Our Visit to Katmai National Park:
Picture perfect scene
A 6-foot tall waterfall that spans the 150-foot wide river. Crystal clear water a few feet deep. A seagull squawking at another, defending his bright red salmon carcass. Six brown bears, otherwise known as grizzlies, milling around by the waterfall.
A bear perched at the top of the waterfall. Another sat in the middle of the stream below the falls tearing into a 30 inch long salmon, exposing the bright red meat. A young bear splashing around, occasionally going under and coming up with a fish wiggling for its life to get out of the grip of the bear’s mouth.
Tens of salmon in the air, trying to jump to the top of the waterfall. Some unlucky salmon jumped right into the mouth of the bear standing on top of the waterfall. All the bear has to do is to open his mouth at the right time to get a meal.
This is the idyllic scene at lower falls of the Brooks River, the calling card of Katmai National Park.
Planes, planes, planes
Four flights and an overnight stay in Anchorage got us from North Carolina to Brooks Camp. We landed on Naknek lake in front of Brooks Camp on a bright, hot afternoon in a tiny 5 passenger float plane. The 25 minute flight from King Salmon was smooth and over the turquoise waters of Naknek lake. The scenery was gorgeous.
No roads lead to Katmai so most people arrive by float plane. We were one of many planes parked on the beach. The Katmai National Park sign greeted us right on the beach and we took care of our national park business right away.
What’s the first thing you are required to do upon entry into Brooks Camp? Attend bear school! A video told us how to behave when, not if, you see a bear. There is one thing they drill into you — DON’T RUN. Back away slowly and get out of the path of the bear. The second rule is NO FOOD outside of the dining hall, cabin or electrically fenced picnic area. The bears here don’t associate people with food and that is the key to bear safety.
To the bears, people are just harmless watchers that pose no threat and don’t have what they want — food. The rangers do a good job training the people. No one was ever killed by a bear in Brooks Camp, even though the bears roam freely through the area, sometimes right between cabins. Loretta was still apprehensive with no bear spray (they discourage it and don’t sell it, but all the rangers have it…)
Brooks Camp is the hub of Katmai. The park headquarters, visitor center, restaurant, lodging, camp ground, and the requisite gift shop are all here. There are 54 beds in the lodge and 60 people limit at the campground. We entered a lottery in December, 2017 to secure a reservation at the lodge for early July, 2019. Plan ahead!
Bear family within 5 feet
We were in our cabin one late afternoon, relaxing before dinner and going over the day’s photos when I heard a lady just outside of our cabin saying “Look, there is a bear”. I saw a large, light brown mama bear with two very young black cubs 100 feet away, by another cabin. The rangers closed the paths nearby to keep people at a distance as the bears walked slowly towards our cabin.
We looked on with amazement and anticipation as the bears continued towards our cabin. Our jaws dropped when the mama bear decided to lay down right next to our cabin, exactly in front of the window while her cubs rapidly climbed up a nearby tree. One was 30 feet up and the other 20 feet up, each sat on a branch.
Then the mama bear decided she really liked the patch of grass and laid on her back with all four paws up in the air, just relaxing in the afternoon sun. We were five feet away from a huge bear yet completely safe inside our cabin, it doesn’t get better than this for bear watching!
The mama bear stayed for 20 minutes before she called her cubs to come down from the tree and the three of them went off into the meadow towards the river. Loretta said “This alone was worth the effort and expense to come to Katmai”
The trail from Brooks Camp to Brooks Falls follows a gravel service road, then veers into the woods for a pleasant, flat walk. The trail then passes a gate onto an elevated walkway. Shortly after, there is an area for people to wait, and a branch to Riffles platform.
If the Brooks Falls platform is full (capacity 40), the ranger takes your name, and calls you when it’s your turn. You are allowed to stay at Brooks Falls platform for one hour at a time. While you wait, the Riffles Platform, a bit down the river from Brooks Falls, provide an excellent view of Brooks River. Many bears are in the shallow river, hunting salmon and catching them almost effortlessly. This is where the younger and less dominant bears hunt.
There are anglers in the stream fishing for salmon, but they have to be on a constant lookout to keep their distance from the bears. The bears are focused on catching fish, so they don’t pay much attention to people.
We made the trek to Brooks Falls three times during our three day visit. Each time was a different experience. The first time was in late afternoon. It was only a 10 minutes wait and we thoroughly enjoyed Riffles Platform while we waited. We were filled with excitement and anticipation when the ranger called us as we headed to the famous Brooks Falls.
