Katmai National Park and Preserve: The Complete Guide

Brown Bear and Two Cubs against a Forest and Mountain Backdrop at Katmai National Park, Alaska
sekarb / Getty Images
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Katmai National Park and Preserve

Address
King Salmon, AK 99613, USA
Phone +1 907-246-3305

On a peninsula in southern Alaska lies Katmai National Park and Preserve, a vast wilderness encompassing over four million acres of sweeping valleys, rivers, mountains, and volcanoes. It was in 1918, after the largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century (Novarupta, in 1912), that Katmai was first established as a National Monument to preserve the region. Since then, the park has earned a reputation as one of the best places in the world to see brown bears in the wild; throughout the summer months, visitors arrive by float plane to hike, fish, and boat alongside North America’s largest land predator. Here's how to plan your trip to one of the continent’s most pristine nature areas. 

Things to Do

Wildlife viewing is the primary reason why most people make the journey to Katmai. In particular, they come for close encounters with the park’s brown bears, which can be seen fishing for sockeye salmon from elevated viewing hides during the June to September peak season. Other wildlife abounds, too, from predators like wolves, lynx, and red foxes to herbivores such as moose and caribou. The boreal forest is a haven for pine martens and red squirrels, while sea otters and sea lions frequent the coast and beavers inhabit the park’s remote lakes. For birders, Katmai is a particularly rewarding destination, with top sightings ranging from bald eagles to great horned owls. 

The landscape itself is another major attraction. The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes provides dramatic evidence of Novarupta’s cataclysmic eruption, and is accessed via an eight-hour, roundtrip bus journey from Brooks Camp. Participants also have the opportunity to join a 3-mile guided hike down into the valley, where ash and pumice still make up the valley floor. Other methods of sightseeing include scenic flights (available via charter from Brooks Camp, King Salmon, Homer, and Kodiak) and boating adventures. All of the park’s many lakes and hundreds of miles of streams and rivers are open to boaters, including Naknek Lake (the largest lake entirely contained within any American national park) and the 80-mile Savonoski Loop (popular for canoeing and kayaking). 

Hunting is permitted in the national preserve only, with the proper permits required by Alaskan state law.

Four brown bears fishing for salmon at Brooks Falls, Katmai National Park

by Mike Lyvers / Getty Images

Bear Viewing 

Every year, the rivers of Katmai National Park are home to one of the largest salmon runs in the world. Between June and July, more than a million sockeye salmon migrate from Bristol Bay into park waters, on a pilgrimage back to the gravel headwaters in which they were born. Here, they spawn the next generation before dying. This influx of protein-rich food is a siren call to the park’s brown bears, who must build up adequate fat stores in the summer months if they are to survive their winter hibernation. There are approximately 2,200 brown bears in Katmai National Park, making up one of the densest populations in the world. 

Brooks Camp (the main center of activity within the park) offers excellent opportunities for watching the bears in their natural habitat from June to September, with July and September considered the optimal months to visit. Viewing is mainly done from four elevated viewing platforms located on the Brooks River, although encounters on the camp’s trails are common. The platform at Brooks Falls is best for watching groups of adult bears catching salmon as they leap up the falls, while the two platforms at the mouth of the Brooks River are best for seeing mother bears and their cubs. The park’s Pacific Coast is much less accessible, but also offers spectacular bear-viewing opportunities. 

Best Hikes & Trails 

The vast majority of the park is completely untamed wilderness, with less than 6 miles of maintained hiking trails available. All of these are located in the Brooks Camp area—here are three of the best: 

  • Brooks Falls Trail: Easily the most popular trail in the entire park, this path takes hikers through the boreal forest to the two elevated bear-viewing platforms at Brooks Falls. Bear encounters are common, and hikers must be prepared to step off the path to allow them to pass safely. The trail is 1.2 miles each way. 
  • Cultural Site Trail: In addition to its incredible natural heritage, Katmai National Park also boasts over 9,000 years of human history. Some of it is visible on this trail, which takes hikers through several prehistoric camps before reaching a recreation of a traditional semi-subterranean native dwelling. It is 1 mile each way. 
  • Dumpling Mountain Trail: A more challenging hike, this trail climbs 800 feet to an overlook that affords spectacular views of Brooks River, Lake Brooks, and Naknek Lake. It passes through a range of habitats, including boreal forest and alpine tundra, and there is an option to continue for another 2.5 miles to the summit of Dumpling Mountain. The trail to the overlook is 1.5 miles.

Backcountry hiking and camping is permitted at no extra charge throughout the rest of the park, offering a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to immerse oneself in unspoiled nature. However, hikers need to be fit, self-sufficient, and very well prepared. This includes following park guidelines for hiking through bear country in extreme weather conditions. There are no formal campsites or food caches in the backcountry. 

