Wild Alaska, the 49th state in the union, sits in the furthest Northwest corner of North America. It is both the largest state by area and the least densely populated state with a total population of less than 800,000 residents. Nearly 40% of this great state is designated to parks and wildlife, significantly more than any other state, making Alaska without a doubt one of the best places for wildlife viewing in the country!
Many visitors come to Alaska just to see the beautiful scenery and creatures that call this terrain home. In fact, there are some species in the US that can only be found in Alaska, such as the majestic all-white Dall Sheep, whose males boast striking large curled horns. If that doesn’t entice you, Alaska also has the largest moose population in the United States and is one of the few places where you can find all three North American bear species – brown, black and polar.
Not sure where in Alaska to start your adventure? Anchorage, Alaska’s most populous city, is surrounded by great spots for wildlife watching and jaw-dropping scenery. Whether you are interested in observing water, land or sky dwelling creatures, Anchorage has it all. Here’s our list of the best places for viewing wildlife around Anchorage:
Chugach State Park
Just a 20-minute drive south of downtown Anchorage and you’ll arrive at one of the many access points to Chugach State Park. This is Alaska’s third largest state park with around 500,000 acres of land and over 280 miles of maintained trails. Bring your binoculars and hop on one of the many trails to keep an eye out for Alaska’s state bird, the willow ptarmigan, or one of the other 470 plus bird species that call Alaska home!
Tread quietly and you may catch a glimpse of small mammals like the arctic ground squirrel, the adorable round-eared pika or the odd hoary marmot. Head to the Glen Alps viewing platform to look out for one of the over a thousand moose that call Chugach State Park home. Keep an eye out for the brown and black bears that live in the park as well, you can check muddy spots along creeks for their tracks.
From Anchorage, you can head to one of the most scenic roads in the country, the Seward Highway, where the Chugach Mountains will accompany you along your left and the rugged coastline on your right. Take in the stunning landscape and at mile 110, you’ll arrive at a rocky lookout aptly named Beluga Point. This small white whale species often gathers in the area during the summer months to feed on the salmon running through.
Young belugas will appear blue-gray in color as they don’t get their distinct white color until they are around five or six years old. Mid-July through August is when you’ll have the best chance to see these “sea canaries” as they are sometimes referred to for their frequent vocalizations, which can sound like whistles, chirps or clicks. Look out for the black fin of an orca whale on the hunt too, as they are one of the beluga’s main predators.
As we mentioned previously, Alaska is home to hundreds of bird species and you will get to cross a good few off your list with a visit to Potter Marsh, which is also located on Seward Highway. Just 15 minutes from downtown, Potter Marsh is part of the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge and features a half-mile long boardwalk that weaves through the marsh.
Visit from late April to September and you’ll spot a range of waterfowl such as Canada geese, northern pintail, canvasback duck, red-necked phalarope, and grebes. Every now and again during spring and fall migration, you’ll get a visit from the largest waterfowl in North America, the regal trumpeter swan. Look out for birds of prey like eagles and northern harriers soaring above, searching for their next meal. You’ll definitely want to bring your binoculars along on this trip! They are a great help when scoping the trees in search of eagle’s nests.
Gulls, Arctic terns, yellowlegs and other shorebirds are present from May to August at Potter Marsh. Colorful salmon spawn in the creek located halfway down the boardwalk during this time as well. Take a gander at the marsh waters as you stroll and you may catch a muskrat swimming through. If you’re visiting in May or June, keep an eye out for moose in the area, munching on the tasty new plant growth.
Drive just a few short minutes south from Potter Marsh and you’ll find yourself at a spot called Windy Corner. The distinct and eye-catching Dall sheep frequent this spot to take advantage of the mineral lick present. This all-white wild sheep species is unique to the mountain ranges of Alaska and western Canada, and Windy Corner is one of the world’s most accessible viewing locations for Dall sheep. Look towards the cliffs above the road, where they are often spotted, for a glimpse. Male Dall sheep (rams) are noted for their large curled horns as well as for their propensity for butting heads to establish dominance, so, as with all wildlife, keep your distance!
Home to two thirds of the US moose population (that’s 200,000 moose!) travelers come to Alaska with their hopes set high for spotting one of these giant creatures in the wild. If you come to Anchorage on your trip, don’t worry, you won’t have to go far to see one! Head to the western tip of Anchorage to arrive at Kincaid Park, 1400-acres filled with wooded areas, coastline, mountain views and family-friendly walking and biking trails throughout. If the scenery isn’t enough to convince you, Kincaid Park is also one of the best places in Anchorage to spot moose!
Moose are commonly seen in Kincaid Park throughout the year and in spring you may have a chance to see a mama (cow moose) with their calves. As always, never get close and be alert to the moose’s behavior. Moose are usually not aggressive, but at 6 feet tall and over 1000 pounds, you certainly don’t want to be around one if they feel threatened or protective of their calves.
Keep your eye out for black bears, eagles nests and a range of woodland birds that can be found in the park as well as thousands of migrating birds that pass through in the spring. You can also see snowshoe hares bounding through – these furry critters are named for their large hind feet which allow them to hop on the snow without sinking. Fun fact: When the snow melts in the spring, snowshoe hares all-white coats turn brown!
Bears & Beaver:
Eagle River Nature Center
Eagle River Nature Center is located in Chugach State Park, approximately 45 minutes from downtown Anchorage. The ERNC is the access point for four different trails, making it a great starting place for hikes and wildlife watching. Try the Albert Loop Trail, a 3-mile trek that takes you by ponds where it’s common to find beavers working away on their dams. Take the Rodak Trail in August to witness salmon spawning from the nearby viewing platform. Of course, where you find salmon, there’s also a good chance to catch brown and black bears feeding! In fact, bears are so common in this area that they close the Albert Loop Trail in the late summer to avoid any close encounters with visitors.
Salmon & Shorebirds
Ship Creek is a river that runs from the Chugach Mountains to Cook Inlet. It’s a popular spot for fishing and the perfect place to pull out the old field glasses and observe the array of shorebirds that populate the river. Surfbirds, Hudsonian godwit, turnstones and a variety of sandpipers are common sights on the river’s shore in the spring and fall.
Multiple salmon species make their annual migration from ocean to freshwater to spawn in Ship Creek. Different species migrate at different times of year so you’ll see chinook (king) salmon present from the end of May through July and coho (silver) salmon found in August and September. After taking in this Alaskan ecosystem, learn about hatchery fish production with a visit to the William Jack Hernandez Sport Fish Hatchery which is open to visitors and responsible for the production of millions of fish annually.
Alaska is acclaimed for its incredible opportunities to immerse in nature and the abundant wildlife that live there. With so many places for wildlife viewing within minutes from downtown, Anchorage is no exception. After taking in the beauty of Alaska with a visit to one of our favorite spots suggested above, you can refuel and get to know the culture, cuisine and city life of Anchorage with one of our Downtown Anchorage Walking Food Tours! If you’re looking for a guided wildlife experience, check out our Half-Day Anchorage Wildlife Tour which includes a hearty lunch and an insider’s perspective on what makes this great state so special.