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Finding yourself surrounded by Black bears in the middle of the wilderness is probably a nightmare for most.  Especially considering our car was parked 3 miles away and we were on foot!  But instead of running scared, we crouched down in the grass, pulled out our camera’s, and began shooting.


Surrounded by Black bears!

Once regarded as a vast wasteland in North Carolina’s Outer Banks, Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge is now 152,000 acres of unique landscape, home to a vast population of diverse and rare wildlife.

Visitors to the Outer Banks used to ensure they completed their journey before dark so to not break down in “no-man’s land”. Tales of bears, snakes and wolves along with miles of nothingness on both Highways 64 and 264 made travelers uneasy at the thought of becoming stranded there.  However it was for this very reason – the stories of bears, snakes and other vermin – that we waited until dark to arrive!  Call us crazy!

Alligator River has the highest concentration of Black Bears on America’s eastern seaboard, however it is not a zoo.  Nor is it set up like your typical National Park.

Alligator River is a National Wildlife Refuge with a primary purpose of protecting and providing a natural habitat for endangered and rare species.  We didn’t see wildlife straight away, however with patience and a sharp eye it wasn’t long before we found ourselves surrounded by Black Bears … and snakes!

Copperhead snakes in Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge

Copperhead snakes in Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge

Black bears in Alligator River

Black bears in Alligator River

Black Bears in Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge

Black Bears in Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge

On driving in, we honestly didn’t believe we were going to see bears in the vast amount of wilderness that is the refuge.  We had written down “hot spots” from online, and arrived just before sunset to increase our chances of spotting bears, however we just didn’t believe that they were going casually stroll out onto the roads!

While the majority of tourists to the area will make their way slowly through the refuge by car, we opted for the more adventurous option and pulled out our bikes!  

Nothing for the first hour.  Unless you count amazing scenery and fresh air of course!

But then we spotted a truck parked a mile away along one of the treelines on Bear Road.  They were waiting, watching the treeline intently.   We quickly chained our bikes to a fence and began walking towards the vehicle.

While discussing the likelihood that we would actually see bears we walked right past one without noticing.  We were told later by the occupants of the vehicle that we walked within a hair of a bear who then walked out onto the road behind us!

Walked within a hair of a bear without noticing!

Walked within a hair of a bear without noticing!

It wasn’t long before the sun began setting and up to 10 bears casually walked out from the treeline.

On one side of the narrow grass road we were occupying was the treeline, and on the other was a river.  Our first bear sighting was incredible.  We had to scramble to get a photo as he dashed across the road and swam across the river to run through the field on the other side.

Swimming to access more of the wildlife refuge!

Swimming to access more of the wildlife refuge!

We couldn’t believe that we had come so close to a black bear!  As the first bear sighting of the evening, 6 of us (Mike, Myself and the four occupants of the other vehicle) had scrambled in the same direction to all get a shot of the same bear, however soon enough there were more than enough bears to go around and our problem was choosing which one to shoot!

Mike took off towards a mother and her cub on an adjacent treeline.  Before I knew it I had a bear walking casually towards me, with another positioned behind me…and I wasn’t swimming into the river to escape after having seen those snakes!!! But there was no need to “escape”.

Maintaining a safe distance from them, the bears had no problem with us being there.  They were cautious of us, however they didn’t approach.  They watched us, however they didn’t run.  It was a truly phenomenal experience!

Sadly we didn’t spot an endangered Red Wolf, however the bear sightings from the evening truly made the experience worthwhile.  And the sunset was truly amazing!

On the way back to our bikes we passed a mother with two cubs.  We never thought we would see the day when we had seen so many black bears we would be happy walking straight past one without stopping to take a photo!

Directions to Alligator River:

Milltail Road
East Lake, NC 27953
(If East Lake does not register on your GPS device, use Manns Harbor, NC 27953)

GPS Coordinates of Creef Cut Parking area:
35.8639893, -75.8610764 or N 35 51.839, W 75 51.665

Hotels & Airbnbs in Nags Head:


Watching us.

Walking casually out onto the road!

Walking casually out onto the road!

Black bear walking towards me and one positioned behind - surrounded!

Black bear walking towards me and one positioned behind – surrounded!

Best way to get around is with wheels!

Best way to get around is with wheels!

Sunset at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge

Sunset at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge


 About Megan Claire

Megan is an Australian Journalist who has been travelling and blogging around the world for the last 7 years to inspire others to embark on their own worldwide adventure!  Her husband Mike is an American travel photographer, and together they have made the world their home.

