How to Safely Go Bear Spotting in Washington

Hoping to spot more bears when you're on the trail? Hiker and bear watcher Roy Holman describes the do's and don'ts of admiring our furry and fearsome friends.
Roy Holman Roy Holman
Hiker & Bear Aficionado
December 06, 2018

We are fortunate to have large National Parks and Wilderness areas in Washington State, and with them come an incredible array of wildlife. Among the more mysterious and hard-to-spot creatures are the bears populating our forests and rivers. I've had the opportunity to see over 50 bears in Washington over the last 15 years, and another dozen or so outside the state. I’ve written down every memorable encounter and have learned a few things about where to find them, how to spot them, and what to do (and not do). 

Whether you hope to spot bears on a day hike or want to take a trip into the backcountry just to see them, it is important to exercise safety and responsibility to protect both yourself and the bears.

What Not To Do

Opinions vary on proper protocol in bear country. Many say one thing for black bears (perhaps, fight!), another for grizzlies (play dead), and countless exceptions, options, and opinions exist when it comes to staying safe around a bear.

What is clear is that ‘a fed bear is a dead bear’. When a bear becomes accustomed to humans and our food they become dangerous to us, and the danger is heightened even more so for them. When a bear is reported as too aggressive, or even too friendly, they are at best transplanted and at worst killed.

One of the more dangerous things you can do is choose to place yourself near a bear, or in a bear’s path. I made this mistake a few times in my eagerness to spot one – maybe I wanted to be a bear whisperer but more than once I saw the route a particular bear was taking and I maneuvered my way upwind and sat, waiting, hoping she would walk close enough for a picture (I only “hunt” with a camera).

Bears do not see well (they do hear and sniff well; their nostrils seem almost as big as their eyes), and my strategy worked - until I realized how stupid I was being - and I gently made myself visible and moved away.

What To Do

Keep a clean camp, do not leave food around, and avoid heavily scented foods and products when possible. When camping, always research the area you are entering to determine if a bear can is required. Read up on best practices on the National Parks Service’s site on Bear Safety: Storing Food.

If concerned about an attack – a potential in grizzly country - you can wear bells, make noise, or carry a can of pepper spray, which is highly effective. If you hike with canine friends (not possible in National Parks), keep your friend close and on-leash, to protect you and your pet - as well as the bears.

Where To Spot Bears in Washington

I admit I feel a bit protective here, not unlike the mushroom folks who guard their precious hunting areas. Mostly to protect the bears. But it’s really no secret - the two best places to see bears are in the Olympics.

The most reliable place to spot them is in the Enchanted Valley and the trail that leads into it. After the first 7-8 miles on the trail, it’s not uncommon to start seeing a bear or two. The Enchanted Valley itself, 13 miles from the trailhead at Graves Creek, is possibly the best place to see bears in the state.

The second best place would be the Seven Lakes Basin, followed by other areas around the Olympics - I have seen bears in Royal Basin, Grand Lake, Elwha Valley, and the Hoh.

When to Spot Bears

All of the above suggestions depend on when… primarily the season you are attempting to see bears. When the snows are still in the highlands, the bears are down low. The Enchanted Valley is best in late spring to summer. In late summer bears often move up into the highlands as the snow has melted. In half a dozen visits, only once did I not see any bears in the Enchanted Valley (it was in September), but I did find three of them up around Lake LaCrosse and Marmot Lake, both excellent places for viewing.

In the fall, Seven Lakes Basin is perfect for bear watching. They are often in the high country eating blueberries and other belly stuffers, preparing for winter. I once had the opportunity to see 11 bears in a single weekend, backpacking near Seven Lakes in September.
 

How to spot Bears

This may sound obvious, but there are some simple reasons I see bears and other wildlife and many others do not:

  1. Look for bears. Many people do not look around, or simply don’t pay attention. We often live in our heads, with minds so busy there is no room for seeing furry friends that may be seeing you.
  2. Expect to see them. It’s an interesting phenomenon, but when we expect to see something we often do. If you expect to see bears, you will look for them and perhaps see one or more.
  3. Go to National Parks. Bears are smart, so they tend to hang out in areas where hunting is not allowed. Of all the bears I have seen, perhaps only 6 or so have been in areas where they could be hunted. I have seen about 40 bears in the Olympic National Park, and maybe 6 in Rainier National Park, as well as several bears outside our state in other National Parks.
  4. Go out at dawn and dusk. Bears often break this rule in National Parks, but I have generally seen more bears at dawn and dusk, when bears tend to feed and there is less human traffic on the trails.
  5. Use binoculars. I carry lightweight binoculars when I hike in bear country. There have been several instances where I would not have seen a bear if I had not been scouring the area with my binoculars.
  6. Others Tips: Surprisingly one does not have to be alone, or be particularly quiet to see bears. Just pay attention, look around, use binoculars, and hang out where the bears are. In National Parks and areas where they are not hunted, there are many exceptions to the above rules. They can be seen anytime, anywhere, even when we are being noisy mid-day in a car.

Lastly, remember that bears are smart, efficient, resourceful, and rarely bother or hurt anyone. They are just trying to survive like we are. The state of Washington has one of the highest populations of black bears in the country. Like other wildlife, we have crossed their habitats with roads and trails, so remember we are often hiking or driving in their homelands. Let’s keep our distance, give them space, and be mindful, respectful visitors.

Happy bear spotting! 


For more information on how to stay safe and what to do in case of an attack, visit the National Parks Service’s page Staying Safe Around Bears.

Roy Holman lives in Everett and leads yoga retreats and meditation hikes. He can be reached at holmanhealth@gmail.com or www.holmanhealthconnections.com