Katmai National Park: The Bear Viewing Capitol of the World

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Welcome to Katmai National Park, AKA the Jurassic Park of bears. Located in south central Alaska, Katmai National Park is home to the one of the largest concentrations of brown bears in the world. 2,200 brown bears are estimated to be in the park. July through September, these magnificent creatures flock to Brooks Falls where they feast on salmon headed upstream to spawn. Normally, bears don’t tolerate being in such proximity to each other, however the abundance of food at Brooks Falls creates a unique situation. According to one ranger, the recent record was sixty bears in the river area at once! Visiting Katmai National Park presents a lot of logistics and is not cheap but in our opinion, it’s totally worth it. Be sure to read on for a travel hacking tip to save up to $1200 on your trip to Katmai. Learn everything you need to know about Katmai National Park, including how to get there, where to stay, what to do, and more!

When is the best time to visit Katmai National Park?

The best time to visit is in late June and early July when the salmon are running upstream. Salmon swim upstream and over the falls to make it to their spawning grounds. When the salmon are running, bears flock to the river for an all you can eat salmon sushi buffet! Depending on the year, sometimes salmon are running into the beginning of August. Once they reach their spawning grounds, there is a lull in bear activity at the falls. In September, when the salmon die off, bears return to the river for easy fishing and more feasting. This makes September the second best time to visit.

Brown bear fishing the lip in Katmai National Park

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Bear Safety

Katmai National Park is a unique place that allows humans and brown bears to be in close proximity to one another in a relatively safe manner. In all the years of people visiting Brooks Falls there have been no significant injuries. This is due to strict rules to ensure that bears don’t associate humans with food. All visitors to Katmai National Park are required to attend Bear Orientation. Store all food in designated food caches. Never run from a bear. Always give bears 50 yards of space. If a bear is on a trail, back off the trail and do not attempt to pass. “Bear jams” do occur where you can be held up on trail waiting for a bear to pass.

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Where to See Bears

There are several locations within Katmai National Park where you can view bears. The most popular and easiest location to access is Brooks Falls. Depending on the time of year however, you may choose to visit another location to see more bears.

How to Get to Katmai National Park 

Katmai National Park Map

From Anchorage

There are no roads that lead to Katmai National Park so getting there presents some logistical challenges. The first option is flying on a commercial flight to King Salmon through Alaska Air or Ravn Alaska. Once you are in King Salmon you can take a ferry or a float plane to Katmai. Ferries are booked through Katmai Water Taxi and depart every two hours from 7 AM-5 PM. Float Planes can be booked through Katmai Air. If you’re looking for a more seamless process, you can book with Katmai Air from Anchorage to King Salmon to Brooks Camp for $1150 roundtrip. Commercial flights through Alaska Air and Ravn Alaska from Anchorage are $500-$600 roundtrip, the ferry is $330, while the float plane is $350. This means your total cost for transportation to and from Anchorage will cost you $830-$1150.

One consideration traveling through King Salmon is there are sometimes weather conditions that delay transit from King Salmon to Katmai, namely fog and wind. Delays are less likely to occur with the ferry. If you choose to go this route, we would recommend travel insurance. One of the mornings we were there, all ferries and float planes from King Salmon were canceled due to fog. While it made for lighter crowds for us, we can’t imagine how frustrating it was for the people stuck in King Salmon.

Travel Hacking Tip

If you are traveling to Katmai from somewhere other than Anchorage, you can fly direct to King Salmon from most places where Alaska Airlines flies in the continental US, fares range from $800-$1200. If Katmai is on your bucket list but a bit out of budget, you can look into the Alaska Airlines credit card. You can use your bonus points or the annual companion fare to save between $800-$1200 on the total cost of your trip.