Follow their journey on FacebookGoogle+ and Twitter.


  1. Love the photos, especially of the copperheads :) This is fairly close to me…I think I need to make a trip there next spring!

    • Thanks Ashley :) You should definitely make a trip! Make sure you go during dawn or dusk though to make it worth it :)

      I’m following your blog also so can’t wait for your updates once you visit!

  2. I’ve only seen black bears up close at the Luang Prabang Bear Rescue Centre, in Laos. Brilliant that you could see them roaming freely inside a National Park. Could do without the copperheads nearby, but that’s nature for you. Lovely post, thank you!

    • We want to go through Asia next year and I can’t wait to go through Laos!! Will have to add the Rescue Center to our list of activities :)

      Lol that’s definitely nature for you!!

  3. Amazing, and I think you’re definitely braver than me.
    Thanks for sharing.

    • You’re pumped full of adrenalin and excitement so we completely forgot about being scared :D

  4. Amazing adventure. I have been looking for bears for a while now and finally saw one two weeks ago in Algonquin provincial park in Canada.

    thank you for the photos

    • It was definitely an great adventure! Sounds like I’ll have to make my way to Algonquin provincial park next! So glad you managed some bear sightings of your own!

      Thanks Dmitry!

  5. love the images especialy the cooperhead snakes…cool

    • Thanks Natan! It’s funny, we went specifically for the bears, though ended up spending a few hours sitting on the banks snapping away at the snakes – they were fascinating!

  6. Loved the pictures and the video! Keep travelling!

    • Thanks Umang! More wildlife stories, photos and videos to come!

  7. Hi Claire Do you know if it possible to see the bears in June? Where bouts did you go exactly and how did you find the hot spots. Cheers form a fellow Aussie

    • Hi Terri.

      The bears are there full time; while you should be able to sight them generally throughout the year, they tend to be more active around Spring and fall. So April – June for spring :)

      Bears are supposedly found throughout the refuge but they tend to be easier to spot in many of the open fielded areas along Wildlife Drive. We headed in late in the afternoon and came up to an area with a lengthy treeline – come say 5pm the bears were coming out of the treeline in mass! They’re generally not out in the middle of the day so hit up the refuge either early morning or late afternoon at sunset.

      Have fun! Let us know how you go :)

  8. Thank you for this awesome post- it is exactly what I was looking for!! We are going to visit this summer. I cannot wait!!

    Thanks again,


    • You’ll have such a wonderful time Sarah! Patience is the biggest key, but the wait is always worthwhile! Have a wonderful trip :)

  9. Awesome post! We read this before going to look for bears last weekend.

    • So glad you enjoyed the post! Hope you managed to catch sight of some bears out there :)

  10. We saw 3. Although it was pretty dark by the time they started coming out so our photos aren’t as good as yours.

    • Perfect excuse for a return trip right :D! Glad you saw some – we loved our time here, was the highlight of our roadtrip :) Happy travels!

  11. We are leaving for the Outer Banks early Saturday morning. This will be our fourth time there and seeing the bears is still one of my favorite parts. We go about an hour before dusk and just drive around. We have seen as many as 18 bears in one drive. I love when we come across a momma with her cubs.

    • Have an amazing trip Brenda! I can definitely understand why you head back time and time again, it’s such a magical experience!

  12. Just curious what “hotspots” you found online? I have looked and couldn’t find anything. We spent a couple hours there this past weekend and saw one and missed one. I think we were just there too late in the morning. Just trying to find a better place to start at.

    • Hi Matt :) We scanned online sources like Tripadvisor before heading out, as this is where you can commonly count on the most recent advice / find other people’s recent experiences.

      With COVID it doesn’t look like there have been any super recent reviews, but for instance on Tripadvisor there’s a review from October 2019 which says they saw a ton of bears further west from the visitors center by taking the entrances on Miltail Rd off of highway 64 or Borrow Pit Rd off of 264.

      Granted, this was 6 months ago, I think because everyone’s been in quarentine since the start of the year it’ll be tough right now to find super super recent reviews, but that’s what I meant when I referenced hot spots :)

      This particular post I published a couple of years ago now, but from memory we rode around the reserve, and where we saw the bears was very long treeline which had a long thin strip of land running along the treeline, and a pond next to the strip of land.

      If an area like this jumps out at you when you’re there next, that’s where we saw the bears pictured and filmed above. We went at dusk though, towards sunset, which is when you’ll have more likelihood of sightings :)

      Hope that helps!

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