North Carolina is home to a variety of animals you might not expect: Elk, three species of rattlesnake, red wolves, bobcats, all kinds of amazing waterfowl, and of course, the topic of this article: the black bears of NC.
Today, black bears live in 60% of the total land area of North Carolina. You can find them in a wide swath of eastern and western NC. Because of this, if you are interested in seeing a bear for yourself, there are quite a lot of options.
Quick Reminder To Respect The Wildlife
First I would suggest understanding what you are dealing with. All of y’all have seen crazy videos on the internet of tourists getting really close to animals in places like the Smokies or Yellowstone and disrespecting their space and power. If you are one of those people dont keep reading.
For those nature and wildlife enthusiasts that respect animals, just remember these are large wild creatures. They aren’t as territorial or motherly as for instance a grizzly bear, but you still should respect their space and keep your distance.
Bears prefer large expanses of uninhabited woodland or swampland with dense cover. In eastern North Carolina, they also enjoy the corn and soybean fields. In places like the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge you can drive the roads and find active bear trails with relative ease. The best part is these bears are unlike other bears in that you can see them out and about year round because they don’t really hibernate. However, in the fall they are still very active preparing for colder weather. But, for me the most productive time to find them has been in the spring. The bear below for example was roadside just lounging and munching on berries in early May. We didn’t even have to get out of the car for the photograph.
Where To See Bears In Eastern NC
The largest density of black bears in NC are in the coastal region of the state. The Albemarle peninsula is on the way to the Outer Banks, between the Albemarle Sound to the north and the Pamlico Sound to the south. Dare, Hyde, Beaufort, Tyrrell, and Washington counties all comprise the peninsula. Eastern NC is estimated to have over 15,000 black bears! Here are some of our favorite areas to check when visiting this area to increase your chances of seeing a black bear to photograph.
- Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge
- Buffalo City Road
- Murphy Peterson Wildlife Drive
- Onslow County
- Miltail Road
- Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge
The bear shown above was photographed in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge near Sawyer Lake Road. Of note is the size of the Eastern North Carolina black bear. These are the biggest in the entire world. The current world record harvested black bear was an 880 lb giant from eastern North Carolina. The eastern NC black bears are on average 100 lbs heavier than their western NC counterparts (compare the above photo to the western NC bear below and you can imagine the substantial size difference). These specs rival some lower 48 grizzly bear sizes.
Where To See Black Bears in Western NC
If you are going in the opposite direction of the NC coast and heading to the mountains of WNC, you have a great chance of seeing a bear as well. Often bears can be seen wandering through the city limits of Asheville. The last time we were in an airbnb in Woodfin we had a black bear come right up to the sliding glass door of the rental property. Also, 1500 black bears live in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park!
Some amazing places to see black bears in the mountains of western NC and places we personally have seen them include:
- Black Balsam Knob
- Cataloochee Valley
- Linville Gorge / Wilson Creek Gorge areas
- Cades Cove
- Newfound Gap Road
- Graveyard Fields
- East Fork Of the Pigeon River and Shining Rock Wilderness
- Hazel Creek and Fontana Lake
For Anyone Interested In Photographing Bears And Other Wildlife Here Is A List Of The Gear We Use
For those interested in getting great photos of bears (or other NC wildlife like the elk in western NC) while maintaining a safe distance this is a short list of our gear we use:
We use a 1.4 teleconverter which makes the 600mm a 840mm so we can get super close. They offer a 2x teleconverter but for me it seems to be a lil too grainy, and makes autofocus far slower.
On the 70-200mm we usually have a nitsi nd filter on. An nd filter for those that dont know are basically sunglasses for your camera. Because we have to shoot video at 1/50 (24 frames a second) to 1/125 shutter speed (60 frames a second) sometimes these slower speeds allow too much light in during bright days. So to darken the image for the correct exposure we use an ND filter.
Also the cell phone does a great job as you can see in this Tik Tok we made of a couple of our black bear experiences!
Now, Let’s Talk Safety In Bear Country
Stay safe in bear country by following these guidelines for black bear encounters. To minimize risk, keep food securely stored and out of reach. Make noise while hiking to alert bears to your presence. And remember, never approach a bear or its cubs. If faced with a black bear, maintain eye contact, speak calmly, and back away slowly. In the unlikely event of an attack, use bear spray if available and play dead. Respect these remarkable creatures and stay prepared for your journey into their natural habitat.
Want to learn about more animals. Why not visit some of the popular NC zoos?
If camping in national forest or parks, check with the ranger’s office for any bear advisories. While black bears are rarely aggressive, don’t approach or disturb them. Read up on proper bear etiquette here: nps.gov/subjects/bears/safety.htm