Men fishing at sunset, Katmai National Park, Alaska, USA
Beck Photography / Getty Images

Fishing

The national park is a popular destination for sport fishermen, who come to target a variety of sought-after species: five types of Pacific salmon, rainbow trout, lake trout, Dolly Varden, Arctic grayling, and Arctic char. All fishermen must have a valid Alaska fishing license and follow park rules—including the use of artificial lures only and limiting fly fishing from Lake Brooks to the Brooks River. It is possible to fish independently or with a commercial guide service. Six operators have permission to offer jet boat-accessed fishing on the world-famous American Creek, a fishery in the center of the park that can only be reached by boat. 

Fishermen should be aware that the sound of struggling fish is a natural attractant to bears. Park rules dictate that you should never continue to fish near a bear once it is spotted, and you must release the fish/cut the line as soon as a bear approaches. 

Where to Camp 

There is only one National Parks Service campground in Katmai: Brooks Camp. Located at the main activity and visitor center, it has a maximum capacity of 60 people rather than designated camp sites. Spaces fill up within a few hours of the annual reservation period opening, usually in early January. The campsite is protected by an electrified fence and offers basic amenities: three covered cooking shelters with picnic tables and fire rings, potable water, vault toilets, and a food storage cache in which all food must be kept to deter bears. Campers must bring all food with them, unless they plan on dining at nearby Brooks Lodge. 

Where to Stay Nearby

Brooks Lodge is the only accommodation option within walking distance of Brooks Falls, and the only one on park land. Originally built as a fishing camp in 1950, it consists of a main lodge with a great room and dining area, plus 16 chalets with two sets of bunk beds. Bear-viewing, sport fishing, and sightseeing tours are all offered at the lodge, while roundtrip flights from Anchorage or King Salmon can be included in your package. The lodge is only open from early June to mid-September. 

Accommodation at Brooks Camp and Brooks Lodge is difficult to book because it fills up so quickly. There are alternatives, though, including several lodges built on private land within the borders of the national park. Top choices include Katmai Wilderness Lodge (an eco-friendly lodge with en-suite bathrooms, a traditional Alaskan dining room, and a multi-level, wildlife-viewing deck), Kulik Lodge, and Royal Wolf Lodge. The latter two are dedicated sport fishing lodges, located on the Kulik River and Nonvianuk Lake respectively. Both have a main lodge, dining room, and individual chalets with private bathrooms.

Floatplane on Battle Lake,Katmai National Park,Alaska,USA
brytta / Getty Images

How to Get There

Katmai National Park is located on the Alaska Peninsula, approximately 290 miles southwest of Anchorage. It isn’t possible to drive there, however; instead, visitors either arrive by boat or float plane. Scheduled flights depart from Anchorage to King Salmon every day. From there, commercial float planes are available to Brooks Camp on a daily basis throughout the June to September season. Outside these months, visitors will need to book a charter plane or boat to reach the National Park. 

Accessibility 

The extreme wilderness of Katmai National Park means that its accessibility is limited, especially outside the Brooks Camp area. In the camp, though, all public buildings are ADA accessible, including the bathroom facilities and bear-viewing platforms. Note that trails to the platforms can be difficult to navigate with a wheelchair due to their rough and muddy state in wet weather. The park brochure is available in audio, text, and braille versions. 

Tips for Your Visit 

  • The park is open all year round, although most people visit from June to September when the weather, bear sightings, and transportation options are best. 
  • There is no entrance fee for visitors to Katmai National Park. 
  • All visitors should listen carefully to the bear safety talk given during orientation, and must abide by park rules and regulations at all times. This includes keeping food in a secured building or bear-resistant container, and never intentionally getting within 50 yards of a bear. 
  • The park has limited amenities, but there is a visitor center with ranger programs hosted from June 1 to September 17. You'll also find a small number of camping and fishing supplies sold at Brooks Lodge. 
  • Even in the summer, the weather can be inhospitable, with Katmai National Park experiencing average lows of 44 degrees F and frequent strong winds. Come prepared for all weather: Pack adequate warm and waterproof clothing, enclosed hiking shoes or boots, and sun protection. 
  • Bring repellent for mosquitoes and blackflies, which are prevalent in the summer, especially in the backcountry.
Article Sources
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  1. National Park Service. "History - Katmai." Retrieved on September 13, 2021.

  2. National Park Service. "Boating." Retrieved on September 13, 2021.

  3. National Park Service. "Hunting." Retrieved on September 13, 2021.

  4. National Park Service. "Bear Watching." Retrieved on September 13, 2021.

  5. National Park Service. "Fishing." Retrieved on September 13, 2021.

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Katmai National Park and Preserve: The Complete Guide