Katmai National Park
Katmai National Park is in Southwest Alaska, in an active volcanic area. In fact, it’s as active as they come: back in 1912, this was the site of the largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century. The 1912 eruption released huge amounts of ash into the atmosphere, and buried an entire valley under pyroclastic flow hundreds of feet deep.
Five years later, the National Geographic Society (then a brand-new organization) sent an expedition to study the region. The researchers were astounded to discover the valley, which seemed somewhat like a Salvador Dali painting – a desert of ashes, with jets of steam shooting up everywhere. They named it “Valley of 10,000 Smokes”, and shortly after the entire area was declared a national monument. It was later upgraded to National Park in 1980.
Today the steam jets are no longer active, but the volcanic ash is still very much there. The Valley’s desert-like look, combined with the snow-covered peaks in the background, forms a unique landscape that isn’t seen anywhere else in Alaska.
Although the area was originally preserved in order to protect its volcanic features, the main focus of the park has shifted towards the rich wildlife found here, and especially the dense population of coastal brown bears.
Every summer huge numbers of salmon swarm the park’s rivers, and bears from all over the area arrive to join the party. Bears are solitary animals and typically prefer to stay away from each other, but when there’s so much food for everyone, well, why not.
The most well-known bear viewing spot in the park (and in the state of Alaska) is Brooks Falls, a wide and rather low waterfall along the Brooks River. Chances are, if you’re planning a trip to Alaska, you probably ran into images taken here of bears catching fish in mid-air. During peak season, anywhere from 5 to 15 bears can be seen here fishing at the same time.
The area close to the falls has been developed and is named Brooks Camp. Here you can find accommodations (lodge or campsite), ranger station, walking trails and other basic facilities. Brooks Camp is connected to Brooks Falls via a newly constructed bridge and a flat walking trail. Viewing platforms located near the falls allow for a perfect view at the action.
The majority of visitors come here as part of a bear viewing day tour, but if you’re lucky enough to spend the night here, you could hop on the morning bus to the Valley of 10,000 Smokes. The Brooks Lodge is usually full more than a year in advance, so if you’re entertaining the idea you should act early (bookings open in January for the following year, and most rooms are taken in a matter of days).
The best time to visit Katmai
Predicting the salmon arrival date is a tricky game, but in most cases they show up in the Brooks River by late June. Early in the season (most of June) the bears are usually concentrated along the Park’s coastline, where they feed off weeds and are busy with courtship, mating and ego struggles. Once the salmon hit the rivers, the bears will move inland and congregate in their favorite fishing sites. In Brooks Falls, high season is during the month of July, but in recent years the action kept on going well into August as well. Once the salmon numbers decrease, the bears will move on to other areas of the Park. During late August and early September bear numbers in Brooks pick back up again, but the action is slightly more relaxed (less bears, tired salmon, some dead fish in the water).
(If you want to know where the largest bear concentrations are found throughout the park during the summer, check this out – courtesy of the National Park Service.)
A visit to the park will often bring you to within close distances from the bears, but aggressive behavior is extremely rare. There’s no hunting in the park, and the rangers ensure (again and again) that visitors are well educated and well behaved. As a result, bears in Katmai have learned not to pay attention to people and are usually much more tolerable of human presence comparing to bears in other parts of Alaska. This does not mean you should try and take a selfie hugging with a coastal brown bear, but it does allow for some piece of mind.
Katmai National Park is only accessible by air. A few options are available:
1) Direct flights from Anchorage.
2) Direct flights from Homer.
3) Commercial flight from Anchorage to the town of King Salmon, and a quick floatplane flight from there to Brooks Camp.
Due to the airfare involved, a visit to the park is not cheap – but it’s totally worth it. If it’s Alaskan wildlife that you’re after, it doesn’t get any better than that.