Article by Stefanie Payne. First published on The Greatest Road Trip.
The Best Bear Viewing Experiences in Alaska’s Katmai National Park
Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska was established to protect the Valley of The Ten Thousand Smokes, the site of the world’s largest volcanic eruption occurring during the 20th century. The reason that most people visit Katmai, is to see bears.
The best-known bear viewing spot in Katmai (and probably the world) is at Brooks Falls, where coastal brown bears paw sockeye salmon from the river as the fish end their yearly run en route to their spawning grounds in the Brooks River. You’ve probably seen the iconic pictures and/or bear cams that illustrate the scene. That we as humans are able to experience this activity live on video and in person is one of our great fortunes as a collective people—to be able to see bears thriving in their natural habitat is an experience like none other.
As we started to write this article, it became immediately clear that having some knowledge of bear basics would be key to understanding how exploring a place like Katmai is even possible, and how we as visitors are able to get so close to the feared, albeit mesmerizing, 1,000 pound beasts.
To address that (and to have a bear reference for future Alaska parks that are teed up on this site) we wrote comprehensive article describing the atmosphere of bear country—Bear 101: Exploring and Staying Safe in American Bear Country. If you want to know about bears, check out that article. If you want to know about Katmai as a travel destination, read on—we’ve outlined below details including when to go, what to do and see, where to stay, how to get there and around, and what to expect while there.
When to go: June, July, and August is prime time for bear viewing in Katmai—this is during the annual salmon run when bears are most active and when weather is at its best. Shoulder season (early June and September) is a great alternative to bypass some of the crowds and find cheaper prices.
What to do and see: In Katmai, bear viewing is the star of the show, but that’s just the start. You’ll find upon arriving that the environment, the habitat—the context—is equally compelling. Other wildlife viewing opportunities will fill your days in the moments that are bear free, as you are also in the habitat of moose, red fox, the rare “cross fox”, sea otters, seals, bald eagles, puffins, and other birdlife and coastal wildlife. Katmai is also an important habitat for salmon—whether you are trying to spot them jumping into a bear’s mouth from the water or pull them up on a line, they will in one way or another become part of your exploration of Katmai.
As we mentioned in the intro, the parkland was established to preserve the unique natural landscape, one that invites adventurers to hike and camp in the backcountry, document sights through photography, learn about wildlife from impassioned naturalists, and to drop a line with sport fisherman who fly in from around the globe to hook a fish in the abundant waters. And if that isn’t enough, kayaking the coastline, soaring above the wilderness on a flightseeing tour, and conversing with fascinating locals is ripe for the grab. In our experience visiting each of Alaska’s national parks, Katmai offers the most inclusive gathering of the best the state has to offer.
Where to stay in Katmai:
Katmai Wilderness Lodge: We spent the majority of our time exploring park #32 at the Katmai Wilderness Lodge, managed and operated by Angela and Perry Mollan who met and married at Brooks Falls more than 20 years ago. By their side is Chris, a relative newcomer to the operation who is rich with captaining skills. Through their collective experience, guests are exposed to a wealth of knowledge of bears in the area and can rest assured that they are getting close to wildlife in a way that is safe for all parties. They know when, where, and how to find coastal brown bears, marine animals, birdlife, fox, as well as the elusive “cross fox”—a fox with a mutated gene that is charcoal-colored with white speckles. In the chef’s kitchen in the communal lodge is where you’ll find Roger, a master of flavor who served up some of the best meals we’ve eaten this year. And after long days, we found rest in individual cabins that overlooked the bay on the Shelikof Straight. The lodge is very popular and books out well in advance, as it should… between the good people, bear expertise, sighting possibilities, safety, and the serene coastal environs where it is all located, guests are in for a more intimate experience than what can be found at the very popular lodge at Brooks Falls.
As we started to write about the Alaska parks, it became quickly evident that a full write up about bears in the state would be handy not only for this park, but also for the Alaska parks that are teed up next and for Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks in Wyoming and Montana, where grizzly bears also live.
