6 Places You’re Most Likely to Encounter a Bear in California This Winter

CA Bears
© through-my-lens from Getty Images/ via Canva.com

Written by Thomas Godwin

Published: December 9, 2023

Share on:


You don’t have to travel very far to encounter a bear in California. Roughly 15% of the state is complete wilderness, with agricultural and rural areas filling the rest. Out of the entire population, only 6% live outside city limits. California is huge, with 30,000 and 40,000 black bears running around the entire state.

Speaking of black bears, these are the only type of bears you are likely to encounter in California unless you head to the zoo. To share real estate with a grizzly bear, you must head north of the state. The good news is there are only a few areas in Cali where your odds of running into one are higher than normal.

The Golden State is 163,696 mi² in size. If we stick with a middle number of 35,000 black bears, that’s only .21 black bears per square mile. But there are certain areas where human habitation and black bears collide. Most of the time, it’s a harmless moment of brief excitement, while other times is frightening.

17,102 People Couldn't Ace This Quiz

Think You Can?

1. Sierra Madre

Black bears break into homes

©steverts/iStock via Getty Images

Black bears will go where the food is, whether a ton of nuts and berries in the wilderness or through your kitchen window.

In a single year (2022) there were over a hundred phone calls, concerning black bear sightings, to the police in the city of Sierra Madre. So many that a black bear “threat to public safety” became the new reality for residents. These weren’t just bears on the fringes of city limits either. These black bears were strolling down residential streets, peeking in windows, exploring garbage cans, and casually rooting through garages. That same year, local authorities had to put a black bear down for attacking a woman.

You’re more likely to encounter a bear in California while visiting Sierra Madre than anywhere else in the state, outside of a bear habitat.

2. King’s Canyon

Best National Parks to Visit in July - King's Canyon National Park


There’s a good chance you will encounter a bear in California if you head to King’s Canyon (Sequoia and King’s Canyon), a wild and verdant slice of paradise in the Golden State.

If you’re looking to encounter a bear in California, from what’s hopefully a very safe distance, King’s Canyon is the place to be. Unfortunately, you’ll be so busy looking up at the giant sequoias that you might miss your opportunity. As an example of the consequences of human and bear interactions, the National Parks Service of California often references #583. This black bear came across human food, at some point, and it became his new obsession. Unfortunately, this led to a number of encounters, mostly aggressive and even violent. Eventually, #583 was captured and put down.

3. Rancho Cucamonga

Adorable tiny wild black bear cub laying on a large dead tree

©Susan Kehoe/Shutterstock.com

Black bear cubs are timid, but also playful and cute, which is why so many people try to feed them when they shouldn’t.

As recently as late 2023, residents of Rancho Cucamonga had their own encounter with a bear in California. This one was out for a morning walk, casually making its way through the neighborhood, crossing streets, and exploring human civilization. It didn’t take long for animal control to step in. Residents of the area are more likely to spot bears right after the winter season, as the black bear’s hibernation period comes to an end.

4. San Antonio Heights

Young black bear is looking for food next to garbage enclosure

©Pawel Serafin/Shutterstock.com

Black bears often make their way into residential neighborhoods after long droughts or during trash day.

If you encounter a bear in California, check what day it is. If it’s trash day, that’s probably the reason the bear is hanging out. That’s the primary reason bears find themselves wandering throughout San Antonio Heights and the Upland area. An Amazon driver went viral recently, thanks to a close call with a black bear. Running into black bears is nothing new for those living in the San Antonio area. In another incident, back in 2015, a black bear spent a great deal of time strolling through the Inland Empire neighborhood.

5. Tahoe Basin

Black bear sitting on the ground surrounded by greenery in a forest with a blurry background

©Wirestock/iStock via Getty Images

Black bears have an extraordinary sense of smell and, if garbage is left out or food is not secure, black bears down wind of it will scent it from miles off.

It feels so much more natural to encounter a bear in California when hiking or enjoying the beautiful landscape of a natural park. That’s the case with most bear encounters in the Tahoe Basin. Bears are frequently removed from the area to keep their interactions with humans to a minimum. The area is a popular place to visit, and bears won’t hesitate to descend on a peaceful picnic, startling the picnickers. Though authorities constantly reiterate the importance of securing your food and not feeding the bears, there are always a handful that will ignore such advice.

6. Burbank

Angeles National Forest

©Geographer / CC BY 1.0 - License

The Angeles National Forest has a robust black bear population, which means neighboring Burbank is likely to encounter black bears from time to time.

An encounter with a bear in California is far more likely when your neighborhood is located near a national park. In this case, the Burbank community nestles up against Angeles National Park. Bear sightings throughout the area are increasing. In 2023, a number of bear sightings drew the attention of state wildlife officials, who had to reassure and inform residents on how to handle black bears that find their way into the neighborhood.

State Instructions: In Case of A Black Bear Encounter In California

Watching a lot of movies, documentaries, and TV shows doesn’t mean you are prepared to encounter a black bear in California. There are some common misconceptions about handling bears. For most, the instinct is to run. For others, it’s to fall down and play dead. When it comes to black bears, neither will help you if the bear is aggressive.

Playing dead may work with a grizzly, but it won’t help you with a black bear. Running will only encourage it to chase you. Since black bears can reach 35 mph when going all out, a speed no human being can match. They can also climb trees, so shimmying up the closest tree is not a good idea. California State Parks has a number of tips you should consider, in case you ever experience a run-in with a black bear.

  • Maintain your distance, if possible, and never approach a black bear
  • For close encounters, do not run
  • Make eye contact with the bear, swell up your chest, and act larger than you are
  • Wave your arms and scream if it’s approaching you, and back away slowly as you do it
  • Enjoy the natural beauty that Cali has to offer, but bring bear-proof containers, which are available at many parks and campgrounds
  • Use bear-resistant, sealed lockers to store food
  • Discard all food in the appropriate containers at parks and campgrounds and seal them away if you can’t dispose of it immediately
  • Do not store food in a car or truck

Summary of 6 Places You’re Most Likely to Encounter a Bear in California This Winter

LocationRegion of California
#1 Sierra MadreSouthwestern California, south of Angeles National Forest
#2 King’s CanyonCentral-Eastern California, part of the Sequoia & King’s Canyon National Park duo
#3 Rancho CucamongaSouth California, Eastern suburb of Los Angeles
#4 San Antonio HeightsSouth California, north of Anaheim
#5 Tahoe BasinCentral-Eastern California, on the western border of Nevada
#6 BurbankAnother suburb of Los Angeles, to the north of the city

Share this post on:
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.

Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.