Yellowstone Bear World.

Yellowstone Bear World

Field review by the editors.

Rexburg, Idaho

America's wild bears were a peril for wilderness explorers (and they still make headlines whenever a camper slumbers next to a bag of chips). Many 20th century travelers of the west fondly recall close-up encounters at Yellowstone National Park, where wild bears congregated along roads for snapshots and tasty handouts. Yellowstone NP made changes in 1970 to discourage bear/people meetings (and almost 50 human injuries/year). Hand feeding was banned, and bear-proof garbage cans became the norm.

Yellowstone Bear World.

Though national park visitors still report occasional sightings, when the bears don't show up, what's a tourist to do? Go to a zoo?

Yellowstone Bear World fills the gap in the look-it's-a-bear ecosystem. It's an outdoor drive-thru attraction guaranteeing bear sightings, akin to the Yellowstone of Yore, by housing them on a natural landscape. Nearly 70 bears are in the park, and YBW lets the public get as close as possible.

Bear cubs frolic at Yellowstone Bear World.
Bear cubs frolic at Yellowstone Bear World.

Yellowstone Bear World isn't close to Yellowstone National Park. The nearest park entrance is 90 miles away. But in 1994, Michael Ferguson and a business partner saw an opportunity to present the family thrills of a wild bear encounter in the region without the uncertainties. They opened south of Rexburg in 1998, starting as a drive-thru wildlife attraction, with 13 show biz actor bears "rescued from Hollywood." Michael's son Courtney told us all of the animals in the park were born in captivity (with the exception of some deer and a moose found as orphans). Bears are rescues from caged environments, and over time more have been born onsite. The attraction provides for their dietary and medical needs.

Climbing aboard for the Curator Tour.
Climbing aboard for the Curator Tour.

From the front gate, visitors can head right into the drive-thru park, after agreeing to a liability waiver and park rules (keep windows rolled up, don't feed the animals, don't honk your horn except in dire emergency). You can drive through as many times as you want in a day. There's also the large Three Bears gift shop, children's bear-themed amusement rides, and a 1-acre barnyard animal petting zoo. There's a small museum exhibit of horns and hides from local taxidermists. The Hungry Bear Cafe sells french fries shaped like bears.

The bears near the gift shop are young, and we had ample chance to view bear cubs frolicking. The cubs were born at YBW, taken from their mothers when they were 6-8 weeks old (a sign explains it is "because of the adult male Black Bears threat to their survival"). YBW features a special program for guests to bottle-feed bear cubs (for an additional fee).

Feed the Bears - The Curator Tour

Bears flock to the Curator Tour.
Bears flock to the Curator Tour.

YBW's most unique offering is its Curator Tour (for an additional fee), which takes a group through the wildlife sections in a tall, open-topped truck. Passengers climb up onto a platform walkway, which provides a high vantage point for photography and feeding, safely above the too-friendly grasp of the bears. Over at Yellowstone Park, rangers and rules warned against addicting wildlife to human snacks (the apocalyptic horror of "a single pink cookie" still lingers in our nightmares). At Yellowstone Bear World, Curator Tour passengers are encouraged to feed the bears. Before the vehicle starts off, trays of wildlife-appropriate food are distributed to everyone.

On the Curator Tour we learn that bears like bread.
On the Curator Tour we learn that bears like bread.

The tour winds slowly along a one-way paved road through the wooded habitat. First there's the Mountain Goats zone, then the Elk-Bison-Deer Zone. Our guide, Lauren, points out a bison, and a moose named Rumplestilzkin.

We finally enter bear country. Bears are visible all around, loitering behind trees or near corrugated shelters in the brush. The tour vehicle makes many stops along the way, providing chances to toss food to animals and snap up-close photos, while cars that opted for the drive-thru wait patiently behind.

Lauren leads the tour group in repeated shouts of "C'MON BEARS!" And here they come, about a dozen, lumbering up to both sides of the Tour truck in search of eats. Many of the bears sidle up, then plop on their butts and wait for manna. The more energetic ones stand on hind legs and reach up, or lean on the side of the truck. All are indigenous to North America, so you see lots of black bears, and even a few grizzly bears.

It's a shutterbug party, as everyone positions their cameras and smart phones. It's not necessary to rush -- the bears move slowly and deliberately, understanding the balance between photogenic cuteness and receiving bread chunks.

The tour finishes back at the main complex, where families may head for the petting zoo, or even jump into their cars to drive through again. The bears are always there.

Yellowstone Bear World

Yellowstone Bear World

6010 S. Bear World Rd., Rexburg, ID
US Hwy 20, five miles south of Rexburg.
May-Oct. daily 9-5 (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Adults $24.
RA Rates:
Major Fun
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Birthplace of TelevisionBirthplace of Television, Rigby, ID - 5 mi.
Boat-Shaped HouseBoat-Shaped House, Rexburg, ID - 7 mi.
Museum of Rexburg: Teton Flood ExhibitMuseum of Rexburg: Teton Flood Exhibit, Rexburg, ID - 7 mi.
In the region:
Collapsed Teton Dam Overlook, Newdale, ID - 20 mi.

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