Best time to visit: Summer (salmon runs peak in July)
Ideal For: Brown Bear viewing
Where to stay: Brooks Camp
Katmai is the best place in the world to see wild brown bears. There are an estimated 2,200 of them in the park, compared to 300 in Denali and 500 in Yellowstone. They are some of the largest bears on Earth, thanks to abundant salmon runs and total isolation from human development. The most common place to see the bears is at Brooks Falls, but more adventurous visitors can hire backcountry guides and go deeper into the park. Salmon runs peak in July, but other summer months may still offer good bear viewing.
What to Expect from Alaska:
I spent summer 2018 in Alaska, working for Talkeetna Air Taxi. Below is some basic advice for a trip in Alaska:
Drive times are brutally long. Expect traffic delays throughout the state due to road construction during summer.
Always be prepared for rain. Weather patterns change quickly and forecasts are often wrong even one day in advance.
Lodging is expensive and generally not luxurious. Campgrounds are abundant and far more affordable.
Don’t try to see too much. If something in Alaska is a must-see for you, budget extra days in that area and consider skipping attractions that aren’t nearby.
Katmai - Brooks Falls
Brooks Falls is a world-famous waterfall where bears feed on salmon. There is a platform right next to the waterfall which is open to visitors in 30 minute increments. You can add your name to the list to re-enter the platform as many times as you have time for.
The lower viewing platform is about 100 meters from the falls - you can wait here for your turn on the main platform. There are often bears in the area, feeding on the scraps floating down from the dominant bears upstream.
The waterfall is about a miles hike from Brooks Camp. It is possible that you will encounter a bear on the trail. All visitors go through a bear safety orientation which provides advice on how to behave, and it’s worth noting that the bears here are well fed and accustomed to seeing people. Still, it doesn’t hurt to walk with others en route to the falls.
Where to Stay:
Several tour companies offer single day trips to Katmai from Anchorage and Homer. These trips do not stay overnight, so you only have 2-3 hours at Brooks Falls. I did this trip in July and it was the highlight of my summer in Alaska. If you really enjoy wildlife viewing, you should consider staying overnight.
There is a rustic lodge at Brooks Camp which can be reserved online in advance here. There is also a campground at Brooks Camp which can be reserved online here. Book early if you plan to visit in July.
Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes - a shuttle that takes visitors here from Brooks Camp, but you won’t have time to do it unless you are staying overnight. Read more about it on the park’s website here.
Backcountry tours - There are several tour companies that run backcountry trips in Katmai to more remote areas. I imagine they would be awesome, although expensive.