Alaska’s Katmai National Park is an immense, wild place, and there is much to see here, but most of it is undeveloped and challenging to get to. That’s why the destination for most people is Brooks Camp, a little bit of infrastructure and comfort in all that wilderness. The camp, which consists of a lodge, campground, and other facilities, is the most accessible part of Katmai, but “accessible” is a relative term. Even a place as established as Brooks Camp takes effort to reach, and here’s some of what we learned as we planned our trip.
Katmai National Park and Preserve sits on the Alaska Peninsula in southwestern Alaska. The park encompasses a huge area, covering over 4 million acres, but none of it has road access. Visitors arrive either by plane or boat, with the vast majority flying in.
While Katmai contains a remote public-use cabin and a few other lodges, the overwhelming majority of people who visit the park go to Brooks Camp. What started as a fishing camp in the 1950’s is now the epicenter for many Katmai activities, including bear viewing, fishing, hiking, camping, and backcountry exploration.
Most people arrive via float plane. Upon landing on Naknek Lake, everyone is funneled through the visitors center and required to attend a short orientation that includes a 10-minute video followed by a park ranger presentation. Visitors are oriented to the camp, which includes an auditorium, lodge, dining hall, and campground as well as three bear-viewing platforms. Bear etiquette and safety are also reviewed, including what to do during a bear encounter, which they said was a matter of when, not if. At the conclusion of the talk, rangers give each visitor a pin to be worn throughout their stay, the pin signifying that you have attended the orientation.
Many people come just for the day, but Brooks Camp does accommodate longer stays, both in Brooks Lodge and Brooks Campground, so those staying overnight must then check in. Campers staying at Brooks Campground obtain a permit at the park visitors center, while those staying in the lodge will check in at the Katmailand office (Katmailand being the private concessionaire that runs all of the concessions at Brooks Camp). Katmailand also handles the coordination for any guided fishing or photo adventures as well as departing flights for all Brooks Camp guests.
We stayed in the campground, which is located about a 1/3 of a mile north of the visitors center along an isolated, wooded trail. We’ll have more information about Brooks Campground in a later post.
Brooks Lodge consists of 16 rooms; some of them are cabins scattered throughout the camp while others are contained within a small building called “SkyTel.” The lodge also has a main building, the Dining Hall, that, for visitors at least, is the heart of Brooks Camp. It contains a dining room, small bar, and large circular fireplace, and it’s here that many guests, not just those staying in the lodge, will hang out when not out bear watching. The lodge serves three meals a day, buffet-style, in the dining room, and anyone can partake, not just guests. We chose to eat most of our meals here, and they were quite good. Fresh salmon regularly showed up on the supper menu, but there was usually at least one other entree and plenty of other choices as well, including a salad and soup bar, various sides and yummy desserts. The meals weren’t cheap, but that’s not surprising considering how challenging it is to get food and supplies to such a remote location.
The Dining Hall also had a large circular fireplace surrounded by chairs, and this was a great place to relax, take a break from the weather, and recharge your camera batteries! A small bar served wine, beer, and cocktails in the afternoon and evening, and it was nice to get to know the other guests, talking about our bear experiences and sharing photos over drinks.
Next to the Dining Hall sits a restroom and pay shower available for lodge and campground guests. This is the building to which we escaped on our last day in camp. The camp store and Katmailand office are nearby. The store sells souvenirs as well as essentials for those staying in the campground, including stove fuel (you can’t bring fuel on the flight).
The last structure in the camp’s developed area is the fish freezing building. Bear viewing is the main reason people come to Brooks Camp, but Katmai also offers world class fishing. Any fish retained must be placed whole in a plastic bag and brought to the facility for cleaning and freezing. Fishing in bear country presents unique challenges, so please see the links at the end of the post for more information on fishing in Katmai.
The centerpiece of Brooks Camp is its three bear viewing platforms, all of which sit on the Brooks River. When the sockeye salmon reach this river in July and again in September, the bears come as well, and visitors can observe them fishing from these platforms.
