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.
A juvenile bear sizes us up near the Katmai Wilderness Lodge. Check out his sniffer.
While Brooks Falls is undoubtedly a remarkable place to view brown bears in action, the remaining 4-million acre expanse of the Katmai wilderness allows us to experience the habitat extending far and wide beyond the most popular viewing center. At the Katmai Wilderness Lodge on the Shelikof Strait, we sought out a more immersive experience away from the tourist fray. There we teamed up with two of the most experienced bear naturalists in the area and a small band of other travelers. From the moment we touched down by float plane, we were in the throes of witnessing bear activity on coastal waters and in inland fields, learning from the start about their behaviors in both environments. Each evening after a day in the field, we hung up our muck boots and exchanged stories about what each of us saw during a day in the life of what is arguably the most treasured of all American wildlife.
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.
Time to plan 2017 travel! Here is a bear viewing calendar for Katmai during 2016 to help guide you to your accomodations.
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.
The Katmai Wilderness Lodge as seen from the air on our descent into the secluded area of the Shelikof Straight. One of our favorite things about the wilderness lodge (and why we chose it to serve as our basecamp) is that there was nobody around except for the team who runs it, us, and small group of people also staying there—with whom we became fast friends. As you can see, the accommodations are right on the water, it is freakishly beautiful in every direction, and the property only has a few cabins allowing guests to experience Katmai in a more intimate way.
Visions from Brooks Falls, just a short walk on the property from the Brooks Lodge. This is without a doubt the most busy place to stay in Katmai, so save up and book well in advance!
Brooks Lodge at Brooks Falls: Location can’t get any better than the Brooks Lodge located next to the famed bear viewing spot at Brooks Falls. It books up well in advance and it is pricey (nearly everything is in Alaska,) …but if you are going to visit, you might as well adopt the mentality “when will I ever be here again?! I might as well do it right.” Especially, when you know what you will see while there. In the Brooks River and at the falls, brown bears congregate to fish sockeye salmon swimming up river as they complete their annual run. The sight is surreal: bears standing in the river, thousands of fish jumping upstream, and seagulls intent on savoring the byproduct of the catch. It is a vision that is completely alive and wild, and worth every penny in our opinion.
How to get around: You cannot drive a motor vehicle to or around Katmai National Park and Preserve—isn’t that wonderful? Most transit is done on a float plane, (also known as a seaplane) that lands upon the water at popular destinations; and most travel once you have reached your destination is done by boat. To get to and from the Katmai Wilderness Lodge, we traveled withAndrews Airways from Kodiak Island (where we flew to from Anchorage.) Not only are their captains some of the best in the business—and in Alaska, bush plane air travel is a really big business—but they have stories about goings-on in this area of Alaska that will make your jaw drop even harder than the brilliant aerial scenery you are seeing from the windows of their vintage planes. Flying in Dehavilland and Turbine Beavers, Cessna 206, and Piper Saratogas (some specific call-outs for all of you aero-aficionados out there!) you will be experiencing Alaska by air in a very special way. Perhaps the coolest part is your low-to-the-ground vantage point, allowing for views (and photographs) of wildlife and the landscape from a unique and beautiful perspective.
Our bush pilot Willy Fulton from Andrews Airways—one of the most experienced in the business. You might recognize him from the Werner Herzog documentary film “Grizzly Man” which documents the life of Timothy Treadwell’s experiences in Katmai. Willy was one of the regular resuppliers to the area where Timothy Treadwell, AKA “Grizzly Man,” lived and filmed. Sadly, he was also the one to find the remains of his friend in 2003.
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.
A coastal brown bear boar with a freshly caught salmon at Brooks Falls.
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:
A flightseeing tour of Katmai will absolutely take your breath away. Pictured here is the Katmai Peninsula as seen aboard a flight with Andrews Airways on our way out of the Shelikof Straight.
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.
Steam rises from the Novarupta lava dome in 1918. Novarupta remains one of the many worthwhile destinations in the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. Credit: National Geographic Society Katmai expeditions photographs, Archives and Special Collections, Consortium Library, University of Alaska Anchorage.
Mount Griggs is named after Robert Griggs “discoverer” of the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. Through the National Geographic Society and his efforts, Katmai National Monument was established in 1918 to preserve this volcanic wonderland. Credit: Wikipedia
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.
Sea otter in Katmai National Park.
Any sea otter lovers out there? We are now! Here are some fun otter facts: A “raft” is what they call a large group of sea otters; rafts are usually comprised of all males or all females. Otters have small compartments in their armpits where they hold rocks to use for cracking shells, which they do so on their bellies. They like to hide in seagrass; mamas will tie their young up in the kelp for safe keeping while they dive down to the bottom of the water to fetch food. They do not like human interaction and will almost always bolt beneath the water when they see you coming. And our favorite feature: how they float on their backs and always look like they are lounging —they are doing this because their coat is waterproof and it keeps them warmer, and also helps them to preserve energy.
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 rare genetic variation of a red fox, called a “cross fox.”
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
A film still from Werner Herzog’s 2005 documentary film, Grizzly Man.
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. From what we understand after talking with locals who lived in the area and knew Treadwell, he blurred the line between human and wildlife too much, a mistake that ultimately proved to be fatal… In the summer of 2003, he stayed late into the season during a year when food resources were scarce rendering the bears desperate for food as they neared hibernation. Timothy and his girlfriend Amie were killed in 2003 in Katmai, both mauled to death and partially eaten by a bear. A local bush pilot who was flying in to pick up Treadwell at the end of the season didn’t see his gear stacked up in the bay as he normally had it… the pilot told us that he “knew immediately that something was wrong.” He did some low-to-the-ground passes and saw the partial remains of two humans in an area (not far from where we stayed at the Katmai Wilderness Lodge. It’s a most tragic cautionary tale and a reminder that wildlife, no matter how seemingly accepting of humans in their environment, are still wild animals and will do what is needed to survive.