Most of the land of the Alaska Peninsula, pointing out to the Aleutian Archipelago, is federally protected as "wilderness" or "refuge," centering on Katmai National Park. The park, pronounced "cat-my," lies just west of Kodiak Island, across the storm-infested Shelikof Strait. Bear and salmon are the main attractions.
Brooks Camp, with a campground and lodge within Katmai, is probably the most comfortable place for foolproof bear viewing in Alaska during peak season. Bears congregate thickly at the falls on the Brooks River when red salmon try to pass up the falls at the beginning of July. At times, you can sit back on a deck and watch 900-pound brown bears walk by, going about their business of devouring the fish that contribute to their awesome size. (A brown bear is the genetic twin of the grizzly, but generally larger due to its coastal diet of salmon.)
Staying the night will require you to reserve a place in the 16-space campground the previous winter or stay in the pricey lodge, where rooms can book up more than a year ahead for the bear season. You can go for a day trip with less planning if you can stand to pay around $650 round-trip airfare from Anchorage for 2 or 3 hours at the camp.
Katmai was set aside in 1918 for reasons unrelated to bears. The area had exploded into world consciousness in 1912 with the most destructive volcanic eruption to shake the Earth in 3,400 years. When Katmai's Novarupta blew, it released 10 times more energy than the Mount St. Helens eruption of 1980 and displaced twice as much matter as 1883's Krakatoa. The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, the vast wasteland created by the blast, belched steam for decades after. Today Novarupta is dormant and the steam is gone, but the area is still a barren moonscape, making a fascinating day tour or hiking trip.
Most people fly to Katmai from Anchorage by way of the village of King Salmon, which lies just west of the park. Alaska Airlines (tel. 800/252-7522; www.alaskaair.com) flies to King Salmon daily in the summer, charging around $450 round-trip.
Air taxis carry visitors the last leg from King Salmon to Brooks Camp for a fare of around $180 round-trip. Katmai Air, operated by park concessionaire Katmailand (tel. 800/544-0551 or 907/243-5448; www.katmaiair.com), offers these flights, with round-trip airfare packages from Anchorage that save some money and simplify planning, $629 for a day trip.
As an alternative to Brooks Camp, more and more visitors are exploring the supremely rugged wilderness on the east side of the park from the beaches along Shelikof Strait. Air-taxi operators make drop-offs and provide bear-viewing day trips from Homer or Kodiak. In a park with more than 2,000 resident brown bears (the world's largest protected population), it's easy for pilots to find them digging clams on the tidal marshes, then land on floats for a good look.
For advance planning, contact Katmai National Park Headquarters at P.O. Box 7, King Salmon, AK 99613 (tel. 907/246-3305; www.nps.gov/katm). At Brooks Camp, the Park Service has a center where all visitors are required to attend a 20-minute orientation called "The Brooks Camp School of Bear Etiquette," designed to train visitors (not bears) and keep them out of trouble. In Anchorage, you can get information at the Alaska Public Lands Information Center, 4th Avenue and F Street (tel. 907/271-2737). The King Salmon Visitor Center is next door to the airport (tel. 907/246-4250), staffed jointly by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, and Alaska Geographic, a nonprofit book publisher. It's open 8am to 5pm daily in the high season, Monday through Saturday in winter.
Reservations & Fees -- No entry fee or permit applies for day trips to Katmai, but once you're there, you may have to sign up for an hour on the bear-viewing platforms. Camping costs $5 per person, per night with a $10 entrance fee. Campground capacity is allocated by person, not by site, and the limit of 60 people per night is far lower than the many visitors who want to stay during the bear season in July. The crowds are smaller in September, but the bears are not quite as numerous. Camping reservations become available for the entire summer as early as January 5, but the exact day changes each year; if you want a spot, check for the date and follow up the moment reservations open. To reserve, call or log on to the National Recreation Reservation Service (tel. 877/444-6777 or 518/885-3639; www.recreation.gov).
Once you've made it to Brooks Camp, a bus carries visitors to the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, 23 miles by gravel road from the camp. The park concessionaire, Katmailand, charges $88 per person round-trip for the all-day guided excursion, plus $8 more for lunch. A ranger leads a walk down into the valley. One-way transfers for hikers are $51.
Fast Facts: Katmai & Region
Bank -- Wells Fargo, with an ATM, is in the King Salmon Mall adjacent to the airport on the Peninsula Highway in King Salmon.
Hospital -- The Camai Clinic, in Naknek (tel. 907/246-6155), is open during normal business hours; calls to the number go to emergency dispatchers after hours.
