Mention the Smoky Mountains, especially Gatlinburg, Tenn., and bears are probably the first thing that you’ll hear about.

Black bears, to be exact. The nearby Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the last remaining places in the eastern United States where they can be found in the wild.

But this Tennessee tourist town, where images, wood carvings and sculptures of black bears are literally everywhere, isn’t the only place that claims to be America’s bear capital.

A few years ago, after my family checked into our vacation rental in Big Bear Lake, Calif., we were greeted by a large black bear on our porch. No one could believe it. After all, we were just a short drive from Los Angeles, and you’d think the only creatures here would be, you know, animatronic.

But no, it turns out grizzlies (now long gone in the area) roamed these mountains more than a century ago. The black bears were actually introduced to the region in 1933, and can sometimes be seen lumbering through the neighborhoods foraging for food. And of course there’s the name: Big Bear Lake.

Other places promise bears. On several visits to Jackson Hole., in-the-know locals advised us to be on the lookout for the grizzlies that live in Yellowstone National Park. But those bears remained elusive, at least to us.

Granted, we were at a disadvantage. We arrived in mid-March, when male grizzlies are only beginning to emerge from hibernation (the females wait an extra month), so our chances of sighting a bear were slim. Still, that didn’t in any way curtail Jackson Hole’s bear craze, which continues uninterrupted without any seasonal pause. Bear murals, bear carvings, and bear-themed hotels are de rigueur in this Wyoming ski town.

And then there’s Alaska. I can’t think of one town in the Last Frontier that plays up the potential for bear encounters more than any other. The whole state seems to be in on it.

But there’s one place I can recall talking about bears more than any other: Girdwood, home of the underrated Alyeska ski resort. But even there, we were not meant to see any bears, despite promises that they were “everywhere.” The locals failed to mention that the bears were shy, particularly of tourists with large cameras and small kids.

By the time you’ve visited enough “Beartown U.S.A.s,” you roll your eyes when you see yet another place that claims to have bears. Or so we thought when we pulled up to our week-long vacation rental in Gatlinburg.

If they have bears, I thought, show us.

We remained skeptical even as we road construction signs that read, “Please bear with us.” (Bear with us — get it?) And I shook my head as I saw row after row of carved wooden bears doing all kinds of things. My favorite: The carved wooden bear cub toilet-paper dispenser. Classy.

Gatlinburg is a tourist town in every sense of the word, from the budget motels that line the highway to the proliferate chain restaurants to the five separate Ripley’s attractions. Oh yeah, and there’s a theme park in nearby Pigeon Forge. Maybe you’ve heard of Dollywood?

But there’s one thing Gatlinburg has going for it that Las Vegas, Reno and Branson, Mo., don’t — and that’s bears. We wouldn’t have believed it unless we saw it ourselves, but on the second morning of our stay, we noticed three dark shapes moving on the steep hill just beyond our balcony.

And there they were: two yearlings playing in the rain under their mother’s watchful eye.

Was it a fluke? Being a skeptic, I thought — nah, we just got lucky. But the next day, on an excursion into the national park, we hit the bear jackpot again. Driving along a scenic 11-mile loop in Cades Cove, we spotted wild turkey, some deer, and at long last, a lone black bear.

On our way back to Gatlinburg, the family got into a heated argument about what ranks as the best bear town in America. Our kids voted for Gatlinburg and the Smoky Mountains (probably because they don’t remember California or Wyoming), but I still think Alaska has it beat when it comes to bears. But then again, I’m a fan of the Werner Herzog documentary film that involves the protagonist ending up as a grizzly snack.

We could use a little help settling this question. Who’s right about the bears?

Photo: Beth Kochoian/My Shot

Comments

  1. Tim
    AZ
    January 10, 11:24 am

    Brooks Falls, Katmai National Park in late August.

    End of story !

  2. Vacation Rentals in the Press
    August 4, 2012, 4:42 pm

    [...] The “Local Attractions” Angle National Geographic Article: Where are America’s best bears? Takeaway: Interesting or special local attractions make for tremendous reading material and when [...]

  3. krbs
    Knoxville, TN
    April 7, 2012, 7:22 pm

    Ft. Walton Beach, FL isn’t mentioned. They have lots of Black Bears!