In this comprehensive article we talk about generalities of bears in Alaska including species’, habitat, diet, behavior, human safety, encounters, aggression and attacks, keeping bears wild, and other general information about how to behave and what to expect in the atmosphere of bear country.
While we’ve spent a great deal of time research this topic in the field, we submit that we are not bear experts, so please feel free tosend us corrections if you see any inaccurate information.
4,093,077 acres | Alaska’s prime bear viewing habitat | Among the highest concentrations of brown bears in the world
Official name: Katmai National Park and Preserve
Date established: December 2, 1980
Location: Northern Alaska Peninsula
How the park got its name: The park was named after Mount Katmai, the 7,500-foot stratovolcano that erupted in 1912 forming what is now known today as the Valley of the Ten Thousand Smokes. “Katmai” means “windy/stormy” in native Alaskan Athabaskan.
Iconic site in the park: If you know anything at all about Katmai, it is probably because you have a visual of Brooks Fallsin your mind’s eye. If you don’t know anything about Katmai and you start to scour the web to learn more, you will undoubtedly stumble first on information about Brooks Falls, the most popular destination in the park, immediately to discover what makes this site so iconic…
Every summer at Brooks, large brown bears congregate to paw sockeye salmon from the water as the fish complete their annual run back to their spawning grounds in the Brooks River. It’s a wild spectacle—salmon by the tens of thousands jumping upstream trying to make it to the riverbed where they began; huge brown bears catching them in flight to eat as they ready for hibernation; and seagulls waiting in the wings for the leftover scraps.
There are three established viewing platforms providing different views—one right by the waterfall at Brooks Falls (where the bear cams are positioned); one just 100 yards down river from the falls (a great place from where to watch bears enter the area); and one even farther down at the mouth of the Brooks River right next to the lodge. There is a capacity of 40 people on the main deck at any given time, so plan to spend some time waiting.
Know before you go: While the park is open year-round, National Park Service and concessioner services are offered only between June 1 and September 17 at Brooks Falls which can be quite limiting. As it’s a hard-to-get to and an expensive place to travel, you’ll want to plan smart for Katmai, and well in advance. Shoulder season is always a good option to avoid crowds while still having full access to services.
Accessible adventure: Hop on a bush plane from Homer, King Salmon, Kodiak, or Anchorage and take flight above Katmai to explore its untamed wilderness by air on a flight-seeing tour. Knowledgable bush pilots know how and where to spot moose, caribou, sometimes wolves (though they are more elusive) and the star of the show in Katmai—the coastal brown bears populating the region. What will take your breath away in equal measure is the aerial views that show Alaska to be one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. From the air you will see the massive size, scale, and intricacy of glaciated peaks, vibrantly colored lakes, steaming volcanoes, jagged coastlines and the rugged and remote tundra. Beyond the land is the sea, over which you will fly at some point, taking in views of marine wildlife in the icy seas, including whales, seals, jellyfish, and large schools of fish.
Big adventure: Katmai has fewer than five miles of paved hiking trails, meaning that most any hiking experience in the area is going to be a big, backcountry adventure. To experience the feature that earned the Katmai wilderness protection by the National Park Service, set off on a hiking adventure in the Valley of The Ten Thousand Smokes (VTTS), home to the most catastrophic volcanic eruption occurring during the 20th century. Today, it is a sprawling remote area dressed in vibrantly colored volcanic ash deposits. Some of the most popular areas to hike include Baked Mountain, Knife Creek Glaciers and the Mount Katmai Caldera, Katmai Pass and the Southwest Trident Lava Flows, and the Buttress Range which is a also popular place to pitch a tent. The VTTS is located 23 miles from Brooks Camp, where backcountry travelers can hop aboard daily busses to the area to be dropped off and retrieved at a later, prearranged date.
Did you know…
Katmai has one of the largest and most active coastal brown bear populations in the world. We anticipate referencing bears regularly while writing about the parks in Alaska, Montana, and Wyoming, so we wrote a comprehensive article about bears: Bear 101: Exploring and Staying Safe in American Bear Country. There at the bottom of the page, you can find plenty of Did You Know facts pertaining to bears. Here are a couple to pique your interest:
Most bear naturalists in Alaska have almost never used bear spray. It is considered to be a last resort, used only if a bear makes contact.