Police -- In King Salmon, call 911 in an emergency, or call tel. 907/246-4222; elsewhere, call Alaska State Troopers at tel. 907/246-3346 or 246-3464. There are no phones or cellular service out in the park.
Shopping -- The park is remote, and other wild lands in the region are without businesses other than remote lodges, such as Brooks Camp. King Salmon is the last stop for basic supplies or groceries. This is where you must buy fuel for a camp stove, matches, bear spray, or other needs you cannot carry on the jet from Anchorage.
Exploring the Park
Katmai's famous bear viewing occurs at Brooks Camp, where the bears congregate near the Brooks River to catch salmon. Viewing peaks in early July but can begin in late June and last through July, with a smaller congregation in September. The summer fish run is when you're assured of seeing bears from the elevated platforms near the Brooks River falls, half a mile from Brooks Camp, even on a day trip. Forty to 60 bears feed here. Indeed, bears are seen all along the trail to the falls and elsewhere -- the falls are just the most concentrated spot. Rangers don't guide visitors but are on hand to manage the foot traffic. The platforms allow a good view of the bears and just enough separation. The Park Service recommends that people with mobility problems avoid this trail when bears are present. Considering the expense and potential difficulty, we'd advise those with trouble getting around to choose another venue for bear viewing. Due to the popularity of the experience, there may be a 1-hour limit on the falls platform during the peak season, although the limit is lifted when the platform is below its capacity. After your turn is up, you can sign up on a waiting list to get another chance. The falls platform and trail are closed 10pm to 7am. In September, when the smaller group of bears gathers, they group near the mouth of the river, not the falls, and crowding is less of an issue. Outside of these salmon runs, there are better places to see bears, so if that's your goal, don't spend the money to come here. Bears feed all summer on clams on Katmai's Pacific coast.
The Brooks Camp area has a small Park Service campground, visitor center, and lodge, located where the Brooks River flows into Naknek Lake. When the area was first developed for fishing in the 1950s, the camp was built in the middle of a major bear corridor, where it never would be allowed today, creating a unique opportunity to stay right in some of the most concentrated bear habitat on the globe. The most comfortable way is to stay at the Brooks Lodge, operated by Katmailand (tel. 800/544-0551 or 907/243-5448; www.brookslodge.com). The lodge has 16 units, with private bathrooms with shower stalls. To save money, book the lodge rooms as packages with air travel from Anchorage. The least expensive, 1-night visit is $949 per person, double occupancy, meals not included; 3 nights is $1,608. A double room without airfare is $652. Peak dates (when the bears are concentrated) book up 12 months out or earlier; for your choice, call as soon as the reservation system opens 18 months ahead, January of the year before the visit. Three buffet-style meals are served daily for guests and visitors who aren't staying in the lodge. Breakfast is $15, lunch $20, and dinner $35. For food, they take MasterCard and Visa at the lodge. Also at Brooks Camp, there's a small store, the Park Service visitor center, and a campground. Campground reservations should be made 6 months in advance. The rangers require special precautions to keep bears away from campers.
The rivers and lakes of Katmai lure human anglers as well as ursine ones. Katmailand operates two lodges within the park other than Brooks Lodge for remote fishing, the Kulik and Grosvenor lodges. Check their website at www.katmailand.com for fishing details.
The Park Service also has a list of dozens of fishing, hiking, and air guides. There is no central clearinghouse for remote fishing, but you can find and book a good place through an agency such as Sport Fishing Alaska, 9310 Shorecrest Dr., Anchorage, AK 99502 (tel. 888/552-8674 or 907/344-8674; www.alaskatripplanners.com).
Backcountry hiking in Katmai means crossing a wilderness without trails, including the hazards of river crossings. Only experienced backpackers should plan extended trips. The Park Service asks hikers to obtain a voluntary permit for backcountry travel, thereby clueing them in to your plans in case you need to be rescued. You are required to store food and items with odors in bear-resistant containers, which you can check out from the park. Anyone can walk for the day without such precautions in the desolate Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. This 40-square-mile plain remains a moonscape almost a century after the titanic volcanic blast that buried it, little changed except that the famous plumes of smoke are gone and rivers have sliced through the debris in places to create narrow, white-walled canyons. Although it looks like a desert and is subject to dust storms, rain is common and temperatures rarely go higher than 65°F (18°C). Katmailand operates a tour bus from Brooks Camp. The visitors on those tours usually stay on a short trail on the valley's rim, where a visitor center is located, but a 3-mile round-trip hike descends 800 feet to the valley floor, where you can get a better look at the ash that creates the bizarre landforms here.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.