The brown bear, also called grizzly, is the symbol of the wild country and a measure of its wildness. Grizzlies once roamed all over North America. In 1800 there were over 100,000 of them; today, around 1,000 survive in the Lower 48. Ironically, the grizzly is the state animal of California , where it is now extinct. Things are very different in Alaska , where 40,000 of these magnificent creatures still inhabit the land.
Denali National Park  offers some of the most accessible bear-viewing in the state. The estimated 200 Denali grizzlies are still wild, mostly in their natural state. This is especially important for the continued education of the cubs, who are taught how to dig roots, find berries, catch ground squirrels, and take moose calves. However, Denali grizzlies are not afraid of people, and they are extremely curious; some have tasted canned beans, veggie burgers, and Oreo cookies.
While no one has been killed by a grizzly at Denali, maulings have occurred, usually because of the foolishness of novice hikers and photographers or as a result of improper food storage. Take care, but don’t be afraid to go hiking.
The natural grizzly diet is 80 percent vegetarian. They eat berries, willows, and roots, as well as preying on anything they can take: from ground squirrels to caribou, from foxes to small black bears. And they’re challenged by nothing, except humans with high-powered weapons. Grizzlies are racehorse-fast and have surprising endurance; they need about 50 square miles for home territory and travel several miles each night. During the day they like to eat, sleep in the sun—often on snow patches—and entertain tourists on the Denali shuttle buses .
Grizzlies are solitary creatures. Full-grown boars and sows are seen together only during mating season, in early summer. The gestation period is a little over five months, and the sows give birth in December to one to three cubs. The cubs are hairless, weigh one pound each, and remain blind for a week. They stay with the mother for over 2.5 years—two full summers. They’re then chased away sometime before July of the third summer, when the sow is ready to mate again.
Contrary to popular belief, bears do not hibernate. They do sleep deeply in dens during the winter, sometimes for weeks. But they often get hungry, lonely, or restless, and step outside to forage for frozen roots, berries, and meat. Sometimes a bear will stay out all winter; that’s the one that the Native Alaskans fear the most: the winter bear. Its fur tends to build up a thick layer of ice, rendering it nearly impenetrable, almost bulletproof. And of course, sows give birth in the deep winter, which they’re certainly awake for.
Grizzlies and brown bears were once thought to be different species, but are now considered the same. The basic difference is in size, which is due to habitat. Grizzlies themselves are the world’s largest land omnivores, growing to heights of 6–7 feet and weighing in at 500–600 pounds. However, they’re the smaller of the two because they live in the Interior  and feed mostly on vegetation.
Brown bears are coastal, and with a rich source of fish protein, they have achieved near mythical sizes. Kodiak brown bears retain a reputation for being the largest, reaching heights of over 10 feet and weights of up to 1,400 pounds. On Admiralty Island  in Southeast Alaska  the brown bears are a bit smaller, but population densities are the highest anywhere: around one bear per square mile.
Hiking in bear country requires special precautions. A number of areas offer outstanding brown bear–viewing around Alaska ; the most famous places are McNeil River, Katmai National Park, Pack Creek , and Kodiak Island.