A mama black bear exhales with a grunt as she leads her cubs through the cold, early morning, and a cloud of mist escapes. A soft thud can be heard as the ground vibrates under the giant paws of a grizzly lumbering along the shore. As your boat rounds a corner off the coast of a remote, rainforested island along BC’s central coast, you catch a glimpse of the elusive Kermode (Spirit) bear. In BC, these soul-stirring experiences are within reach with the help of an expert guide. Here are some of the best places to look.
This story (originally published in February, 2019) was updated specifically for the unique travel circumstances of 2021. Information is accurate at the time of publication; we recommend you contact businesses directly to confirm availability and familiarize yourself with their COVID policies.
When to go: May through September
The Khutzeymateen, located in a remote inlet north of Prince Rupert, offers an unsurpassed bear-viewing experience. Canada’s first designated grizzly bear sanctuary—accessible only by water or air—is home to between 50 and 60 grizzlies. Access to the river estuary and the protected areas of the park is limited to a handful of licensed operators, including Khutzeymateen Wilderness Lodge, Bluewater Adventures and Prince Rupert Adventure Tours. Bring your camera and spend a day photographing these powerful animals, or opt for a multi-day ocean adventure.
Getting here: Tours leave from Prince Rupert, which can be accessed by seaplane or by BC Ferries from Port Hardy on the northern tip of Vancouver Island. You can also make the eight-hour drive along Highway 16 from Prince George.
When to go: August through October
The Great Bear Rainforest stretches some 400 kilometres (250 miles) along the central and northern coast of British Columbia from Knight Inlet to the Alaska Panhandle. This vast, pristine wilderness—about the size of Ireland—encompasses a quarter of the world’s coastal temperate rainforest. One prime viewing area within the Great Bear is the remote Bella Coola Valley, where you can witness massive grizzlies feasting on salmon as you drift down the Atnarko River. Or for a rare treat, take a tour from nearby Klemtu in search of the elusive Kermode (Spirit) bear, a black bear with a unique white coat.
Getting here: Bella Coola is located at the western terminus of Highway 20, approximately 6.5 hours west of Williams Lake. Bella Coola can also be accessed by air, or via BC Ferries from Port Hardy on the northern tip of Vancouver Island.
When to go: May through October
The forests surrounding Whistler Village are home to some 60 black bears, and sightings are not uncommon. Book a tour into the Whistler wilderness in search of these massive residents, photograph the black bears at Whistler Olympic Park, or just sit on a Village patio and look up into the hills—you may get lucky. Another place to keep your eyes peeled is from a gondola perch as you ride into the alpine. Or drive 15 minutes south to the Callaghan Valley. This route is known locally as a great place to spot bears.
Getting here: Whistler is located along the Sea-to-Sky Highway, about 90 minutes north of Vancouver.
When to go: Mid-April through October
The area around Pacific Rim is home to a large population of black bears. Leave from the Tofino harbour and travel the calm, protected waters of Clayoquot Sound with Ocean Outfitters or Jamie’s Whaling Station and Adventure Centre. From a safe distance, watch bears forage for some of their favourite delicacies, including rock crabs; boats stay close enough to shore to give passengers a good look without disturbing the bears. Also pay attention as you drive into and out of town, as you may spot bears from the highway.
Getting here: Pacific Rim National Park Reserve is located off Highway 4 on the west coast of Vancouver Island. By car, it’s about three hours from Nanaimo, which is accessible from the mainland via BC Ferries. The area is also accessible by air.
When to go: Mid-July through early September
The communities of Stewart, BC, and Hyder, Alaska, enjoy a special relationship. They are about 3.2 kilometres (2 miles) apart, but in many ways they operate as a single community. In Hyder, there is a bear viewing platform at the Fish Creek Wildlife Observation Site where black and grizzly bears can be seen fishing for salmon. While you’re in the area, be sure to check out Bear Glacier Provincial Park en route to Stewart, and the Salmon Glacier about an hour north of town via Hyder.
Getting here: Stewart is located along the BC/Alaska border, on Highway 37A off the Stewart-Cassiar Highway. Stewart is about a four-hour drive northwest of Smithers.
When you are hiking, biking, and camping in BC, you are in bear habitat. Make sure you are informed, prepared, and aware at all times. Wildsafe BC is a great resource for making any bear experiences you may have in BC positive and conflict-free. Be sure to keep your distance from wildlife—30 m (98 ft) minimum, and even further, at least 100 m (328 ft), from predators such as bears. The safest viewing experience—for humans and bears—is with an experienced guide.
Header image: Port Hardy | Yuri Choufour
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