The platform is 15 feet above the bank of the river, overlooking the waterfall. Brooks Falls is half way between Lake Brooks and Naknek Lake, a mile and half from both. We got a spot on the upper part of the platform, which offered an unobstructed view of the falls and good enough for photography with a telephoto lens. The afternoon sun was behind us, which provided great lighting to view the bears.
This is what we came all this way for! This is why I rented and lugged the big, heavy telephoto lens and the tripod to the platform. While you can’t set up a tripod at the platform, you can close the legs and use it as a monopod to keep the camera steady for that perfect shot. I was just one of many with big telephoto lens.
The sockeye salmon jumping over the falls glistened in the afternoon sun with their sliver scales. They have not turned red yet, that will happen in a few weeks. When sockeye salmon leave the salt water of the ocean, they stop eating and gradually turn red with a green head. I watched with amazement how high they can jump and how difficult it is to get over the water fall.
According to the ranger, 6% of the jumps are successful at Brooks Falls. We were rooted for salmon to make the jump successfully and I let out a small cheer when one made it. Strangely, at the same time, we were rooting for the bear to catch a leaping salmon.
The ranger was not only there for crowd control, but also doing salmon count in one minute increments, and a bear count. She said the salmon count has really picked up in the last week and we were in prime season for salmon run at Brooks Falls.
Each of the three times we went to Brooks Falls were different. There were lots of salmon jumping, often a dozen at a time the first time we went. The second time we went, only a few at a time were jumping, and only one every minute or two the third time we went. It really varies, even during prime season.
Open mouth, grab salmon
Where there were salmon, there were bears. When the salmon were jumping, we counted nine bears within view. There was a defined hierarchy with the biggest, dominant male at the foot of the falls, effortlessly catching fish after failed jumps just by dipping their snout into the water. The second best spot was at the lip of the falls where the bear just stood there and waited for salmon to jump into their mouths. The salmon desperately wiggled to get out of the clinched jaw of the bear and actually succeeded occasionally. That was so much fun to watch and it was the highlight of Brooks Falls.
A few young bears with a lot more energy pranced around the area practicing their hunting skills. One stood near the falls on his hind legs and tried to swat at the jumping fish to catch them, and was actually successful. At other times, he went under water for close to a minute and came up with a salmon in his mouth. Often, he got distracted and open his mouth and the fish escaped. This was just a joy to watch.
Brooks Camp is on the opposite side of the river from Brooks Falls platform. Until a month before our visit, there was a floating bridge that was a frequent place for bear jams. A bear jam is when people have to wait for bears to clear the path by at least 50 yards before they can continue on the path. The bears are in no hurry and the wait can be an hour or more.
The park service built a foot bridge across the river with a few viewing platforms. Now the bears can cross under the bridge while people observe them. The new platforms have excellent views up and down the river, with plenty of wildlife in sight.
We saw two young bears play fighting nearby, splashing water at each other while a mama bear with her two young cubs, probably born the past winter, followed.
There were some controversy about the bridge, but I think it was an excellent improvement for visitors. It provided a great place to view the river, the lake, and the wildlife in the grasslands while reducing bear jams.
Bear encounter on the path
The rangers were strategically placed all along the path from Brooks Camp to Brooks Falls, to monitor bear activity. We were going down the path one day and a visitor coming the opposite way told us there was a bear on the path, coming our way. Shortly after that, as we rounded a corner, I was the first of our group to see a very large bear walking down the middle of the path, right towards us.
We backed up slowly and was lucky enough to be next to a branch of the path that led to the maintenance buildings so we branched off and left the trail. The bear veered off into the woods about 20 yards in front of us. That bear was huge. He didn’t pay us much attention and just went about his own business, but it was a reminder we were in bear country. We waited a bit to make sure the bear continued into the woods before continuing our journey to Brooks Falls.
Looking for wolf but chased by a bear
We met a lot of wonderful people and shared a lot of stories, especially at meal time. We heard there was a wolf spotted early in the mornings on the beach so I got up early one day to look for the wolf. At 6 am, I went to the beach. It was super quiet with the sound of salmon jumping out of the mirror like lake every now and then. There were two bears off to the left on the other side of the beach. I waited for a while but no wolf so I walked down to the junction of the river and the lake. There were splashing sounds that came from the opposite shore behind some tall grass on an island in the middle of the stream.