Brown bears, grizzly bears, and Kodiak bears are genetically identical. Their differences in size and behavior result from their geography and diet.
More human beings are killed each year in Alaska by moose than they are by bear.
The largest and most catastrophic volcanic eruption occurring during the 20th century took place in the Katmai Wilderness at a site that is now known as the Valley of The Ten Thousand Smokes. The Novarupta stratovolcano spewed ash 20 miles into the sky for 60 hours straight in the region surrounding Mount Katmai, leaving six feet of ash atop of the Aleutian Mountain Range that towers over the Shelikof Straight on the Katmai Peninsula. The eruption drove out the native people entirely and killed all the wildlife in the area. Today, it is a showing of vibrant color atop mountain ridges leading down into braided rivers, and a favorite area where to hike, camp in the backcountry, and capture landscape photography.
The National Park Service recommends 10 essentials when traveling into Katmai Wilderness backcountry: appropriate footwear; a map, compass and GPS; water and a water filtration system; high calorie food; rain layers; safety items (fire-starter, camp stove, flares, headlight, first aid kit; goggles to protect your eyes from volcanic ash, etc.); bear spray, bug pray, sunscreen and sunglasses; and to carry it all in: a backpack.
A “smack” or a “smother” is what they call a large gathering of jellyfish in an oceanic body of water (like a “pod” of whales or a “dazzle” of zebras.) You can often see them in the Alaskan waters while flying in a bush plane, they look like giant hyperlit blobs.
Katmai is a thriving and important habitat for Pacific salmon.
Katmai is a world-class destination for sport fisherman, attracting anglers from all over who want to pull from the abundant waters rainbow trout, arctic char, dolly varden, arctic grayling, and five species of Pacific Salmon that end their yearly run in Katmai.
While the park and preserve was established to protect the Valley of the Ten Thousand Smokes, it was the sport fishing opportunities that first attracted tourists to the area, ultimately enabling development of the area for other tourist activities. As the waterways of Alaska are forever vulnerable to overfishing, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) works closely with the National Park Service to monitor and manage populations.
It seems crazy that anglers would cast a line in the areas where HUGE brown bears also like to fish… but they do and they love it. A caught fish on a line, thrashing against the surface of the water, is the sound of food to a bear. Anglers in Alaska know that if a bear draws near, you cut your line. They know to engage as much with their surroundings as they do with their sport, and to remain “bear aware” at all times. Simply put, you need to know your bear safety game to fish in an area like Katmai. It’s the big leagues up there!
A “Cross Fox” is a genetic variation of a red fox that can be found in Katmai, it has a black face with white speckles in its fur.
Fireweed is a vibrant tall-growing plant that covers the Katmai Peninsula. At the beginning of the summer season, the fuchsia colored blooms sprout up all over the landscape. As the summer season progresses and draws to a close, the plant turns to a deep red-brick color—a warning to Alaskan’s that autumn is just around the corner.
Homesteading was legal in Alaska until 1984. Anyone could just walk onto any piece of land and declare up to 160 acres theirs (it was 320 acres before 1903) as long as they filed the paperwork and had the transaction approved. Can you imagine…just choosing your land and building a life there? Amazing.
Always respect Mother Nature. Especially when she weighs 400 pounds and is guarding her baby.”
— James Rollins, Ice Hunt
Timothy Treadwell, also known as “Grizzly Man,” lived and died in Katmai. He was made famous by the 2005 Werner Herzog documentary film of the same name, Grizzly Man, which documented Treadwell’s life in the wilds of Katmai National Park and Preserve, where he lived in a tent somewhat illegally for 13 summer seasons. His objective was to get close to the coastal brown bears who lived in the area. During the course of three years he documented his time in the bush getting to know the bears, detailing their interactions on film. Over time, he began to think of them as kin as they had appeared to have accepted him into their habitat.