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So You Say You Want to See a Bear

by Patressa Kearns

If you asked 100 Shenandoah National Park visitors what they most look forward to when they come to the Park, 99 of them are going to tell you it’s seeing a black bear. Seeing a black bear in its natural habitat is magical, every single time. 

Shenandoah is home to hundreds of black bears. Your chances of seeing one is more than decent, especially if you visit when bears are most active—between late March and early November. You could even see one in winter, although there is less likelihood of spotting a bear in the cold months. 

So, how do you up your odds of catching a glimpse of this handsome creature? 

Travel through the Park in the dusk-to-dawn hours. Bears are not nocturnal, necessarily, but they are most active in the early morning hours before sunrise and the golden hour between sundown and dark. Please drive slowly (the speed limit on Skyline Drive is 35 mph), as bears  aren’t the only wildlife active in early morning and early evening. Maybe have a companion with you who can look for bears while you’re keeping your eyes on the road. Pull completely off the road when you spot a bear or bear family. 

If you’re out on a trail, try to be quiet. Bears are people smart. They instinctively know it’s wise to keep their distance from humans. Bears have astounding senses of hearing and smell. A bear can hear you coming from twice as far away as you can hear a bear! (And although there’s not much you can do about your natural scent, know that a bear can smell the human in a footprint from a mile away.) If you’re quiet, treading softly and not talking, you might spy a bear cross the trail in front of you or send its cubs up a tree. Do remember that the Park is the black bear’s home. Respect all wildlife, for their safety and yours. 

And if you’re one of that one percent who would rather not see a bear, make a little noise—put a bell on your backpack when you’re hiking, sing a song, chat among your hiking group, or, heck, talk to yourself—it’s OK! 

Happy, safe bear watching!