From Homer

From Homer there are several companies that offer float plane trips directly to Katmai. This flight takes 1.5- 2 hours. If you are planning on a day trip, we would recommend Emerald Air Service as they provide 5 hours on the ground in Katmai, the most of any day trip. Their trips run at $1095. If you are planning to camp or stay at the lodge, flights can be a little more complicated. One option is to call around and see if any airlines have “deadhead” seats on day trips. This will be a more expensive option because you are paying for your empty seat on the plane’s return journey. Another option is to charter a flight. If you are in a group of four, this will be the cheapest way. Steller Air and Kachemak Air Service are the two airlines we used to charter our outgoing and return flights. Steller Air is $1400 one way for four seats while Kachemak Air Service is $1570. Both pilots were fantastic and helped link us up with other couples to split the plane with. 

Couple in front of a float plane in Katmai National Park

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Where to Stay at Brooks Falls

You can take a day trip to Brooks Falls but if you’re going to make the effort to get out there, we would recommend staying overnight, and if you can, two nights! There are three options depending on your budget and advance planning.

Brooks Lodge

Brooks Lodge will be your most comfortable but priciest option. Rooms include two sets of bunk beds accommodating four guests. The cost for the room is $850. Meals at the lodge are not included. The lodge only has 16 rooms so demand is high. For this reason, a lottery is held each year for rooms at the lodge. December 1-December 31st, applications are accepted for two summers later. If you want to visit in 2024, you will want to apply in December of 2022. Only one person per group is able to apply, additional applications will be thrown out. Between January 6th and February 5th, winners are contacted. A 50% deposit is due within 7 days of being contacted to secure a room. If you want to visit in July, which is prime time for bear viewing, you are limited to three nights at the lodge. If you don’t win, or haven’t planned enough in advance, it doesn’t hurt to call the lodge to see if there have been cancellations. Additionally, you can check on the Bears of Brooks Falls, Alaska Facebook group to see if anyone is looking for an extra person in their room at the lodge. 

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Brooks Camp

If the $850 price tag is a bit steep for you, or if you don’t win the lottery, camping is your only other option. We stayed at Brooks Camp and absolutely loved our experience. Reservations can be made at recreation.gov and cost $12 per person during peak season plus a $6 reservation fee. Brooks Camp is open May 1-Oct 31 each year. Services including the visitor center and water access end September 17th. Reservations open January 5th for the following summer and book up quickly. During peak season, you are limited to 7 consecutive nights with a total of 14 nights allowed per season. If you haven’t planned in advance, always check for cancellations! We were able to find reservations for three consecutive nights in the middle of July with 72 hours notice. If you see open reservations, we recommend snagging them. If you need to cancel, you only lose out on the $6 reservation fee.

Brooks Camp has limited services, there are pit toilets and potable water. You can charge electronics at Brooks Lodge and pay for a shower token for $7 at the lodge as well. The camp is fenced in to protect from bears however there have been breaches in the past where a bear has made it into camp! Rangers ask you to only keep your tent and sleeping gear at your site. There is a gear cache for any additional equipment, as well as a separate food cache for your meals and cooking supplies. There are three shelters to cook and eat under, under no circumstances should you eat or cook at your campsite. The cooking shelters have fire pits and free wood and make for a fun communal area to meet fellow campers. For more information about the campground you can visit the National Park Service website.

Photo: NPS

Backcountry Camping

If you can’t score a room at the lodge or a camping permit for Brooks Camp, your next option is backcountry camping. There are no permits required and this option is free and does not require reservations. You are able to camp anywhere outside the 1.5 mile radius of Brooks Camp Developed Area. Two good options are up Dumpling Mountain and down The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes road. You are exposed and in bear country so it is recommended, though not necessary, to have a bear fence. It is also recommended to leave your food and cooking supplies in the cache at Brooks Camp. There are bear canisters available for rental at the rangers station. 

What to Eat

Brooks Lodge

Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are served at Brooks Lodge in a buffet style, you can eat there without being a guest at the lodge. Prices are $17 for breakfast, $24 for lunch, and $40 for dinner. We packed all our meals so we cannot speak for the quality of food, but we heard good things! There is also a full service bar open afternoons and evenings, this is a great way to pass the time around the fire and let your electronics charge. 

