5 Places You’re Most Likely to Encounter a Bear in Arizona This Winter

AZ Bears
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Written by Thomas Godwin

Published: December 8, 2023

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For those who don’t live anywhere near the Grand Canyon State, the idea you might encounter bears in Arizona probably never occurs. The outsider’s idea of an arid, painted desert resulting from prehistoric volcanism is always prevalent. However, Arizona has a varied topography, with mountain ranges, semi-arid regions, rivers, ponderosa pine forests, and a generally rugged topography. In short, there are plenty of places for black bears to roam and remain within their comfort zone.

Bears have a magnificent sense of smell and a proclivity for going after berries and nuts. As humans continue encroaching on natural black bear environments throughout the state, encounters will grow accordingly. Sometimes, these encounters are violent.

1. Tuscon

Black bear getting into household garbage on garbage day

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Black bears have a terrific sense of smell and will track down sources of food, natural or artificial, from miles away if they are downwind of it.

In late April of 2023, a black bear entered the Peppersauce Canyon, igniting a local firestorm of news reports and warnings from The Arizona Game and Fish Department. An encounter with bears in southwest Arizona isn’t unheard of but mostly rare. This particular bear was roughly 150 lbs (no one stopped to weigh it) and was foraging through a garbage can. Of course, this is all the evidence anyone needs to ascertain the purpose of the black bear’s visit. An encounter with black bears in or around Tuscon, Arizona, indicates that more are to come.

2. Payson

Tall, stately Ponderosa Pine trees showing the red rough bark they are known for in an open forest setting

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Payson, Arizona, is home to the largest ponderosa pine forest in the United States. Black bears are prevalent throughout the area.

If you’re looking to encounter bears in Arizona, Payson is the place to go. Black bears love a little elevation and dense forests, and the ponderosa forest easily supplies them with both. They especially love the White Mountains area of the state, where they are free to pursue all the berries and nuts they could want with little interference from humans. However, as with Tuscon, human habitation generally leads to a lack of responsibility for food waste. Such a lack of foresight typically leads to bears in your backyard.

3. Prescott Valley

Black bear

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Prescott Valley is a small community in Arizona that’s locally famous for the grocery shopping bear.

In June 2023, a local black bear decided that some grocery shopping was in order—Safeway grocery, to be specific. Unfortunately, for the black bear, the authorities showed up before the black bear could take advantage of its coupon app and took it to the Lynx Creek area, releasing it safely back into the wild. If a bear wants to cause trouble, the best place for humans to be is probably a grocery store, with a slick tile floor not accommodating to 2″ claws and plenty of BOGO islands to hide behind. An encounter with black bears in an Arizona grocery was probably not on anyone’s bingo card.

4. Moqui Reservation

black bear walks alone on wooden boardwalk, surrounded by green, lush trees

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Black bears will mostly flee human presence. However, hungry black bears that smell food are an exception.

This is the sight of the record black bear kill in the early half of the 20th century. An 899-lb black bear, the Cattle-Killer, was shot and killed here. Black bears are the smallest bear species and even smaller (on average) in Arizona. Most black bears weigh between 125 and 400 lbs, so an 899-pounder is an absolute whopper of a beast. While this “Cattle-Killer” bear didn’t break the world record, which is 1,000 lbs, it was still a monstrous size by today’s or last century’s standards.

5. Tonto National Forest

Gorgeous Roan Wild Stallion Yawns While Standing In The Salt River Of the Tonto National Forest In Arizona. Kayakers View While Floating Pass In The River

©Barbara Sullivan/Shutterstock.com

A wild horse caught a drink and cool water in Tonto National Forest.

Of course, Tonto National Forest is a more understandable location for black bears than a Safeway grocery store in Prescott Valley. Unfortunately, there are only about 2,000 to 2,500 black bears throughout the state, and they are the only bear species remaining in Arizona. So, we’ll take them where we can get them. Tonto is a good place for bears since there are plenty of trees and an abundant water supply. Bear sightings are more common in Tonto than elsewhere, and tourists are consistently warned about feeding the bears or being irresponsible with food garbage throughout the day.

State Instructions For Those Who Encounter Bears In Arizona

Arizona’s Game and Fish Department and several sub-departments are largely responsible for providing warnings and instructions for state residents and tourists visiting the state throughout the years. Though the times change, the activity and response of black bears, when subject to proximity with human habitations, stay the same.

Black bears are just like people and most other living organisms. They desire shelter, food, and water. They’re also not stupid animals. If there is an easy meal, they’ll snag it rather than pursue a deer down the side of a mountain. The former is simple and often readily available where humans reside. The latter expends a lot of energy for a flip of the coin.

According to the Arizona Game and Fish Department, there are several things you need to do in the event of a bear encounter other than soiling yourself.

  • If you spot the bear from a distance, change your route and try to get downwind of it
  • You can’t play dead with black bears, something that only works with grizzlies
  • Slowly back away from a black bear that’s close, and never turn your back on it
  • Stay inside your home if you spot a black bear in the yard, making sure the doors and any ingress or egress points are shut
  • Make yourself as large as possible, facing the bear, swelling up your chest, waving your arms, and yelling at it as if you are raging
  • Store your food in airtight containers when you’re camping, and avoid any easy access to food supplies
  • Secure your garbage
  • Don’t bother climbing trees since black bears are probably better climbers than you

The old adage that playing dead will make bears go away doesn’t work with black bears. It may make it happy that it no longer has to work for its food. The best thing you can do is convey the idea that you are bigger and more dangerous than the bear while making your way to safety by walking backward. Don’t trip.

Summary Of 5 Places You’re Most Likely to Encounter Bears in Arizona This Winter

LocationRegion of Arizona
#1 Tuscon60 miles north of the U.S./Mexico border
#2 PaysonNorth Gila County, near the geographic center of the state
#3 Prescott ValleyCentral Arizona, about 85 miles north of Phoenix
#4 Moqui ReservationA 3,575 mi² area directly west of the Navajo Reservation
#5 Tonto National ForestIn Chandler, Arizona, a suburb of Phoenix


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About the Author

Thomas is a freelance writer with an affinity for the great outdoors and Doberman Pinschers. When he's not sitting behind the computer, pounding out stories on black bears and reindeer, he's spending time with his family, two Dobermans (Ares and Athena), and a Ragdoll cat named Heimdal. He also tends his Appleyard Ducks and a variety of overly curious and occasionally vexatious chickens.

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