Katmai National Park & Preserve

Location: Alaska

Park Tally: 34/59

Orientation: Katmai National Park and Preserve is located in a remote region of southern Alaska. The area is best known for its volcanic activity and North America’s largest population of protected brown bears. The park is accessible via float plane or boat, with King Salmon being the nearest town. The tiny town of King Salmon is accessible via plane from Anchorage (approximately a 1-hour flight).

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Popular accommodation options in the park include Brooks Camp Lodge (June 1 – September 17), Brooks Campground and Grosvenor Lodge. Other privately run lodges in the park are the Battle River Wilderness Retreat, Enchanted Lake Lodge, Katmai Wilderness Lodge, Kulik Lodge and the Royal Wolf Lodge. Visitors also have the option to get out and camp in wilderness areas, though appropriate preparation and safety measures should be taken into consideration in bear country.

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Most iconic view:  Katmai’s population of 2000+ brown bears are the reason most visitors make their way to the park, with many coming from all over the world. Brooks Camp is busy during summer months as bears feast on abundant salmon and awe-struck tourists watch on from viewing platforms. The Brooks Falls Platform is the most popular location in Katmai for observing bears and salmon, where 10+ bears can be within eyesight at any given time. The platform holds up to 40 people at a time and busy days call for 1-hour time limits to allow for fair viewing.

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In 1912 a volcano named Novarupta erupted with a force 10 times that of Mount St. Helens. Ash filled the air, global temperatures cooled, nearby Kodiak Island was forced into darkness, and acid rain burned clothing off lines in British Columbia. Suddenly the Katmai region was world famous and this eruption was one of the reasons the area was designated a National Monument in 1918.

Pyroclastic ash flow from the eruption of Novarupta formed the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, which can now be experienced via tours run by the National Park Service. These affordable day trips are popular with tourists who visit the Brooks Camp area.

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Accessible activity: As mentioned above, Brooks Camp and associated Brooks Falls are popular destinations for visitors to safely get up close and personal with brown bears. The area boasts two bear viewing platforms, trails, bathrooms, a dining room, lodging, and campground. Brooks Camp can be visited on a day-trip, though many choose to stay in the area for longer. Rangers brief visitors on their arrival regarding proper bear etiquette and safety, including rules about consumption and storage of food and belongings. Visitors cannot bring food, gum or flavored drinks out of the confines of the lodge/campground, thus need to be prepared for potentially longer gaps between eating compared to usual. The platforms and bridge crossings can also result in “bear jams”, resulting in increased standing and waiting times to get back to camp.

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For the adventurous: Many anglers come to Katmai for premium fishing opportunities and the chance to witness bears when out in the wild. Again, appropriate safety measures and permits need to be taken into consideration in fishing and bear country. Another off-the-beaten-path option is to get out camping in the backcountry of the Valley of the Ten Thousand Smokes. The Baked Mountain Huts are an option for those wanting to stay in the backcountry but prefer the option of a primitive shelter.

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Best photo opportunities: The brown bears are without a doubt the most photogenic feature of Katmai National Park and Preserve. Brooks Falls platform is a prime location for capturing bears feasting on salmon and marking their territory. We also photographed numerous sows and their cubs in nearby sections of the river. It is best to get out early in the morning before the day-trippers arrive and stay out as late in the day as possible for softer golden light.

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Quick facts

  • Katmai became a National Monument in 1918 and later designated a National Park and Preserve in 1980.
  • The park and preserve covers 4,093,077 acres, being roughly the size of Wales. Most of this land is designated wilderness area in the national park, where all hunting is banned.
  • The highest elevation in the park is 7,606-feet on Mount Dennison.
  • Though most famous for its bears, Katmai is home to other mammal species such as moose, wolf, coyote, beaver, lynx, wolverine, river otter, mink. Marine mammals include harbor seal, sea lion, sea otter, beluga whale, orca, and gray whale.
  • Bear watching in Katmai is best in July when the sockeye salmon spawn.
  • Before the 1912 Novarupta eruption, there were four year-round villages in what is now Katmai National Park and Preserve. Due to heavy ash fall, the inhabitants of Savonoski, Kaguyak (Douglas), Kukak, and Katmai villages left and resettled elsewhere along the Alaska Peninsula.
  • In 2016 there were 37,818 recorded visitors in Katmai National Park and Preserve.

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