Camping Meals

We opted to pack camping meals. This is the cheapest route and allows you to visit the falls during some of the lightest times. During the morning and the evening, the only people there are those in the campgrounds, and those staying at the lodge. During mealtimes at the lodge are some of the least busy times at the viewing platforms! Some of our favorite hiker meals are Peak ReFuel and Mountain House. We also packed salmon packets and crackers, oatmeal, instant coffee, and granola bars. 

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What to Pack for Katmai National Park

Rain Coat and Rain Pants– Skies are only clear 20% of the summer in Katmai National Park and light rain can last for days. Make sure you’re prepared for whatever weather so you’re not stuck inside. There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad gear!

Warm Clothes– temperatures average in the 50s and 60s in the summer. You want to make sure you have several layers to keep warm. We packed base layers, thick pants, a sweatshirt, puffy jackets, wool socks, and rain gear.

Rain Boots or Hiking Boots– You’ll want to make sure you have sturdy and comfortable shoes for hiking and standing. If you have comfortable rain boots, these are ideal, nobody likes wet shoes!

Camping Gear– if you’re staying at Brooks Camp or in the backcountry, camping gear is essential. Be sure to have your tent, sleeping pad, and sleeping bag.

Cooking Gear– to save money, we recommend planning to cook your meals. You’ll want lightweight cooking gear. This camp stove has been our trusty companion. Be sure to pack your fuel and mess kit as well.

Foodsee above for the food we packed.

Bear Spray– for the most part within the Brooks Camp Developed Area you are fairly bear safe. Many people chose not to bring bear spray as it is not allowed on commercial airlines. If you are flying via floatplane, we would recommend keeping it on hand. Our pilot explained that you will likely never have to use it, however people with bear spray are more likely to stand their ground near a bear than run. Running from a bear is the last thing you want to do!

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Camera Gear– Our camera base is the Canon EOSR, we absolutely love the pictures in produces. The majority of our images from Katmai were shot using a 600 mm prime lens. We have been so happy with the quality of this lens for the price. Shockingly, we got so close to the bears that we actually found ourselves wishing we had a closer range. Our next investment will likely be a Tamron or Sigma 150-600 mm.

Rain Cover for Camera– with frequent rain in Katmai, a rain cover to protect your camera gear is a must!

Monopod– Tripods are not allowed on the viewing platforms but monopods are. Alternatively you can close the legs of your tripod and use it as a monopod. This is the tripod we’ve used for years which has a detachable monopod. It has been lightweight and reliable but we’ve had our eye on upgrading to the Peak Design system.

SD cards– You’ll want to make sure you have lots of storage space for all the bear pictures you take! For reference, we took 72 GB of footage in our 3 days there. We wouldn’t recommend going there with less than 128 GB of storage. This SD card is a great option if you’re looking to increase your storage space.

Batteries– if you have extra batteries for any of your devices, make sure they’re all charged and packed in your bags!

Power Bank– You can charge batteries at the lodge but who wants to waste a ton of time there when there’s bears to see?! We recommend carrying a power bank with you.

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What to Do Around Katmai National Park

Brooks Falls Viewing Platform

Viewing the bears from the Brooks Falls Viewing platform is the highlight of most people’s trip. The platform is a 1.5 mile hike with no elevation gain from the visitor center. During the hike, there is about a mile where you are walking outside of bear fences! Always remember bear safety, especially on this walk. The platform is open from 7 AM-10 PM to give some of the more shy bears a chance to feed without human presence. If you are staying overnight, we recommend visiting in the morning and the evening when crowds are lower. The busiest time on the platform is 10 AM-4 PM when day trips are visiting. The platform is limited to 40 people at a time and sometimes the waitlist can be up to two hours! If you are there when there is a waitlist, a ranger will take down your name and you are able to go view the bears from the Rifles Platform. 