Accessing the platforms involves traversing the river at the point where it empties into Naknek Lake. Visitors cross via a floating bridge, which is assembled at the beginning of each tourist season and then dismantled and stored at the end of the season.
Brooks is not a wide river, nor is the bridge very long, but crossing can be more difficult than you’d imagine, and that’s because park rules dictate that humans cannot come within 50 yards of a bear. So if a bear is in the river near the bridge, or taking a nap onshore, or hanging out next to the bridge as they love to do, it will be shut down and no one allowed across until the bears have moved away.
This leads to a phenomenon known as a “bear jam” (i.e., bear traffic jam), which can be frustrating for many visitors (especially if you’re caught on the far side of the river at mealtime and can’t make it back in time for lunch!). The bridge may be shut down anywhere from minutes to hours, so it’s best to plan ahead and eat a snack before crossing the river. More on bear jams and park rules in an upcoming post.
Lower River Platform
After visitors are lucky enough to cross the bridge, they’ll arrive at the Lower River Platform, which provides views upriver and also of the point where Brooks River empties into Naknek Lake.
We loved this platform. Several bear families hung out in the area, and it was fun to watch the cubs play and try their hand at fishing while mama bears, especially the ones with smaller cubs, kept a diligent lookout for large males and more dominant females. And numerous subadults—bears that are no longer with their mothers but have not yet reached adulthood—roamed this area, learning how to navigate the world on their own.
Brooks Falls Trail
To reach the two other viewing platforms, Brooks Falls and Riffles, visitors will head south and then west along a dirt road that leads to the Brooks Falls Trail.
The trail itself is only a little over half a mile long, but walking this path was truly nerve-racking. A sign at the trailhead warns that bears frequently use the trail, which cuts through dense, quiet forest, and the evidence of bear activity was everywhere—there were circles of crushed grass where something large had laid, as well as massive mounds of scat and side paths that cut through the foliage.
We walked the Brooks Falls Trail about a dozen times during our stay but never fully grew comfortable with it. The best sight ever was the entrance to the elevated boardwalk that took us the final yards to the platforms:
Part way up, we reached a heavy door with a secure lock:
Several times, we watched from the boardwalk as bears made their way through the forest below. It was riveting to watch these enormous creatures emerge from and then disappear into the woods without making a sound, but it also served as another chilling reminder that we had just walked through bear territory!
At a certain point the boardwalk splits, with one path leading to the Riffles Platform and the other leading to Brooks Falls.
Brooks Falls Platform
If you’ve seen any photograph, in National Geographic or otherwise, of a brown bear standing at the lip of a waterfall, mouth agape, salmon hurtling through the air toward it, that photo was probably taken at Brooks Falls. A visit to this platform is the reason that people come to Brooks Camp. It’s the experience that every bear watcher wants to have.
What makes Brooks Falls so special? Well, every summer, hundreds of thousands of juicy, nutritious sockeye salmon swim up the tiny Brooks River on the way to their spawning grounds. Unfortunately for them, the falls create a dam of sorts, the result being easy dinner for the bears lucky enough to be here. A dozen, or sometimes way more, bears may congregate here at any given time, tolerating each other (and us) in such close proximity because the fish are so abundant.
Here’s an overview of the falls, with a breakdown of the key areas in which the bears fish:
Brooks Falls is the domain of the big boys, the largest brown bear specimens that inhabit the park. They’re mostly male and mostly enormous, some of them reaching 1000 pounds or more by the end of the season.
Viewers witness some of the most energetic and photogenic bear activity at the falls, including everything from fishing to fighting to playing. Many of the fishing techniques that the bears employ, which we’ll describe in a future post, are on full display here.
The Brooks Falls Platform is the most popular of the three platforms, and with good reason. Watching these dominant bears at work was amazing. But the downside is that you see fewer non-dominant bears here. A sow with cubs would occasionally pass through, but with a few exceptions would not stay very long. Some of the larger subadults would respectfully hang out on the margins, waiting for an opportunity to try the prime fishing spots, but for the most part Brooks Falls was populated by the most dominant bears only.¹ So when we needed a break from the crowds or wanted a little variety, we headed to the Riffles.