Soon, a bear emerged. She dipped her nose into the water, looking for fish, every now and then, making the splashing sound. She walked directly towards me while looking for fish and crossing the river. I started to back away when she got within 75 yards. The voice of the ranger echoed in my head — “Don’t run, back away slowly”. I backed away slowly but the bear was gaining on me so I turned around and started to walk away, trying to figure out how not to run even as the bear was gaining on me.
By the time I was able to veer off her path, the bear was barely 25 yards from me. I got to the other side of the trees and looked back as the bear went right pass me at a half trot down the beach. I knew, deep down inside, that the bear was far more interested in fish than me, and there were plenty of people around but it was still nerve wrecking. In hindsight, it was thrilling to be that close to a bear with no barrier. Despite their size, they can move very fast when they want to.
We planned for, and got exactly what we wanted — peak salmon season. Not only did we see dozens of salmon jumping at a time at Brooks Falls, we also saw schools of hundreds of salmon from the bridge. The story of the salmon is remarkable. They hatch upstream in the rivers of Alaska, live for a bit, and swim to the ocean where they grow and fatten themselves up for two to three years. Then instinct kicks in and the unwavering call to spawn takes over. They swim hundreds of miles upstream, jumping over water falls, to their birthplace to spawn. After they use their tail to create a place for their eggs and spawn, they die.
The bears feast on the fatty salmon as they swim upstream. These bears that eat the salmon are the largest because of the rich diet from all the fat.
The salmon run at Brooks Falls starts in late June, peaks in July, and drops off in August before returning in September. To see bear, look for salmon!
How about a volcano to go with the bears
Katmai National Park is more than bears. It was first preserved because of the 1912 Novarupta eruption, the biggest of the 20th century but noticed by few.
We took the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes Tour to see the aftermath of the eruption. We rode in a retrofitted school bus with high clearance and four wheel drive through a packed gravel single lane road to a ranger station about 25 miles away, at the foot of the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes.
Biggest eruption of the 20th century but no one noticed
The valley was lush, green with ponds before the eruption. The eruption filled the valley of Knife Creek with pyroclastic flow (mixture of ash, dust and super heated gas) that solidified as ignimbrite. It covered an area of 46 square miles to a depth of 700 feet, forming a relatively flat surface. It was heard as far away as Juneau, 700 miles away and the ash fell as far as the Caribbean.
On Kodiak Island, about 100 miles away, it was dark for three days due to ash fall. The ash accumulation was a foot deep and collapsed many roofs. There were no recorded human fatality because it was sparsely populated and the folk lore of Native Americans taught the villagers to turn over the canoes, fill as much water as possible and leave as soon as possible. As such, this eruption, 30 times the size of Mount St. Helens, didn’t get as much notoriety as other eruptions.
Solid river of yellow
The demarcation point of the flow was clear, with the yellow colored ignimbrite clearly visible. Life is returning gradually at the lower end of the flow. There are deep valleys cut into the ignimbrite already because the material is very soft and light. The water flow cuts easily into the material all the way down to the initial bedrock. The stone is so light it floats and feels like Styrofoam. The whole area looked like a miniature version of the Grand Canyon from the rim.
The bus ride out was long, about 2 hours with 2 overlook stops and a bathroom stop. After we arrived at the ranger station overlooking the Valley of Ten Thousand smokes, Ranger Bob gave an excellent history and geology talk while Larry the bus driver spread out sandwiches, chips, cookies and fruit for lunch. They really over packed the meat in these sandwiches!
After everyone had their fill, it was time to hike down to the bottom of the valley to Ukak Falls, about 1.5 miles and 1000 feet down. Going down was the easy part. Coming back up gave me a nice aerobic workout. At the bottom, we faced a cliff with an interesting ribbed pattern that was a few hundred feet high and a small but loud waterfall. The scene was unreal and other worldly. In fact, the astronauts of the 1960s trained here in their preparation for the moon landing.
The Novarupta eruption was not exactly on top of Mount Katmai but nearby. After the eruption, the top of Mount Katmai collapsed and over time, water filled the crater to form a 6.3 mile diameter lake that is 800 feet deep. The water in the lake is extremely acidic, with a PH level of 1.0. After the eruption, smoke, fumaroles and mud pots were present and columns of smoke dotted the landscape as the erupted material was still hot enough to create smoke from the rain water. The land was protected in 1918 as Katmai National Monument because the explorers and scientists at the time thought it was like Yellowstone with magma just below the surface, super heating the water and creating the fumaroles. After 20 years, the smoke disappeared as the fallen debris finally cooled down enough. Today, there are no smoke or fumaroles.