Six Bears fishing the lip at Katmai National Park at Brooks Falls

Riffles Platform

The Riffles platform is just a little further down the river from the falls, you can still see the falls from a short distance. This was where we saw the most cubs and younger bears. Mothers are very protective of their cubs so they will stay away from heavily populated bear areas. Male cubs will attempt to kill cubs given the chance to put the mother back in heat. We actually loved hanging out here with fewer crowds and a different perspective on the bears. On our first night, we counted 38 bears within eyesight from this spot!

Nineteen bears at Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park

Lower River Platform

The Lower River Platform is just a short walk from the lodge and is on your way to the Brooks Falls Viewing Platform. We enjoyed the slower pace of the bears here. They would snorkel and dive for fresh salmon and pick up scraps downstream from the falls. This was where we saw “Quad Mom,” a mother bear with her four cubs! It’s incredibly rare for a mother to have four cubs survive so this was a very special experience. 

Bear 94 or Quad Mom with her four cubs

Hike Dumpling Mountain

Hiking Dumpling Mountain will give you beautiful views of the surrounding landscape. It is 1.5 miles with 800 feet of elevation gain to the viewpoint, you can hike to the top with some bushwhacking. 

Related post: 16 Best Day Hikes in the United States

Fishing

Fly fishing in the Brooks River is allowed with a permit. The Brooks River Corridor Permit is good for seven days for a group size of six. Fishing within Brooks River is catch and release. Obtaining a River Corridor Permit is also great for photographers to get a different perspective on the bears than the viewing platforms. If you feel uncomfortable fishing or photographing alone, you can hire a guide through the lodge. Always maintain 50 yards between you and a bear. If a bear starts coming closer, you are required to remove your line from the water.  

Three brown bear with anglers in Brooks River at Katmai National Park

Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes

In 1912, the Novarupta Volcano erupted creating what is now called The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. The eruption was 10 times the strength of Mt. Saint Helens, volcanic deposits covered 40 square miles and 700 feet deep! This explosion is actually what helped Katmai achieve its National Park status. In 1918 Katmai was named a preserve, and in 1980, it was named a National Park.

Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes Katmai National Park

Photo: KatmaiLand

By Bus

Bus tours depart from the lodge at 9 AM and return at 4 PM each day. The ranger led trip includes a 23 mile drive to the Overlook Cabin, an optional hike to the valley floor to view the ash, and a sack lunch if you choose. The cost is $88 for the bus tour and $96 with a sack lunch included. You can also pay $51 for a one way ticket and hike out! 

Flight Seeing

A one hour flightseeing tour of The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes is booked through the lodge. The cost is $260 per person, there is a minimum of two people per flight. We opted to focus on the bears but if you’re curious, check out Bound For Nowhere’s video at 20:20 for their experience. 

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How to View the Bears for Free

For those who can’t make the trek, the National Park Service makes it easy to watch the bears from home. There are live cams of many areas of the park that you can watch 24/7. The comment section is incredibly entertaining to watch. Another way to learn about the bears is to download The Bears of Brooks River ebook. The bears that return each year are heavily monitored and acquire numbers and nicknames to identify them. This 80+ page book gives you information and history about the bears that have been monitored. If you watch for a season, be sure to fill out your bracket for Fat Bear Week. This contest takes place each year in a March Madness bracket style. Last year’s winner was Otis, who will take the crown this year?!

Well there you have it, the comprehensive guide to visiting Katmai National Park. We wish you safe travels and many bear sightings! Now get out there and Create Your Own Roadshow!

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Kathy A Dreier

    A couple of corrections are needed for the lodging options at Brooks . For the lodge, lottery drawing is for the following year from the actual drawing, so the drawing for 2023 has already been completed. The application period that ends this December is for 2024 reservations. For the campground, it is actually open until October 31; the rest of the park facilities do close in mid September, but the campground stays open, although the water is turned off, and I believe the electric fence as well. It wouldn’t be easy to get there that late, but it is possible.

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