go British Columbia bear watching…let’s see what you’ve got!
The Great Bear Rainforest
With a name like the “Great Bear Rainforest” we felt this would be a good place to start. One of the world’s largest remaining tracts of unspoiled temperate rainforest (about the size of Scotland) running between rugged coastline and glacier-capped mountains, it’s a stunning place renowned for its grizzly, even Kermode (aka Spirit Bear) population. In the spring, when the tender shoots of grass come up, and in late summer when the salmon spawn, bears descend upon to the river for incredible viewing opportunities, particularly in the Bella Coola Valley. We stayed at the adventurous and luxurious Tweedsmuir Park Lodge, specializing in heli-skiing in the winter and bear safaris by summer. Arriving in July, we knew we were a little early for the grizzlies, but as we hiked the historic “Grease Trail” and drifted down the Atnarko River, we were still thrilled to see claw-marked trees, fresh scat, and the beginnings of the salmon run. If you want to see grizzlies here, end of August and September are a near guarantee.
The Inside Passage
Bella Coola is a ferry stop along Canada’s Inside Passage, a stunning route through the fjords leading into Alaska. We boarded the 16-car ferry (a yacht by ferry-standards, especially given the free snacks, drinks, and super familial crew) and happily cruised the eight-hour journey up the Burke Channel with sheer mountains and waterfalls on both sides. The one kicker was that our next connection was a three-day layover on the island of Bella Bella, an all First Nations reserve of the Heiltsuk people. Another swath of the Great Bear Rainforest, the cultural rich and beautiful Bella Bella — as inconvenient as it originally sounded — turned out to be a highlight of our journey. We made lovely friends who invited us into their home for a traditional dinner, and bid us farewell with jars of locally-caught salmon and hand-harvested seaweed (both items that can only be given, never sold), then we charted our path north through the rest of the jaw-dropping Inside Passage to the lively port town of Prince Rupert.
British Columbia Bear Watching in Khutzamatyeen Bear Sanctuary
Prince Rupert’s fame used to be as the “Halibut Capital of the World,” but today the biggest feather in its cap is Canada’s first designated bear sanctuary, Khutzeymateen. We were a little leery of the word “sanctuary” with visions in our heads of fences or big viewing platforms, but let it be known — this place is wild and not even accessible by car or foot. We sailed 28 miles into this remote and pristine reserve with Prince Rupert Adventure Tours, passing colonies of sea lions and a pod of humpback whales, among the islands and coastal mountains. We could have turned around content at that point, but the promise of grizzly bear sightings propelled us forward. We were starting to lose hope after scanning the estuary with binoculars for over an hour, then we spotted a mama bear and three cubs digging for clams on the beach. We were in awe, watching the young learn from the powerful sow, as she clawed the sand and ripped apart shellfish with ease. And this was just one grizzly bear sighting out of 10 on this epic British Columbia bear watching day trip. If you are looking for the best campgrounds in British Columbia, our friend Claudia at The Travelling Mom has the ultimate list!
Meziadin Fish Ladder
Where the salmon run, bears follow. From Prince Rupert, we cut through the Nass Valley’s fascinating lava beds, and turned onto Route 37, the ultra-scenic Stewart-Cassiar Highway, and made a special stop at the Meziadin Lake Provincial Park. Chinook and sockeye salmon pass through here in late summer en route to their spawning grounds up river. As luck would have it, the sockeye started running that very day! Thousands of salmon were launching into the waterfall, trying again and again before they discovered the fish ladder to aid their journey up the falls (and allow researchers to monitor each species numbers). We stood along the riverbank with members of the Gitxsan tribe, preparing their dip-nets and smoke houses for the fishing season. We spoke with the chief’s nephew and he recounted stories of bears standing on the other side, reaching their paws in like a ladle scooping up fish, and how they would be back any day now.
Highway 37 continues through the Yukon and Alaska — a tempting prospect. We didn’t have the time to add 1,800 miles to this road trip, but fortunately there is 37A: The Glacier Highway and road to Alaska’s southeasternmost town, Hyder. We cruised our way along the Salmon River under the shadow of dramatic mountain peaks and 20 hanging glaciers, excited to see the storied mining towns and bear country of Stewart, BC and Hyder, Alaska.
Stewart is a spunky little town at the head of a 90-mile ice-capped fjord, with a cheery and historic center. It may not be the booming gold town of yesteryear, but it’s got that same wild west spirit. Go to “The Bar” and chat with any local that sits next you … they’ve got stories to tell.