Where does one sleep when visiting a place that’s packed with brown bears?
In a tent, naturally!
When planning our trip to Brooks Camp, we had two viable choices for accommodations—a cabin in Brooks Lodge or a tent site in Brooks Campground. While the idea of sleeping in a warm cabin with four solid walls certainly had its appeal, we wanted to spend as many days at Brooks Camp as possible, and we enjoy camping, so we opted to stay in the campground.
So yes, across five nights of camping, the only thing between us and a whole bunch of bears was a thin layer of nylon.
But you know what? We slept just fine and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Here’s more about our stay in Brooks Camp Campground.
Brooks Camp Campground
It’s a bit of an exaggeration to say that there was no boundary between us and the bears. In actuality, an electric fence encircles the campground, giving campers some semblance of security.
The Park Service reminded us numerous times, however, that the fence is not bear proof, that it’s a deterrent, not a barrier, but that once the bears have been shocked they’ll likely avoid further contact. Sounds reasonable. But after hearing reports that it has a tepid shock at best, Dale actually touched the fence and found that it wasn’t very strong. So, yeah, that semblance of security? More like an illusion.
Bears crashing through the fence isn’t typically a problem, though, and the campground is generally secure. Our bigger concern was that somebody would fail to latch the gate properly (this happened a few times), but no matter; our stay was uneventful.
The campground is located about a 1/3 of a mile north of the visitors center along an isolated and wooded trail:
It was quite obvious that the bears used this trail as frequently as humans. Here’s first-hand evidence:
Even more graphic is this video, taken on the trail to the campground by a guest on his very first day at Brooks Camp. It was filmed in July 2017 and has since gone viral.
Now imagine walking this trail in the dark, as we did every morning:
Brooks Camp Campground is rustic but has your standard campground amenities, plus a few extras that you’ll often find in bear country, including:
- Two vault toilets
- Three cooking shelters, which are the only places in the campground that you’re allowed to cook and eat
- Two caches, one for food and one for gear
- Fuel storage lockers
- A sink for washing hands and dishes, brushing teeth, and filling water bottles. Campers have access to showers (for a fee) and flush toilets in the restrooms at Brooks Camp Lodge.
There are no designated campsites, but it’s very clear where others have camped.
The campground is not ADA accessible. Access to all facilities except for the vault toilets will require assistance.
Obviously this is not your typical campground, and strict rules are in place to keep the animals wild and the humans safe. These should be adhered to without exception:
The rule for your gear is simple—other than your tent and bedding, gear cannot be left unattended at your campsite. Anything not being used must be stored in the gear cache.
Cooking and food
Campers are allowed to bring food and cook stoves with them, but proper food storage and preparation rules must be followed:
- You are not allowed to carry any food when going to the bear watching platforms. In fact, the only time you’re allowed to have food with you while in Brooks Camp is when you’re transporting it from the visitors center to the campground and vice versa. Otherwise, it must be in a food cache. There are two: one is in the campground and the other, near the visitors center. All food and any other items with a strong smell (e.g., soap, shampoo, lotion) must also be stored inside the cache, along with all trash. The only item you’re allowed to carry with you is water.
- When in the campground, all campers must cook and eat within one of the three cooking shelters.
- Never eat or store food in your camping area or tent. (This should go without saying for camping in general)
- Campfires are only allowed in the fire rings that are next to the cooking shelters.
- Dead and downed wood may be gathered for campfires.
- Cooking is not allowed over the campfires.
- All dishes must be washed in the sink.
- Because you can’t carry fuel on the flights to and from Katmai, you will need to purchase it when you arrive at Brooks Camp. Fuel for most stove types is available at the Katmailand store.
- There is a small fireproof locker next to the gear cache for storing flammables, such as stove fuel. You may want to check this locker before buying fuel, as folks will leave unused fuel behind.
- There are separate lockers for gas (such as propane) and liquid fuel (white gas).
What we brought
We brought two large duffels full of camera gear, binoculars, clothing, food, toiletries, and camping gear (tent, sleeping bags, small cook stove, camp chairs). We also brought daypacks to carry water and supplies with us while bear watching. We were concerned that we brought too much, but when we arrived we saw that some campers had brought way more than us, including boxes, bags, coolers, and large camp stoves.
There are carts available near the camp store if you have a lot of gear to carry.
A warning about bumped luggage
There is one important detail that you should be especially aware of—your baggage may not arrive at the same time you do!