Another way to see the valley is by air, which would give an awesome perspective of the scale of the destruction.
Lake Brooks is a short walk from Brooks Falls yet hardly anyone visits. It is a beautiful lake with a mountain backdrop. There is a small picnic area by the shore and lots of fishing. It’s used as a alternate landing site for float planes in case Naknek Lake is too choppy. We were there for more than half hour during the peak season and did not see another person. If you want some seclusion, this is a good place to hangout.
So much more than Brooks Camp
Thought for Katmai National Park:
To truly appreciate nature, immerse yourself in it. Observe without disturbing or changing it, just like bear watching at Katmai National Park.
Impressions of Katmai National Park:
Katmai is a special, special treat. If you want to see bears in its natural habitat, this is, without a doubt, the place to be. Brown bears are majestic creatures, the largest land animal in North America. They are so much fun to observe at Katmai. Unlike Yellowstone, where bears are often in the distance and whenever there are bears, there are hordes of people crowded to see them. Spotting bears at Katmai is no effort at all and you can actually enjoy watching bears in the serenity of the beautiful setting in Katmai National Park. Jumping salmon and the unreal scenery of Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes are the cherry on top to make this an unforgettable experience.
Katmai National Park Rating:
(Note: Ratings are on a bell curve, which means there are as many 5 star ratings as 1 star ratings. All National Parks are wonderful, which makes this a very strict rating scale)
|Element||Rating (out of 5 Stars)|
Guide to Katmai National Park:
Top Attractions at Katmai National Park:
- Brooks Falls
- Naknek Lake
- Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes
- Brooks River
- Lake Brooks
- Flight Seeing
One Day Visit Plan:
If you only have one day, take the air taxi float plane from King Salmon to Brooks Camp and visit Brooks Falls. During peak season, you will experience crowds and may have to wait to get on the Brooks Falls platform.
We did a three day, two night visit and that was perfect if you do not do any back country hiking. We spent the afternoon and evening of the first day, and the morning of the third day visiting Brooks Falls and the shores of Naknek Lake. The second day, we were on the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes tour. We went to Brooks Falls early and late in the day, before and after the “day trippers”. That was perfect and we hardly had to wait. We could have fished in the river and the lake also.
An alternate plan for the second day would be flight seeing.
Practical Info for Visiting Katmai National Park:
- Plan ahead: Lodging and camping at Brooks Camp is very limited.
- Lodging: Katmailand runs Brooks Camp concessions. A lottery is held for reservations in January of the year before your visit. For example, lottery for 2019 was held in January, 2017.
- Camping: Reservations are accepted for current calendar year starting early January. Make them as early as you can. See this for details. They were between $6 and $12 per person in 2019.
- Pick the right time of the year to go. Katmai is highly seasonal. Although nothing is guaranteed, here is a chart from NPS on when and where to find bears.
- Expensive: The only real way to get to Katmai is via a float plane, mostly from King Salmon although there are day tours from other places. Air transportation is expensive. The cabins are expensive. Food at Brooks Lodge is expensive. Flight seeing is expensive. You get the patterns now, right? Camping and bringing in your own food can cut down the expenses while at Brooks Camp.
- Stay overnight: While it is expensive, staying overnight gives you the time to roam around, watch the bears at different times of the day, enjoy the pristine environment, go fishing, and explore the volcano. Only 114 guests stay overnight so you run into the same people and often swap stories and form friendships.
- Go to Brooks Falls multiple times: Brooks Falls is the highlight of the park. The activity varies a lot from time to time. Go as many times as you can. The three times we went were very different. There were lots of jumping salmon one time, but “only” one every few seconds the second time. The number of bears also varies.
- Go to Brooks Falls early or late in the day: Between 10 am and 5 pm, the day trippers crowd the Brooks Falls platform. Get there before or after the day trippers. After dinner is a good time, since Alaskan summer days are very long.
- The lighting at Brooks Falls is better in the afternoon
- Pay attention at bear school and know what to do. Follow the rules.
- Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes is worth a visit. Flight seeing would be great if you can afford it and can originate from outside the park. The day-long bus trip is fun and gets you down to the valley.
Katmai National Park Facts:
- Size: 3,674,529 acres, ranked 4th
- Visitors: 37,818 in 2018, ranked 55th. Record was 55,172 visitors in 2010
- Peak Month in 2018: 16,676 visitors in July
- Low Month in 2018: 100 visitors
- No fees to enter the park