Insider’s Guide to Katmai National Park

Christoph Strässler
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Katmai National Park is known for two things—volcanoes and bears. In fact, Katmai is home to the largest population of protected brown bears in North America, with around 2,200 as of 2016. Covering more than 4 million acres in southern Alaska, thousands of people venture to the park each year to see the bears and explore the backcountry.

Even though there have been artifacts found in the park dating back 6,000 years, the area now known as Katmai National Park was mostly under the radar until 1912, when the namesake volcano exploded with 10 times the force of Mount St. Helens. It caused global temperature cooling and acid rain fell as far south as Vancouver in British Columbia. In 1916, the members of a National Geographic expedition realized the true beauty of the area, not to mention the smoke rising hundreds of feet into the air from fumaroles. After that trip, botanist Robert Griggs, who headed up the expedition, began campaigning for the Katmai area to become a national park.

Katmai was originally named a National Monument by President Woodrow Wilson in 1918 but there wasn’t really any tourism nor were there any park rangers in Katmai. Over the years, tourism slowly increased, but so did poaching, and the area was just too big to control because there still weren't any park rangers patrolling the park. It wasn’t until 1971 that Katmai got a full-time, on-site park superintendent, and sport hunting became more regulated on national preserve lands. Finally, on December 2, 1980, Katmai National Park and Preserve was established. Hunting of all kinds (sport or subsistence) was then prohibited within the park, but is now allowed on the preserve.

The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes.
The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. Christoph Strässler

Classic Adventures

Like many places in Alaska, Katmai National Park feels very wild and untouched (except for the electric fence around the main campground to keep the bears out). There are less than five miles of established trails, so the 4 million acres backcountry is yours to explore. The area known as the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes is a great place to check out and many people start with the 12-mile hike from Valley Road to the Baked Mountain Huts. The two small huts provide protection from the elements and are a centralized location to head out from. Buttress Ridge is on the western side, while the historic Katmai Pass (once buried in pumice and ash), leads to the summit of Observation Mountain, which has breathtaking views of the Katmai River gorge and the rest of the valley. For hikers looking to explore a glacier, the lower slopes of Knife Creek Glaciers are covered with up to six feet of pumice and ash, making it relatively easy to walk right up to, and the caldera of Mount Katmai is 3,000 feet above the glaciers. Mageik Lakes is a scenic spot, surrounded by waterfalls, and is near where the Buttress Range meets Mount Mageik and Mount Martin. Mount Griggs is another good option—the western slopes are easy to ascend, but the final push to the summit requires some skill to maneuver over the snow and glaciers.

Another way to get around Katmai is on the hundreds of miles of waterways found throughout the park. The 86-mile Savonoski Loop is one of the most popular trips, taking anywhere from 5-10 days. You can either camp or stay at one of the cabins along the way. For a shorter paddle, head over to Naknek Lake, the largest and most accessible lake at the park. It’s a great day trip from Brooks Camp or drive there from King Salmon.

Brooks Camp and Naknek Lake.
Brooks Camp and Naknek Lake. Christoph Strässler

Sure, Katmai National Park has a stunning landscape, but the main attraction to the park is the bears. If you’ve ever seen a live webcam feed with brown bears jumping and diving through the water to catch salmon, it was probably at the Brooks River in Katmai. There are three wildlife-viewing platforms to watch the bears and visitors can find them in the backcountry near water or meadows with mudflats. The NPS website has a chart that shows the best places to find bears at the park from June through September.

Secrets of the Park

Just about everyone knows that the bears are usually at Brooks camp but the park rangers recommend staying at least two days. Settle in, and keep your eyes peeled for bears napping or hanging out in areas besides the river (keep your distance!).

The most colorful area in the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes is near Novarupta—14 miles from the Windy Creek trailhead on Valley Road or about two miles from the Baked Mountain Huts. It may only rise about 200 feet from the valley floor, but the volcanic dome represents the vent of the largest volcanic eruption in the 1900s. The colors come from the minerals that were deposited by the nearby fumaroles (steam vents).

Immerse Yourself

If you are making the trip all the way to Katmai National Park, you should stay at least 5-7 days. Spend a couple days looking for bears at Brooks Camp, then head out via kayak or on foot to explore a little more of the park. With no established trails and such a large space to cover, the only place you might meet other people is at the Baked Mountain Huts. Bring everything you need and pack everything out.

There are three viewing platforms to see the bears, but you can also see them in the backcountry.
There are three viewing platforms to see the bears, but you can also see them in the backcountry. Christoph Strässler

How to Get the Most Out of Your Visit

  • You can only camp in one area for 14 days at a time, and then you must move two miles away. Check the website for seasonal closures of certain areas.

  • Carry bear spray and practice bear safety.

  • The park is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and the weather can be unpredictable any time of year. Summer is the best time to access Katmai National Park, but can be wet.

  • Because all of the hiking is backcountry, be sure to bring all of the supplies you need and be prepared. Especially in August, drinking water is scarce in the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes.

  • Brooks Camp has no designated campsites, but does have a limit of 60 people per night. It fills up very quickly, sometimes within hours of the opening of the reservation period. Visit the NPS website for more information.

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