Come for the bears, stay for a true wilderness adventure.
Katmai National Park is approximately 260 miles southwest of Anchorage and is a true wilderness destination. Some come for the otherworldly volcanic landscape of the Valley of 10,000 Smokes, but most come for bears. About 2,200 brown bears inhabit the park and many congregate on the Brooks River to gorge on summer salmon runs, making this one of the best spots for bear viewing in Alaska.
In addition to bear viewing, Katmai National Park offers opportunities to raft, hike the Valley of 10,000 Smokes, camp in the backcountry, kayak the chain of lakes and rivers known as the Savonoski Loop, or explore the more remote coves and bays along the park’s coastline.
Brooks Camp, the park's summer headquarters on the shores of Naknek Lake, 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 the Brooks Camp Visitor Center, where visitors can sign up for daily ranger-led tours in the park. Unconnected to any town by road, most people come to Katmai via floatplane from the nearby town of King Salmon. Floatplanes load and unload passengers right along the shore at Brooks Camp.
Visitors to Brooks Camp are required to check in at the visitor center for a quick bear safety orientation. From there, a trail and floating bridge leads to the most popular attractions in the park: a series of four bear viewing platforms overlooking the Brooks River. The last deck, at Brook Falls, is the prime viewing area, where visitors can photograph salmon making spectacular leaps with 900-pound brown bears at the top of the waterfall waiting with open jaws. Thanks to an incredible sockeye salmon run, there might be a dozen bears fishing in the area at the same time. Wolves sometimes stop by to fish, too. Want to check out the action right now? You can view Brooks Falls from a live webcam.
Bear viewing tours to the park, including one-day flightseeing and walking tours at Brooks Falls, are available from Kodiak, Homer, and Anchorage. Some tours and packages depart from King Salmon, which can be reached by commercial airline from Anchorage, followed by a 30-mile floatplane flight to Brooks Camp.
If you’re looking for a multi-day trip, camping and lodging are available at Brooks Camp. Accommodations at Brooks Camp book up very quickly so it’s best to make your reservations as early as possible. Scattered throughout the park and on the outside coast are a number of fly-in lodges that offer all-inclusive package trips. Some are designated exclusively for bear viewing, and some cater to sport anglers and include boats for traveling on the large lakes and up rivers.
That’s right - bears aren’t the only ones fishing in the park! Katmai is also home to the Alagnak Wild River and Naknek Lake, the largest lake in the park, supporting 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.
Valley of 10,000 Smokes
Departing from Brooks Camp is the Valley of 10,000 Smokes Road, the only road in Katmai. This 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. This harsh but spectacular landscape was created by the largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century. On June 6, 1912, the Novarupta Volcano spewed ash and volcanic matter for 60 hours, blanketing the mountainous landscape in ash. The Valley of 10,000 Smokes is now a popular destination for hiking and camping for those with backcountry and route-finding experience; there are no designated trails in this section of the park. Daily bus tours from Brooks Camp head to Three Forks Overlook and back, stopping along the way to pick up hikers and backpackers.
Mirror mirror on the wall, who’s the fattest bear of them all? Home to wolves, lynx, and other wildlife, Katmai is best known for its iconic brown bears. While bear viewing season along the park’s famed Brooks River peaks in July as the salmon start running, fall is the time when bears really up their feeding game. To celebrate a successful summer, the Katmai Conservancy hosts Fat Bear Week. This fun contest – held in early October – offers Katmai bear fans a chance to weigh in on which of the park’s more than 2,000 bears was most successful packing on the pounds prior to the start of hibernation. This online competition allows fans to vote on their top pick for fattest bear, with one portly bear named as the Fat Bear Week Champion.
Bears hibernate during the winter and will not eat or drink for months, losing nearly one third of their body weight. When they emerge from hibernation in the spring, they will start the feeding frenzy all over again to build up enough fat to get through another long winter.
Holy Smokes! 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, forcing the resettlement of traditional Alutiiq communities who called the area home for nearly 9,000 years. 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 1918.
In 1980 the monument was enlarged to 4.2 million acres and designated a national park and preserve. Today, Katmai National Park and Preserve remains a wilderness landscape with little development.
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.