  4. - Cobbly Nob TN
    March 26, 2012, 4:09 pm

    [...] Where Are America's Best Bears? You Tell Us. Mention the Smoky Mountains, especially Gatlinburg, Tenn., and bears are probably the first thing that you'll hear about. Black bears, to be exact. The nearby Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the last remaining places in the eastern United … Read more on Intelligent Travel from National Geographic Traveler Magazine (blog) [...]

  5. Where to See Bears in Gatlinburg |
    March 25, 2012, 12:19 pm

    [...] has been dubbed by many as the black bear capital of the world (see: America’s Best Bears). We at the Gatlinburg Space Needle have seen them running up the streets, rummaging through [...]

  6. Axel Friedrich
    Prince George, BC, Canada
    March 24, 2012, 4:51 pm

    Where are (were) the best bears in America? In Prince George, British Columbia, Canada. Unfortunately, conservation officers shot and killed 87 black bears and 1 grizzly bear here in 2010. Female bears with cubs of the year included.

  7. y_p_w
    March 22, 2012, 2:23 pm

    Like I said – Yosemite.

    Stay at Upper Pines Campground for five nights during the summer. There’s about a 90% chance that you’ll see a bear sometime during your stay. There’s almost a 100% chance that you’re going to hear the sound of the pyrotechnics or rubber shotgun slugs that the bear hazing teams are using as an aversion tactic to dissade the bears from entering campgrounds looking for food.

  8. Patricia Uhrik
    TN
    March 21, 2012, 4:38 pm

    When we got married in Gatlinburg on 7-07-07, we had the pleasure of seeing a black bear in the driveway of our chalet, while we were relaxing on the balcony….my new husband and I were both excited and anxious, as we had never seen a live bear that close…needless to say, the bear was just looking for food in the garbage bins, slowly and casually he walked on down the road to the next bin….we have pictures to prove this…so, yes, Gatlinburg, TN has the best bears..!!

  9. Jackie
    Louisville
    March 21, 2012, 2:28 pm

    I have been to “Smokey Mountains many times I have seen bears many times especially around cades cove. “Beautiful place” , ”A couple years ago went to Jackson Hole Wy. Then drove to yellowstone. Never seen one bear. Everything else grey wolfves elk moose and buffalo. But as we were driving out of yellowstone about 30 min and here come a big bear walking toward the road.

  10. Shirley Linde
    SmallShipCruises.com
    March 21, 2012, 2:03 pm

    Hi Chris — There is also this:
    ALASKA BEAR-WATCHING CRUISE — Maple Leaf cruises can now view bears on Admiralty Island with a special permit to go into this protected area (special bear guides, responsible viewing). You can read about the vessel at our smallshipcruises.com website. It’s a very special opportunity with skilled guides.

  11. y_p_w
    March 21, 2012, 12:48 pm

    I was hiking in in Kings Canyon National Park at the Redwood Canyon Grove of giant sequoias. Came across this mama bear with three cubs. One of them isn’t in the picture because it climbed up a tree. My wife thought I was crazy for sticking around to take pictures.

    http://imageshack.us/photo/my-images/75/rcbears1tr1.jpg
    http://imageshack.us/photo/my-images/247/rcbears0jo9.jpg

    The tree that the bears are on top of is a fallen giant sequoia.

  12. Valentina
    http://mywanderingwondering.blogspot.com.es/
    March 21, 2012, 12:14 pm

    I definitely vote for the black bears of Gatlinburg. I was so lucky to see some of them, actually inside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, they were just so close to the road that theya had provoked a traffic jam, everyone was stopping to see them. I could take some pictures: http://mywanderingwondering.blogspot.com.es/2011/10/great-smoky-mountains.html

  13. Marilyn Leland
    Anchorage, AK
    March 21, 2012, 12:13 pm

    No contest, it’s Alaska.

  14. Jim Daniel
    Central California
    March 21, 2012, 11:46 am

    Humbolt County, on the Northern border with Oregon, has so many bears that they have all-but eliminated bag limits. They are a threat to their own existence due to overpopulation.
    MUCH OF ALASKA has bears in such abundance that the people notice if they failed to see multiple bears on any given day. On the East Coast of Alaska (roughly Ketchikan to the Kenai Fjords) housewives treat the Black Bear like they would a mongrel stray dog in Duluth.

