White black bear encounter in the Canadian Rockies

White-phase black bear in Kananaskis, Alberta

Something large, white and moving catches my eye high up on a rocky ridge on a hiking trail near Canmore, Alberta. My first thought is that it’s a mountain goat, but it’s not the right shape and doesn’t have a goat-like gait. We’re about 100 m (330 ft) away but our telephoto lens confirms that it’s a bear—a creamy white one. It turns out to be a rare, white-phase black bear. We’ve just witnessed something that is only spotted about once a year in the Alberta Rockies. I’m over the moon.

White black bear in Kananaskis Country

Despite its contradictory name, this bear is just like any other American black bear, except it has a white coat. We learn from an Alberta Park’s wildlife official that black bears have the widest colour variation (called phases) of any North American mammal. They can be black, brown, cinnamon, blond, blue-grey, or white. Don’t be misled by the term “phase”; this black bear was born white and will remain white. Unlike the Kermode bear (Spirit bear) in coastal British Columbia, which is a subspecies of the American black bear, the white-phase black bear is not a genetic anomaly or the product of a recessive gene.

We spotted the seldom-seen bear in Kananaskis Country, just south of Canmore. We’ve been cautioned not to share the exact location of the sighting, for fear of people swarming the area to catch a glimpse of the rare bear (the bear is safe given my paltry social media presence).

White-phase black bear roams high on a cliff in Kananaskis, Alberta

While the bear spotting was the highlight of the hike, our Kananaskis adventure was filled with gorgeous scenery and lovely wildflowers. It’s a really beautiful area not far from the much more popular Banff National Park. If you’re looking for trail recommendations, check out fellow blogger Monkey’s Tale for 10 great hikes in Kananaskis.

Spectacular alpine scenery in Kananaskis, Alberta
View to Read’s Tower and Spray Lakes Resevoir, Kananaskis

Stanley Glacier, Kootenay National Park

On the same trip, while visiting my sister in Canmore, we did an outstanding hike to Stanley Glacier, in Kootenay National Park, which is just across the provincial border in British Columbia. It has one of the best reward to effort ratios of any day hike I’ve done. The entire hike is only 11 km (6.8 mi) return with an elevation gain of 606 m (1988 ft), and you don’t even have to go the whole way to get stunning views. It’s an out and back hike with a short lollipop route option near the end. Find detailed directions/map here.

The first few kilometres travel up easy switchbacks through a pretty forest that has regenerated after a huge burn caused by a lightening strike in 1968.

Faint trail on the right loops up and around the low ridge in mid photo

After just a couple of kilometres, the forest opens up to high alpine meadows, soaring peaks and numerous waterfalls. The photo above is about 4.5 km into the hike and if you’re short on time or energy, this would be a completely satisfying turnaround spot. Beyond this point, a narrow but defined trail over rock fields and scree leads to a small plateau (the rocky outcropping with trees at mid-photo). We took the trail going right on the way up to the plateau and looped back on the left side. It’s a heavenly little extension with stellar views down the valley and up to the Stanley Glacier.

View down the hanging valley
Runoff from the glacier produces a mass of little creeks
Looking up at the Stanley Glacier

White black bears, fabulous hiking and time with family—what an amazing experience on our first out-of-province trip since the pandemic struck.

Next posts: Backpacking adventure in British Columbia’s South Chilcotin Provincial Park

Categories: Alberta, British Columbia, Hiking | Tags: , , , , , | 36 Comments

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36 thoughts on “White black bear encounter in the Canadian Rockies

  1. Pingback: My 10 most memorable wild animal encounters | Writes of Passage

  2. An extraordinary sight! I’ve never thought that there is such a variation of black bears 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow Caroline, a white black bear! Who knew? As a long term camper and hiker I’m not terribly fond of bears and tend to give them a very wide berth, but your sighting is spectacular. Thanks. ~Terri

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m with you Terri about giving bears a wide berth. We were lucky that this guy was high on a ridge and we had our good camera with a telephoto lens, otherwise I wouldn’t have stuck around to take photos.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. i learnt something today. you can have a white ‘black’ bear!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Holy smokes, you had a chance to see a black bear with a white coat? Was it albino bear or just bear who’s unusual colouring is caused by a recessive gene? Either way, it must have been an experience to remember, especially if you take in the account one of the views of the most stunning mountains on the planet. You live in such a beautiful place, Caroline. Thanks for sharing it with your readers and have a good day. Aiva

    Liked by 1 person

    • It was an unforgettable experience! Sometimes you just have to be in the right place at the right time and this was one of those moments. The way it was explained to us by the wildlife people (and later researched on the internet) the black bear with the white coat (that we saw) is neither an albino nor the product of a recessive gene. It is simply a colour variation within the black bear species, albeit rare. It’s kind of crazy and I have trouble wrapping my head around it too. You have a good day too, Aiva!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Absolutely stunning scenery and amazing photos of the white bear!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. AndyG

    Wow – seeing the white bear is awesome! And I know it’s not about getting photos but it’s sure nice to have that memory.

