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An adventure to Katmai National Park is a bucket list item for all bear lovers. Winning the lottery was an opportunity for us to make this a once-in-a-lifetime journey. Embarking on an adventure to view the Bear Bonanza at Katmai National Park is an extraordinary opportunity to witness nature’s grandeur and gain a newfound appreciation for the delicate balance of ecosystems. Where else do you have the incredible opportunity to observe and interact with one of nature’s most awe-inspiring creatures – the mighty bears? From the moment we stepped off the float plane, we knew we would leave with lifelong memories and a profound respect for the wildlife and wild places that make our planet so remarkable.

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“Bears not only make the habitat rich, but they also enrich us just by being." Linda Jo Hunter
Brooks Falls at Katmai National Park
Brooks Falls at Katmai National Park

Why Visit Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park

Visiting Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park offers a truly unique and unforgettable experience for nature enthusiasts, photographers, and wildlife lovers. The most interesting reason is the extraordinary bear viewing. Brooks Falls is renowned for its exceptional brown bear viewing opportunities. During the summer salmon run (best in July), bears congregate at the falls to feast on the abundant salmon swimming upstream. Witnessing these powerful creatures in action as they skillfully catch fish in the cascading waters is an awe-inspiring sight that few places in the world can match.

Visiting Brooks Falls supports the conservation and preservation efforts of Katmai National Park. By witnessing the bears’ behavior and understanding their ecological importance, you definitely develop a deeper appreciation for wildlife conservation and the need to protect these incredible creatures and their habitats.

Bear 230-Ben walking the river walk at Brooks Camp
Bear 230-Ben walking the river walk at Brooks Camp

WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO SEE BROWN BEARS AT BROOKS FALLS?

The best time to see brown bears at Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park is during the summer salmon run, which typically occurs from late June to early September. This is when the largest concentration of brown bears gather at the falls to take advantage of the abundant salmon swimming upstream.

People in front of the Brooks Camp Sign

The peak viewing period is usually in July and August, when the salmon run is at its strongest. During this time, it’s common to witness numerous bears actively fishing and competing for fish at Brooks Falls. The spectacle of bears leaping into the air or standing on the falls to catch salmon is truly remarkable.

In late June and early September, there may be fewer visitors, providing a quieter and potentially more intimate experience with the bears. However, the number of bears present may be lower compared to the peak season. We did not see a lot of bears in late June. However; we did not experience the vast crowds seen in July.

Bear 901 with her COY at Brooks Camp
Bear 901 with her COY at Brooks Camp Credit: BrooksVisitor

HOW DO YOU GET TO BROOKS Camp at Katmai National Park?

Most travellers to Brooks Camp-Katmai start their journey by flying into Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport in Anchorage. Next, you’ll need to book a commercial flight to King Salmon, a small town in southwestern Alaska. Several airlines offer daily flights to King Salmon. The flight duration is approximately 1-1.5 hours. We had Katmailand arrange all our flights for us. However, you could book your own and save a bit of money.

Katmai Air Turbo Otter Naknek Lake

Once you arrive in King Salmon, you’ll need to arrange for transportation to Brooks Camp. The most common way to reach Brooks Camp is by taking a floatplane operated by a local air taxi service such as Katmai Air. These air taxis typically offer scheduled flights to Brooks Camp during the summer months (20-minute flight). Taking a water taxi across Naknek Lake to Brooks Camp (45-minutes) is another method of reaching Katmai. No matter which method you use, it’s advisable to book in advance because of high demand.

Naknek lake at the Spit Brooks River

In King Salmon on our short layover, we took time to walk to the King Salmon Katmai Visitor Center next door to the airport. This visitor center serves as the primary hub for information about the park, including exhibits, maps, park regulations, and educational resources. A small gift store has some rather unique items. The exhibits are well done, providing a real introduction to the park. Here you can get your passport stamps for Katmai National Park and Aniakchak National Park. We met up with our dear friend Damond before our transport to Katmai Air base. Damond was our fishing guide on the Kenai River in 2021. In light of the fact that we had forgotten to bring our mosquito head nets, he graciously gave us one each. It was a good thing because we used them a few times at Brooks Falls.

King Salmon Visitor Center Building
King Salmon Visitor Center Building

A Treasure Trove of Things to Do Besides Bear viewing In Katmai National Park

The Brooks Falls area is a popular spot for bear viewing, as bears congregate there to catch salmon during the summer months. However, there are several things to do around Katmai National Park and Preserve,:

  1. Hike the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes: The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes is a volcanic ash-filled valley created by the eruption of Novarupta in 1912. Hiking in this area offers sensational views of the valley and the surrounding volcanic landscape.
  2. Fishing: The park’s lakes and rivers have tremendous fishing opportunities for trout, salmon, and other species.
  3. Kayaking and canoeing: The park’s lakes and rivers also provide opportunities for kayaking and canoeing, allowing visitors to explore the park’s scenic waterways.
  4. Wildlife viewing: besides bears, the park is home to a variety of wildlife, including wolves, foxes, caribou, and a variety of bird species.
  5. Camping: The park provides backcountry camping and the Brooks Camp Campground.
  6. Ranger-led activities: The park offers a variety of ranger-led activities, including guided hikes, wildlife talks, and cultural programs.
Brooks Bear 129? on the Trail to the Falls
Brooks subadult maybe 129?