  15. Larry Menter
    March 21, 2012, 11:06 am

    What about Glacier National Park in Montana?? We ran across some grizzlies there!!

  16. y_p_w
    San Francisco Bay Area
    March 21, 2012, 10:36 am

    One of these days I’m going to visit Brooks Camp at Katmai National Park and Preserve. They’re absolutely crawling with brown bears during the salmon spawning season.

    As for places where bears can be found in the wild in the east, there have been plenty of bears in the forests of New Jersey, Upstate New York, Pennsylvania, and of course Maine.

    However, I don’t think there’s any group of bears as notorious as the ones in Yosemite. In certain parts of California (Yosemite, Tahoe, SEKI) there are issues with bears breaking into cars. They’ve learned how to dig their claws into the door frame and will pop it open, get in, and dig through the rear seats to get to any contents in the trunk. When I mention “Yosemite bear” in other places with bears, I get certain understanding looks. I’ve heard the term “gangster bear” used. A Grand Teton NP ranger told me of a time he camped in Yosemite, was about to place a cooler in his campsite’s bear box, and the bear just snuck up on him and tried to haul away the cooler before he scared it away. I guess the more entertaining story was about a bear known as “Camaro Bear”, which apparently got a nice score from a Camaro, and then proceeded to break into every Camaro it saw on sight that summer, and it was at least a dozen.

  17. lbwireless
    Washington, NC
    March 21, 2012, 10:29 am

    For black bears in the lower 48, you are way off track!

    The biggest bears are not in the Smoky Mountains, but in the eastern NC swamps 300 miles east. In the Smoky’s, a 300 pound bear is big, but just a baby around here. Our mature bears range up to 1000 pounds, bigger than most Alaskan bears and grizzlys! To bag a 500 – 600 pounder in hunting season is not unusual. There are some pretty respectable bears in the swamps of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, too.

    If you want to experience lot’s of wildlife, including some of the greatest populations of waterfowl in the US, come to the Inner Banks of North Carolina!

  18. Kairho
    March 21, 2012, 8:39 am

    Don’t forget the 1500 or so black bears right around the corner from you in Florida, Chris.

  19. Mac
    Gatlinburg, Tennessee
    March 21, 2012, 5:12 am

    Great article — thanks. Best bears? Gatlinburg, of course. We own Gatlinburg rental cabins, and seen black bears multiple times — especially when guests leave trash out uncovered. We love seeing the bears, but prefer to see them along the rivers in the Smoky Mountains — for example http://smokymountainviews.com/Views_of_Smoky_Mountains.php — rather than rummaging through the trash cans! Thanks again..

  20. JENNA SCHNUER
    March 20, 2012, 4:15 pm

    Best (and worst) bear encounters I’ve ever had were in Alaska. Definitely. My favorite bear spot in the state (so far)? Anan. I wrote about it in this IT piece:

    http://intelligenttravel.nationalgeographic.com/2011/07/18/southeast-alaska-as-mood-tonic/

    For more photos of the bear triplets (and who doesn’t love a set of bear triplets?):

    http://jennaschnuer.typepad.com/oh_shoot/2011/06/anan-wildlife-observatory-up-the-stikine-from-wrangell-ak.html

    But I’ll let you know if Anan keeps its place in my heart after I visit Kodiak this summer. And, hopefully, a few other bear-heavy spots, too.

    http://jennaschnuer.typepad.com/oh_shoot/2011/08/rock-and-a-hard-place-the-bear-cub-edition-at-anan-wildlife-observatory-near-wrangell-alaska.html

  21. Mike
    Jackson Hole, WY
    March 20, 2012, 3:07 pm

    If someone in Jackson Hole told you to go to Yellowstone National Park for grizzlies, then they’re not very in-the-know. Grand Teton National Park has better grizzly viewing than Yellowstone thanks to two very famous grizzlies who frequent roadsides that are also in the same family, bringing them international fame. Grizzly Bear #399 of the park will be emerging this season with two of her own yearling cubs, as will her daughter, #610 from another set of #399’s cubs, with three cubs of her own. All last spring they were frequently seen right along the roadside of Highway 89 within a few miles from Jackson Lake Lodge.

    While Yellowstone certainly has a tremendous amount of grizzly action, many viewings are seen from long distances. Grizzly Bear #399 and her daughter were frequently seen right off the road, as they’ve been doing for years now.