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Katmai National Park

Katmai National Park is in Southwest Alaska, in an active volcanic area. So active in fact, that in 1912 it was the site of the largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century. The eruption released huge amounts of ash into the atmosphere, and buried an entire valley near the volcano’s mouth under hundreds of meters of volcanic ash.

Five years later, the National Geographic Society (then a brand-new organization) sent a special 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 gave it the apt name Valley of 10,000 Smokes, and shortly after the entire area was proclaimed a national park.

The steam jets are no longer active and only the volcanic ash remains, but it’s still very impressive. Trekking is especially recommended (backcountry adventures). The combination between the Valley’s arid landscape and the snow-covered peaks surrounding it cannot be seen anywhere else in Alaska.

Salmon, bears and Brook Falls

Years have gone by and it became apparent that the valley isn’t the only attraction here. Every summer huge numbers of salmon swarm the park’s rivers, and bears from all over the area arrive to join the party. The bears in Alaska do not usually socialize with one another, but when there’s so much food for everyone, why not. As a result, during the salmon reproductive season there are dozens of bears along rivers in many areas of the park.

The most famous bear-watching spot is Brook Falls, a waterfall in the center of the park. This is where many of the pictures and films we see in National Geographic, showing the salmon jumping up the waterfalls into the bears’ open mouths, were taken.

Over the years the area was developed, and now there’s an organized complex called Brooks Camp, which includes a lodge, a rangers station, walking trails and bear-watching galleries. In the mornings a bus departs from here to the Valley of 10,000 Smokes, but as most visitors only come for a few hours, only a small part of them manages to incorporate the Valley into their itinerary (for more info on bear viewing in Alaska).

When is the best time?

The Alaskan salmon fish aren’t always consistent with their arrival dates, so you can’t know exactly where the bears will be each season. Generally speaking, early in the season (June) the bears are usually concentrated along the Park’s coastline, where they feed off weeds and mostly dabble in courtship, mating and ego struggles.

The first salmon usually arrive during the first half of July (the recommended season for visiting Brooks Falls). Towards the end of the month the amount of fish in the rivers decreases, and the bears move on to other areas of the Park. At the end of August – beginning of September the bears return to Brooks Camp, but are more confined to the beach rather than the falls themselves.

As there’s no hunting in the park, and as the rangers ensure (again and again) that visitors do not attempt any antics like feeding the bears or petting the cubs, the bears have learned over the years that there’s no reason to pay any attention to the people around. To get to Katmai Park you have to take a relatively long flight, which isn’t cheap, but if you’re coming to Alaska to see animals in general or bears in particular, don’t think twice.

There aren’t many places in the world where you can stand just a few feet away from brown bears and not even worry about it.

Further Suggestions
  • How to act around bears
  • Katmailand
  • Where are the bears?
  • Katmai Webcams

A link to the Park’s website, which offers explanations on desirable (and undesirable) behavior around bears.

Highly recommended for anyone coming to Katmai, and for anyone who wants to be prepared for a bear encounter, just to be on the safe side.

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