    We’re hoping to fit in the Stanley Glacier hike next month when we’re in the Rockies. It’s been on our list for years…!

    Liked by 1 person

    • We were really happy that we decided to bring our good camera with telephoto lens. Stanley Glacier is a lovely hike. There are so many great hikes in that area. Enjoy!


  8. Tango

    Beautiful! I’ve been to that area many times, but never knew such a bear existed.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I didn’t know there were white, black bears…amazing photos. Thanks for the post.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. While the hike sounds really cool (and your photos make me long for doing something like this even more), the encounter with that white-phase black bear must have been the highlight of this trip. You’re so so lucky! I really appreciate your decision not to share the exact location where you spotted that bear — we’ve read so many instances where sharing that kind of information affects a place more in a bad way than it does good. Look forward to more hiking posts of yours, Caroline!


    • Thanks Bama. It was an absolutely amazing experience. I can’t believe our luck. I’m sure that 99.9% of the time we would have walked right by without noticing that white shape on the cliffs. We were also lucky that we happened to bring our good camera that day. Our phones would have been useless to capture something so far away. I too have seen the negative impact on wildlife and the environment in general with too much sharing on social media. Our trails are already busier than usual this season with lots of people “discovering” hiking (a good thing) so I think we must be particularly vigilant about protecting our beautiful places and animals. Wish I could transport you over for a hike! All the best!

      Liked by 1 person

  11. josypheen

    Wooooooooow! You lucky thing! You must have been so excited! I am so glad you had a good lens with you so we could see it too. I love seeing photos of Spirit bears, but I didn’t know about white phase black bears either. Do you know how to tell the difference?

    p.s. We have a few days staying in the Kootenay National Park. Let me know if you have any favourite hikes there! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I had no idea that white black bears existed. You managed to get in some good shots of it. And if that wasn’t exciting enough, those stunning views certainly are. What an adventurous hike.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Except for the spirit bear, which is a subspecies if the black bear, I had never heard of a white black bear either. It was super exciting and I feel really fortunate to have seen this beautiful animal.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. That really is a creamy white bear you spotted there. That was a lucky day. That is interesting to know black bears can be white because of their coat and shade. Looks like he popped out for a brief moment and then went back into hiding. Definitely good to not share bear location sightings as wild bears and any wildlife deserves their peace and quiet.

    Amazing hike to Stanley Glacier. Breathtaking jaw-dropping views and the sky contrasted so well with the rocks. Hope you have many more hikes like these 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I totally agree Mabel that wildlife need their space and quiet. It was a very special moment and I feel grateful for the experience. We hoped we might see him again on our return journey along the trail, but as I suspected, this was not the case. The Canadian Rockies are filled with awesome scenery and there are so many hiking/walking opportunities for all different levels/skills.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Absolutely gorgeous hiking country (envious here), and I would have been thrilled to see that bear! I was not aware of all those color possibilities for black bears; I love learning new stuff like this.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It was a learning experience for me too Lexie. I knew about the white Spirit Bears here on the coast but I wasn’t aware of the extreme colour variations for a “normal” black bear. It was a wonderful little getaway seeing both Mike’s and my side of the family plus the bonus of all that beautiful nature and hiking. Just what I needed.
      Thinking of you and hope you’re coping OK with all the miserable news I’m reading. While we’re on a good course here, the situation is so tenuous and I worry about what’s ahead.


  15. Well apart from the bear it sounds like a great trip, but seeing that white bear! Wow! How exciting. It would have been a highlight for me too. Like last night – there’s a beaver lodge in the pond at Jericho Beach and all the beavers were out playing/eating/grooming – 2 adults and 3 babies. We watched them for about half an hour or more. Made my day.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Aren’t beavers the best! Sometimes I joke about them being our national animal but I think they’re a good choice—industrious but playful. Your Jericho Beach experience sounds wonderful.

      Liked by 1 person

  16. Wow, how lucky!!! We’ve never seen a white-phase black bear, but we’ve seen the white grizzly a few times this summer. Thanks for the link to our site, glad you liked your time in Alberta, can’t wait to read about Chilcotin.

    Liked by 1 person

    • My sister initially thought it was the white grizzly but on closer inspection we realized that it didn’t have any of the grizzly features. It was pretty cool.
      Chilcotin was amazing; only saw one other hiking group in the 7 days. We’re just getting cleaned up/caught up after that trip and now we’re off on a kayaking trip in a few days. I’m behind in my writing and reading.


  17. Wonderful photos, memorable experience.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. How fortunate to have noticed this unusual bear, it’s a rare memory. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

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