Ohhhh, Katmai National Park. If you google “bears eating salmon,” you will most definitely get images of grizzly bears at Katmai. Brooks Camp is a huge area for salmon runs, which leads to this special place being home for dozens and dozens of grizzlies…. which of course, means it’s one of the most popular parks to visit. However, this is another park that you have to fly into.
We flew with Katmai Air from Anchorage. The park is directly south of of Lake Clark, however it ended up being cheaper to fly back to Anchorage from Lake Clark and then back out. To get to Brooks Camp, you first fly to King Salmon which is the “hub” for the area. Our experience wasn’t quite as smooth as our time with Lake and Pen Air due to miscommunication on their end; we didn’t go to the right place so our seats got filled and then we got bumped back a few hours to the next flight. It ended up being just fine, but since I had woken up at 5am, I wasn’t super happy at the time.
Anyway, my spirits were lifted almost immediately after the fun seaplane ride and we saw a bear on the beach as we landed! It was a great introduction to what our time would be like at Katmai. When you arrive to the park, you are ushered to the visitor center where you are required to go through a bear orientation. Once you’ve completed it, you have to wear a pin while at the park so the rangers and staff know you went through the bear safety talk. It clearly works because they haven’t had to put a bear down due to human interference since the 80s.
At Brooks, you can either stay at the rustic lodge or at the campground. Being on our budget, we stayed at the campground. To get to it, it’s a small trail that runs parallel to the beach and we were told at orientation to make sure to check the beach for bears before you walk the trail! It’s in an electric fence area and you have to keep all your food and scented items in the food cache and all gear in the gear cache. You are required to eat and cook in the small little picnic areas. The only thing to stay at your site is the tent basically. It was super exhilarating to stay there knowing we might be mere feet away from bears.
It’s pretty neat how the park is set up to allow visitors to experience the bears, but without taking much land away from them. All the main trails are boardwalks that allow the bears to walk under or around them them and we don’t get in their way. My eco loving self also appreciated the fact that the new boardwalks were built with recycled materials <3 Bears respond well to predictable behaviors, and because of that, they are very comfortable with people walking around on these boardwalks.
That first evening, after setting up our site and putting all our gear and food away, we hiked out to the Brooks Falls area around 6pm when everyone else is eating dinner (those that stay at the lodge have their meals provided at certain times). We were completely alone, except for about 10 bears! It was so incredible to be so close and secluded with these 1000 pound monsters, just casually while they caught and ate salmon, growled at each other, and splashed around in the water.
After chilling with the grizzes, we went to the NPS evening program. That evening it was two poet laureates that are traveling to all 61 parks and writing poems. They are publishing a book next year with proceeds going to the NPS. It was pretty neat to hear a few of their poems and learn about their experiences at the different parks.
The next morning, we putzed around, said good morning to some of the bears, and then hiked a little. There aren’t very many established hiking trails here. We hiked up to the first overlook at Dumpling Mountain, but decided not to go much further as it was more like a game trail; we walked with our hands up most of the time since it was waist tall grass that I would karate chop through. I did try to do some of those basic white girl photos in a field of flowers, but really I just looked like an asshole. (Don’t fret, I stayed on trail! Since it wasn’t maintained, they were overtaking the trail, so we had to walk through them).
After that small hike, we did the guided cultural hike with Ranger Kristin and learned the history of the area and it’s people. There are over 900 depressions (archeological areas) in the area. Ranger Kristin was my favorite – she told us we were here at a good time because the bears were getting their “jiggly butts.” I really latched on to that; for my Junior Ranger Booklet, I had to write a story…. Enjoy.
King Jiggle Diggle
There once was a bear named Mr Diggle. When he as a cub, his momma took him to the river to eat delicious salmon so he would get big and strong. Sadly, this was in 2030 and the mean humans had hurt all the ecosystems. Mr Diggle stayed small and all the other bears made fun of him and called him “Little Diggle,” the cruelest of nicknames for a bear. But! Just a couple years later, when all the humans had moved to Mars, the plankton and salmon and everything came back! Mr Diggle quickly became the biggest bear at Katmai, and all the other bears called him “Jiggle Diggle,” the highest compliment for a bear.
That evening was the best moment for me. We were hiking out to Brooks Falls again, but we ended up hanging out closer to the lake because we saw a momma bear with her two cubs! It. Was. Adorable. I think I took over 100 photos of these little cubs. I can see why some dummies get hurt trying to get too close to the cubs…. they really do look like little teddy bears that you would put on your bed and snuggle. I still can’t believe I got to watch them while I was just 10 feet over them on the boardwalk. The next best bear moment for me was when we saw a subadult in the lake playing with a log, just like a puppy would do. It was incredibly precious! We did make it back out to Brooks Falls that evening and saw 13 bears at one time! That was our max while we were there.
Next day, it was foggy so we just hiked to Brooks Lake and back to Brooks Falls to say good bye to all our new furry best friends. I got my junior ranger badge and it’s by far the best one yet! It’s real metal and colorful!
The only thing we didn’t get to experience while at Katmai was the Valley of 10,000 Smokes. It was just too expensive to do (just under $100 per person). It’s 23 miles to get there and no other way to get there (besides run a marathon there and back in one day). Since it was such a large expense just to get to this park, I was a little disappointed that the concessioner that runs the bus tour made that so expensive…. did I mention that the same concessioner runs Katmai Air, the bus tours, and the lodge? It just felt a little greedy on their end.
However, this park was still so so so worth it. It was seriously one of the most incredible experiences of my life to be that close, and comfortable, with some of the largest and scariest animals in the world. Katmai National Park is a place I will never ever forget.
- Make your reservations in advance. July is the busiest month because of the salmon, but a ranger mentioned that our time (early to mid August) was a great time to visit because when there are too many salmon, the bears tend to eat a lot, very quickly, and then wander away to nap for awhile. During our time, the salmon aren’t quite as plentiful so the bears had to stay around a lot longer to feed.
- There is now a water taxi to get from King Salmon to Brooks Falls that we had no idea about. It had been open less than a year when we visited, so when we searched for cheaper options to get to the park, it never came up. To fly with Katmai Air from Anchorage to King Salmon was $249 round trip. To include Brooks Falls, it was $849. We just learned the round trip water taxi from King Salmon to Brooks Falls is about $200. We could have saved $400 per person, which is pretty disappointing. We would have definitely used that money to do the bus tour to the Valley of 10,000 Smokes. Bummer for us, but I hope someone else can use this information now!
- You can either stay at the lodge or campground. If you’re on a budget, I recommend the campground. It was super nice, clean, and peaceful. However, if you don’t want to have to pack any food or worry about cooking, I’d definitely recommend the lodge.