The Riffles Platform is a short walk from Brooks Falls along the boardwalk. A riffle is a rocky or shallow part of a river or stream, and the term precisely describes the view from this platform, which overlooks a shallow part of Brooks River downstream from the falls.
We loved the Riffles. It gave us an excellent vantage point to watch bears of all sizes making their way up and downriver.
Less dominant bears and sows with cubs often fished here, and it also offered a prime spot to see the interaction between anglers and bears:
Here’s a video I took of a mama and three cubs walking upriver in front of the Riffles Platform:
It’s important to keep in mind that, when the fish are running, the bears are everywhere, so you don’t need to be on a platform to spot them. We saw bears on the beach; we watched from the riverbank as they fished in the river and lake, and, as I pointed out in the last post, we frequently saw them in camp. And one of our favorite bear watching spots was “the corner,” which is where visitors congregate in camp when hoping to cross the bridge to go to the platforms. We never minded being “stuck” at the corner during a bear jam because there was usually something to see.
Tips for visiting Brooks Camp and Katmai National Park
Accommodations within Brooks Camp and Katmai National Park
Like we mentioned above, if you want to stay in Brooks Camp for more than just a day, you have two options: Brooks Campground, which is run by the National Park Service, and Brooks Lodge, which is managed by the concessionaire Katmailand. All of these accommodations require reservations: for the lodge, go to Katmailand’s website and for the campground, go to Recreation.gov. Everything fills up quickly, and the lodge may be booked a year or more in advance, so you need to start planning early.
The services at Brooks Camp are only available seasonally: Brooks Lodge is open from June 1-September 17 and Brooks Campground, from June 1-October 31. The Brooks Camp Visitors Center is open from June 1-September 18.
Katmai National Park and Preserve, on the other hand, is open year-round (although seasonal restrictions may be in effect for some areas, so check the National Parks Service website for more information). Backcountry travel and camping are allowed throughout most of the park, no permit required. There are numerous opportunities to explore pristine, beautiful locales with plenty of solitude. Keep in mind, however, that this is real Alaskan wilderness with almost no infrastructure or support, so backcountry travelers are encouraged to submit an itinerary with Brooks Camp or the King Salmon Visitor Center (see below). Katmai also has one public-use cabin, Fure’s Cabin, which is available for reservations.
While boats offer access to the Pacific coast of Katmai National Park, the vast majority of people reach the park and Brooks Camp via plane. Many commercial operators offer their services, and visitors can access various locales throughout the park from cities such as Anchorage, Homer, Dillingham, Kodiak, and King Salmon.
Many people travel to Brooks Camp via King Salmon, a tiny town on the Alaska Peninsula that sits on the north bank of the Naknek River. King Salmon is a former World War II military base and therefore, unlike most other towns on the Alaska Peninsula, has a runway long enough to accommodate larger commercial airplanes. We used Alaska Airlines miles to book a flight from Anchorage to King Salmon on PenAir. From there, we paid for a floatplane flight to Brooks Camp with Katmailand. Brooks Camp is about 30 air miles from King Salmon, a short flight that gives you a glimpse of just how beautiful and wild the Alaska Peninsula is.
Best times to go for bear viewing
If you’re going to Brooks Camp for bear watching, the best times to visit are from late June through the end of July and then again in September (see the chart below, top row):
In July, the bears are skinny and hungry and therefore more aggressive; visitors during this time are likely to see more fights and interaction during this time. By September, when we went, these same bears were enormous and placid after a summer spent eating fish and other foods, but we still saw a dramatic fight and sporadic bursts of energy from even the biggest fellows.