We made the flight from Anchorage to King Salmon without a hitch, but our bags, along with those of several others, got bumped. The small Pen Air commercial plane couldn’t accommodate all of the cargo, and some of it would have to be transported on a later flight.
Apparently this happens regularly, but we didn’t realize it until we were at our gate in the Anchorage airport and we overheard other passengers discussing the fact that some bags would be bumped. Dale talked to the gate attendant, who acknowledged that yes, this was a possibility, but that we shouldn’t worry about it. We only had two bags, after all. But after we arrived in King Salmon, we stood at baggage claim, watching the small conveyor belt go round and round until it was empty. Our bags, with all of our camping gear, was still in Anchorage. At least we weren’t the only ones; we immediately bonded with several other campers, including Tsi-Wei, whose gear had also been left behind.
As we filled out luggage claim forms, the attendants with both PenAir and the floatplane service advised that we go ahead to Brooks Camp, telling us in a very non-committal way that our luggage would probably show up on another flight later that day. So we followed their advice and hopped on a float plane to Brooks Camp.
Turns out that we shouldn’t have done this. We had missed an important detail when doing our pre-trip research—the National Park Service advises on their website that, if you’re staying in the campground, you should remain in King Salmon until your bags arrive, even if that means finding a hotel for the night. When we reached Brooks Camp and went through check-in and bear orientation, the park ranger informed is that the NPS doesn’t loan or rent equipment, the implication being that we might have to sleep on the ground exposed to the elements. Yikes! It gets pretty cold at night! Having said that, it didn’t appear as if any of the park rangers would’ve forced us to sleep outside. Luckily, we didn’t have to find out, as our bags showed up a couple of hours later. Whew.
Reservations and fees
- Brooks Camp Campground has a maximum occupancy of 60 people, with a limit of 6 people per reservation.
- Between May and October, camping is not allowed within 1.5 miles of Brooks Falls except for in the Brooks Camp Campground. Reservations are required for the campground from May through October and must be made prior to arrival.
- If, between these dates, you show up without reservations but there are openings, you may reserve a spot at the Brooks Camp Visitor’s Center. Also, if you plan to come back later in the season for another visit, you can also make reservations here. They only take credit cards for payment.
- If you show up without a reservation and the campground is full (a more likely scenario), then you must camp outside of the 1.5-mile zone around Brooks Falls. This usually means that campers must find a spot along the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes road or hike up Dumpling Mountain.
- Campers are limited to a stay of 7 nights in July and 14 nights per calendar year.
- Reservations can be made at www.recreation.gov or by calling 1-877-444-6777.
- Reservations for the year may be made starting January 5 at 8am Alaska Time.
- In 2017, the fee for camping was $12 per person per night from June 1 through September 17, and $6 per person per night in May and from September 18 through October 31. See the website for updated rates.
- Visitors staying at Brooks Camp Campground must check in at the park visitors center where they are given a permit. Campers must also attend the mandatory bear safety presentation.
Camping in the rest of Katmai National Park
Remember that Brooks Camp is just a tiny part of Katmai National Park, and you can camp almost anywhere in the park, with a few exceptions:
- There are also some seasonal restrictions in certain backcountry areas, such as Hallo Bay Meadows (check this link for the latest info ).
- You can camp anywhere in Brooks Camp in the off-season (October-April), but there are no services or amenities, and National Park staff do not monitor the area during this time. The place is pretty much closed up and shut down.
Our routines while at Brooks Camp revolved around bear watching. Every morning we got up, got ready as quickly as possible, and were at the lodge at 7am for breakfast. We usually returned to the campground mid-day for a snack and then went right back to the platforms. In the late afternoon, we hung out in the lodge while waiting for supper, which usually started serving at 5:00. This gave us the opportunity to socialize and share pictures with our fellow bear watchers, all while drinking beer and wine from the bar! After supper, we returned to bear watching and stayed at the platforms until we were exhausted, and only then did we head back to our tent.
We didn’t spend much time at our campsite, but what we did spend was pleasant. Several times a day we walked the lovely path to and from the campground. Frequently there were bears on the beach close by, and Naknek Lake was beautiful, especially at sun rise and sun set.
We plan to return to Katmai, and we wouldn’t hesitate to stay in the campground again. It was comfortable and perfectly adequate to accommodate the main purpose of our trip—to see as many bears as possible!
We published an extensive post on Brooks Camp in November that includes an overview of infrastructure, bear watching platforms, accommodations, and transportation. Here’s some of the information taken from that 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.
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.
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