Bear Watching at Katmai National Park

Photo courtesy Katmai NPS, CC BY-2.0

Alaska is home to eight spectacular national parks, preserving some of North America’s wildest and most remote areas. Each one is unique, and the state’s Katmai National Park and Preserve is one of its most distinctive. Located nearly 300 miles southwest of Anchorage across Cook Inlet, it incorporates mountain terrain as well as coastal wildlands, lakes and rivers that are home to a population of grizzlies.

The key word for most people when it comes to Katmai is “grizzlies.” Travelers flock to the park’s Brooks Camp on Naknek Lake throughout the summer season to watch the bears catch salmon attempting their leap up Brooks Falls to spawn upstream. The salmon are plentiful and so are the bears.

Safety is no joke for park rangers or visitors at Brooks Camp. Before visitors are allowed onto the trail to the bear-viewing platforms, they are briefed in a session on bear safety. All foodstuffs, including gum and mints, must be stored in a locker at the visitor center before stepping foot on the trail. It is entirely possible a bear encounter could occur on the trail, so visitors are schooled on behaviors and body language least likely to provoke the animal. The program seems to be effective, based on the number  of visitors to Brooks Camp and the excellent safety record.

Once at the viewing platform, bear watchers have a front row seat at a safe distance for as long as they like. At the peak of the season, it can get crowded with people jockeying for the best spot.

Brooks Lodge at Brooks Camp has cabins and a restaurant and lounge; while it’s pricey, it’s an ideal place to hang out for a few days of bucket-list bear watching. Ranger-guided programs in the park can enhance the experience. Programs range from an all-day tour to the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, a vast ash-covered landscape left after an early-20th-century volcanic eruption, to an easy two-hour hike exploring the area’s cultural history going back thousands of years. Evening educational programs are also available.

To reserve lodging at Brooks Lodge, visit katmailand.com. Camping is available at Brooks Camp by reservation, and the campground is protected with an electric bear fence; reserve a campsite and learn more about Katmai National Park and Preserve at nps.gov/katm.

To get to Katmai National Park, most people take a commercial flight from Anchorage to King Salmon, and then transfer to the water taxi to Brooks Camp. The water taxi leaves hourly and takes 35 minutes, making a Katmai National Park and Preserve bear-watching adventure doable in a day with no need to stay overnight at Brooks Camp. Lodging is available in King Salmon for those who chose to overnight there. Reserve the water taxi at katmaiwatertaxi.com.