How to See Alaska’s Big Five: Moose, Grizzlies & Caribou, Oh My!
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There are some incredible experiences in Alaska – wildlife-spotting is one of those that makes almost everyone’s bucket list. But which wildlife do you need to see? If you’ve heard of the “Big Five” animals you can see on a southern African safari (lion, leopard, rhino, elephant, and Cape buffalo), you might wonder if something equivalent exists in Alaska. After all – like Africa, Alaska is full of incredible wildlife. So is there a list of Alaska’s Big Five? Yes, there is a “Big Five” in Alaska!
I was lucky: during the summer I spent working in Denali, I had the chance to see all of Alaska’s Big Five during a single trip into the National Park. (To be fair, I took a lot of trips into the park since I was working there, so it wasn’t like I had great luck the very first time!) While not everyone will have this luck, it helps to know which animals even count as the “Big Five” so you’ll keep your eyes peeled for them as you travel in the Last Frontier.
In this post, you’ll learn all about the Big 5 Alaska animals, which Alaskan animals they are, and where you can see them.
In this post, I promote travel to destinations that are the traditional lands of many Alaska Native groups, including the Aleut, Athabascan, Haida, Inupiat, Tlingit, and Yuit peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
What are Alaska’s Big Five Animals?
While there are some incredible animals in the Last Frontier, the Big Five in Alaska are some of the biggest mammals (similar to the African version). Here are the five mammals that make the list and are a sightseeing prize in their own right. The Alaska Big Five are Alaskan Moose, Grizzly Bear, Caribou, Grey Wolf, and Dall Sheep.
1. Alaskan Moose
The first of Alaska’s Big Five is also the most common animal you’re likely to see while exploring the Last Frontier: the Alaskan Moose. These big mammals are wildly popular across the state; some 1,500 call Anchorage home (along with about 300,000 humans – a ratio of 1 moose for every 200 Anchorage residents).
You can spot moose literally almost everywhere – I’ve seen them right in town, along the highways, and for about 30 minutes on the Alaska Railroad on my winter trip in 2020, we followed one along the railroad tracks!
2. Grizzly Bear
Next up on the list of the Big Five of Alaska’s animals is the Grizzly Bear. Like the moose, you can potentially spot Grizzlies across most of the state. I’ve seen them near where I grew up in Eagle River as well as in some of the more popular spots to see them like Denali National Park and along the rivers when the salmon are running.
Grizzly bears are a little bit harder to find, as they’re solitary animals and generally don’t mix as well with humans – but that’s really okay as they are definitely a predator and best given a wide berth.
Unlike moose and grizzlies, Caribou are a lot harder to see in Alaska. They live much further north, primarily in Interior Alaska and the Arctic. Additionally, they are migratory animals, so you have to visit at the right time of year to see their massive herds passing from one feeding ground to another.
I’ve only ever seen Caribou in the wild in Denali National Park, but you can also see reindeer – the domesticated caribou – a lot of places including the Alaska Zoo in Anchorage, Reindeer Farm in Palmer, Running Reindeer Ranch in Fairbanks, Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Girdwood… and even just in downtown Anchorage, where local mascot Star the Caribou lives!
4. Grey Wolf
The Grey Wolf is definitely the hardest of Alaska’s Big Five animals to spot – this is true for wolves generally because even though they are pack animals, they tend to shy away from any human contact.
There are wolves throughout Alaska in different areas, but aside from in captivity, the only place I know you have a chance of seeing grey wolves is in Denali National Park.
5. Dall Sheep
I’ll be honest, I think the Cape buffalo is an interesting inclusion on the list of Africa’s Big Five – and I feel a bit the same about the Dall Sheep on Alaska’s Big Five list. Dall Sheep are incredibly common in some parts of Alaska, especially the rocky coastal areas where they can agilely climb the cliffs and search for food.
I’ve seen Dall Sheep a ton when exploring Alaska while growing up. I especially loved to spot them while driving along Turnagain Arm to/from Seward – I used to make myself motion sick staring straight up the cliffs to try and spot their white faces peeking out looking down. I also came across a big herd of them on a backcountry hike in Denali National Park the summer I worked there!
Where to See Alaska’s Big Five?
Okay so where can you see the Big Five of the Last Frontier? As you may have already guessed, there is one place I recommend to try and see them in wild – and one place where you can see them in captivity too if you don’t see them all in the wild.
Denali National Park
If you were paying attention, you probably heard that I mentioned Denali National Park in each of the descriptions of the Big 5 animals above. In fact, you might sometimes hear them referred to as the Denali Big Five – especially by the drivers on the tour buses in Denali National Park. There are even hand signals the drivers use when passing to indicate which animals they’ve seen (like putting one hand up on the side of their head like antlers for moose).
The best way to give yourself a good chance of seeing all of Alaska’s Big Five in one day is on the 8-hour Tundra Wilderness Tour. You’ll venture far enough into the park and through enough different ecosystems to potentially see them all!
While you’re up there, don’t forget to try some of these other things to do in Denali.
Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center*
If you want to be guaranteed to see Alaska’s Big 5, there is one place you can see four of the five – and possibly spot the fifth on the way there or back.
The Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center is a non-profit facility dedicated to animal rehabilitation and care; there are some animals that live permanently on the 200-acre property. That includes moose, grizzlies, caribou, and wolves! (As well as other cool animals like lynx and birds of prey.)
On your way driving to the AWCC, you’ll follow the same route I used to spot Dall Sheep when growing up, along Turnagain Arm. Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for the white, horned animal that rounds out your Alaska’s Big Five list.
What About Animals Other Than Alaska’s Big Five?
If you love seeing wildlife and have that as a priority for your Alaska trip, five might not be enough. While this post has focused on Alaska’s Big Five of moose, grizzlies, caribou, wolves, and Dall sheep, there are so many other incredible animals to see too! Here are some of my favorites:
- In Kenai Fjords National Park, there are loads of incredible animals to spot, including whales – like Humpbacks, Orcas, Grey Whales, and even Belugas –, sea otters, and sea birds including the too-cute puffin.
- Since I grew up in Eagle River, I bet you can guess one of the animals I used to see all the time. You can spot tons of Bald Eagles there, and other places too – like Juneau, where there’s an eagle for every 1-2 people!
- If you’re looking for an unusual animal, I strongly recommend checking out the Musk Ox Farm in Palmer. These animals date back to prehistoric times and look it – and Musk Ox fur makes an incredibly soft product called qiviut that makes a great souvenir too.
- If you love sea animals but don’t do great on boats (like me!), there’s another option! The Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward is another rehabilitation facility, and houses seals, sea lions, otters, and loads of sea birds.
Even if you just want to see the Big Five in Alaska, it’s pretty clear there are some incredible animals to see across the state. Do you have questions about Alaska’s Big 5 and how to see them? Let me know in the comments!
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Christopher J Harris
Good advice in attempting to determine whether a cruise or Anchorage bases vacation is best.
Thanks so much for reading, and I’m glad to help, Christopher!