This pristine preserve is famous for true wilderness adventures, including exceptional bear viewing
In 1912 Novarupta Volcano on the Alaska Peninsula violently erupted and rocked the area now known as Katmai National Park and Preserve. The wilderness was turned into a dynamic landscape of smoking valleys, ash-covered mountains and small holes and cracks fuming with steam and gas. Only one other eruption in historic times, on the Greek island of Santorini in 1500 BC, displaced more ash and pumice. Four years later explorer Robert Grigg climbed Katmai Pass and became the first person to see the valley floor with its thousands of steam vents. He named it the Valley of 10,000 Smokes and led the effort that turned Katmai into a national monument.
In 1980 the monument was enlarged to 4.2 million acres and designated a national park and preserve. Katmai National Monument was established in 1918, but so few people visited the remote area that no rangers were stationed here until 1950. Today, Katmai National Park and Preserve remains a wilderness landscape with little development.
Ecosystem and Wildlife
The fumaroles no longer smoke and hiss and today the park is best known for its brown bear population that tops more than 2,000. At the peak of the bear viewing season in July, throngs of visitors arrive at Brooks River to watch bears snagging salmon in mid-air just 30 yards away. Katmai is also home to the Alagnak Wild River and several large lakes. Naknek Lake is the largest and support all five species of Pacific salmon as well as rainbow trout, Arctic char, Arctic grayling and northern pike, making the park a famed destination for sport anglers.
Most people come to Katmai via floatplane. For many visitors, this is the first time in a small aircraft. Others arrive for the opportunity to raft, hike the Valley of 10,000 Smokes, camp in the backcountry or kayak the chain of lakes and rivers known as the Savonoski Loop. Unconnected to any town by roads, Katmai requires additional planning, costs and advance reservations for extended visits. Bear viewing tour packages to the park, even one-day tours, can be arranged from Kodiak, Homer and Anchorage.
Learn more about Katmai National Park
View the live cameras of bears fishing in Katmai
Brooks Camp, the park's summer headquarters on the shores of Naknek Lake, 35 miles from King Salmon, is the hub of activity at Katmai and its most developed area. The camp features a lodge and restaurant, a campground, a store, kayak rentals and Brooks Camp Visitor Center (907-481-1781). Float planes from King Salmon load and unload passengers right along the shore at Brooks Camp. A trail and floating bridge leads to the most popular attractions in the park; a series of three bear viewing platforms overlooking the Brooks River. The last deck, at Brook Falls, is the prime viewing area, where visitors can photograph the salmon making spectacular leaps and a 900-pound brown bear at the top of the cascade waiting with open jaws to catch it. Thanks to an incredible sockeye salmon run, in July there might be a dozen bears here with two or three of them atop the falls.
Departing from Brooks Camp is the only road in Katmai. The 23-miles dirt road winds past wildlife-inhabited meadows and river valleys and ends at Three Forks Overlook, which has a sweeping view of the Valley of 10,000 Smokes. A park concessionaire runs a daily bus tour to Three Forks Overlook and back, stopping along the way to pick up hikers and backpackers who use it to reach the backcountry.Scattered throughout the park and on the outside coast are a number of fly-in lodges that offer all-exclusive package trips. Many of them cater to sport anglers and include boats for traveling on the large lakes and up rivers. Some are designed exclusively for bear viewing.
There are no entrance fees in Katmai nor are permits required to enter the backcountry. There is a nightly per-person fee for Brooks Camp Campground. Reservations for both camping and day use must be made prior to any visit to Katmai through the National Recreation Reservation Service (877-444-6777, 518-885-3639; www.recreation.gov).
The park is open year-round but the concessioner services at Brooks Camp, the main access point for the park, is offered only June through mid-September. King Salmon can be reached by commercial airline from Anchorage while Brooks Camp, 30 air miles away, is only accessible by small floatplane. Bear viewing tour packages to the park, even one-day tours, can be arranged from Kodiak, Homer and Anchorage.
The best source of information is the Katmai National Park Headquarters (907-246-3305; www.nps.gov/katm) located in King Salmon. At the King Salmon airport terminal and open year-round is the King Salmon Visitor Center (907-246-4250). Either the park headquarters or the visitor center can provide a list of all Katmai's commercial operators.