June and August are typically slow for bear viewing on the Brooks River because the bears disperse to the salmon-bearing streams and rivers that run throughout the park, but as you can see from the chart above, traffic picks up in other areas of Katmai. About 40-60 brown bears use Brooks River during prime feeding season, but in total the park supports over 2000 bears. That means your odds of seeing bears at Hallo Bay and the other spots listed in the chart is high, but getting there requires significantly more preparation, so see the resources at the end of this post.
As far as humans go, July is by far the busiest month at Brooks Camp; if you visit then you can expect large crowds throughout camp and long waits at the Brooks Falls Platform. Only 40 visitors are allowed on the platform at a time, and when it’s crowded, the park rangers implement a waiting list. Use of tripods is also prohibited during high season. We went in September, and while it was still busy, we didn’t experience overwhelming crowds and only faced a waiting list one time.
Other opportunities for exploration: The Alaska Peninsula
Katmai is not the only destination in the area; in fact, it’s only one of four National Park Service units on the Alaska Peninsula, the others being the Alagnak Wild River, which is part of the Wild and Scenic Rivers System; Lake Clark National Park; and the Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve. Lake Clark is another often-visited bear-viewing locale, while the Aniakchak Monument, which includes the Aniakchak Wild River, is one of the least visited units in the entire National Parks system because of its remoteness and notoriously extreme weather.
In addition to National Park Service units, other protected areas include three national wildlife refuges: Alaska Peninsula, Becharof, and Izembek, as well as the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary, another renowned bear-viewing spot. So, yeah, the Alaska Peninsula is a wild paradise with a lifetime’s worth of places to see!
In addition to the small visitors center at Brooks Camp, the main center for Katmai National Park is in King Salmon. This interagency visitors center, staffed by both U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the National Park Service, offers information for Katmai as well as the wildlife refuges and the other National Park units on the peninsula.
Hiking: In addition to the walk to Brooks Falls, there are a few short trails in and around Brooks Camp, including one to Brooks Lake, as well as one to a prehistoric cultural site, and a trail up Dumpling Mountain leads to an overlook that offers sweeping views of Brooks Camp and Naknek Lake.
A popular destination outside of Brooks Camp is Valley of 10,000 Smokes, the site of the largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century. Katmailand offers day tours to this location, which includes a hike through this barren landscape. We took the tour and will be writing about it in an upcoming post.
Maps: Both the Brooks Camp Visitors Center and the camp store have very limited supplies of park maps, so visit the USGS online store for maps before you arrive.
Weather: Katmai sits on the Alaska Peninsula between the stormy Pacific Ocean and the even grumpier Bering Sea, so yeah, if you go to Katmai, you’re going to experience weather. During the summer, expect anything between 30-80° F, wind, and a good chance of getting wet. We generally experienced cool temperatures, quite a bit of wind, and rain. Definitely bring rain gear, layers that can be added and subtracted as the weather changes, gloves, and head coverings for both the cold and sun. Hey, it’s Alaska.
Accessibility: Katmai is mostly wide-open wilderness, with only 6 miles of designated and maintained hiking trails in its 4 million acres. ADA accessible accommodations and facilities are available, mostly in the developed Brooks Camp area. The trail to all three viewing platforms is wheelchair accessible.
Leave No Trace: Katmai National Park participates in the Leave No Trace program. Information and the core principles of LNT can be found here.
Pets: Pets are not allowed within the developed areas of Brooks Camp. In other areas of the park, pets must be leashed or physically restrained at all times.
¹ We talked about how Brooks Falls was dominated by large male bears, but there were a few exceptions, including this intrepid little female, shown in several photos above, standing in her favorite fishing spot, the lip of the falls. She held her own next to the biggest and baddest of the male bears. We quickly fell in love with her, and we profile her here.
Katmai National Park trip-planning site
Katmailand, the Brooks Camp concessionaire
Recreation.gov, the reservation website used by several federal agencies, including the National Park Service
National Park Service Directory of Commercial Visitors Services for Katmai National Park
Backcountry destinations within Katmai National Park
Fishing in Katmai National Park
Fishing the Brooks River