Exploring Katmai National Park: Beginning Our Boots on the Ground Adventure

This was not our first bear-viewing trip. Previously in 2012, we did a fly-in trip to Wolverine Creek with High Adventure Air. Although it was early in the season, we were delighted to see some brown and black bears searching for pink salmon in the fall area. We did the same trip to Wolverine Creek in 2021, but fished with a guide for red salmon instead. At Denali National Park, we spotted bears in the distance, but nothing up-close and personal. This was about to all change as we entered the realm of Brooks Camp. We stayed 2-nights at Brooks Camp and relished every minute.

Unfortunately, we were a bit early for the salmon season so there was not a lot of fish jumping. Therefore, we did not see bear catching fish on the lip of the brooks fall. We did, however, see plenty of female bears with cubs walking around the lodge and camp area. A few subadult bears as well.

Bear scnet marking a tree Brooks Camp
Brooks subadult maybe 129?

Arrival “Bear School” at Brooks Camp Katmai National Park

Getting to Brooks Falls requires an adventure in itself. Whether you choose to arrive by floatplane, or by the boat, we found the journey to this remote location adds to the sense of exploration and the feeling of being immersed in all things Alaska. For us, it was an opportunity to disconnect from the hustle and bustle of everyday life and connect with nature on a deeper level.

Bear paw print on the beach Broks-Camp-Katmai

Brooks Camp is the headquarters for the National Park service in Katmai. Upon our arrival at the Naknek Lake, we disembarked our DeHavilland Otter float plane, grabbed our backpacks, walking up from the beach to the visitor center (500feet). My anticipation grew as we prepared for our first encounter with the legendary brown bears that call this area home. First on the agenda was the mandatory Bear Etiquette film and briefing given by the Rangers at Brooks Camp. This orientation is crucial to minimize human impact, ensure visitor safety, and protect the well-being of the bears.

I display my pin in my NP passport book

Knowledgeable rangers summarized bear behavior and biology, including their feeding habits, body language, and aggression signs. It is essential to understand the behavior of bears in order to interpret their actions and respond appropriately to them. The bear orientation session typically concludes with a question-and-answer segment, allowing you to clarify any concerns or seek further information. At the conclusion, you will receive your bear pin certifying you have complete orientation. Click here for the bear school video.

Bear school orientation in the vBrooks Camp Visitor Center
Brooks Camp Bear School

Hiking Trails at Brooks Camp IN Katmai National Park

It is essential that you follow Brooks Camp’s regulations and guidelines, especially when it comes to bear safety. As we hiked, we made noise by talking, and maintained a safe distance of 50 yards from wildlife. Hiking from Brooks Camp to Brooks Lake offers a remarkable opportunity to delve deeper into the pristine wilderness of Katmai National Park. It’s an adventure that rewards hikers with stunning scenery, a sense of solitude, and an unforgettable connection with Alaska’s untamed beauty.

Lower River elevate boardwalk at Brooks Camp
Lower River elevate boardwalk at Brooks Camp from the Spit

Every morning and evening we walked on either the beach or the spit road. Both these times are good for wildlife watching. Bears, in particular, use the beach as a highway of sorts to get to and from the river.

A feisty Greater Yellowlegs Spit Road Brooks Camp
A feisty Greater Yellowlegs

Our first morning, a feisty pair, Greater Yellowlegs with little ones on the spit road. The Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca) is a species of migratory shorebird belonging to the sandpiper family, Scolopacidae. During the breeding season, Greater Yellowlegs become highly territorial. They were vigorously defending their nesting territory against intruders (us). The warnings included aerial displays, aggressive posturing, and vocalizations to deter our potential threat. I must say they produce loud, distinctive calls.

Brooks Trail Sign with women in front

Brooks Falls Trail: This short, but highly popular trail leads to the iconic Brooks Falls, where visitors can observe brown bears fishing for salmon. The trail is approximately 1.5 miles round trip and provides excellent vantage points for bear viewing, as well as opportunities to witness other wildlife and stunning views of falls. We must have hiked this trail 4-5 times during our stay.

Brooks Lake with Dumpling Mountain in the background
Brooks Lake with Dumpling Mountain in the background

Dumpling Mountain Trail: For those seeking a more challenging hike, the Dumpling Mountain Trail is an excellent option. The trail ascends the slopes of Dumpling Mountain, offering panoramic views of Brooks & Naknek Lake, the surrounding mountains, and the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes in the far distance. This 8-mile round-trip hike requires stamina and proper hiking gear but rewards hikers with breathtaking vistas.

Learning the Natural Cultural History of Brooks Camp

The Oxbow Overlook Trail is a short and relatively easy 0.25-mile trail that starts near the Brooks Camp Visitor Center. It takes you through the forest and leads to the cultural site at Brooks Camp. The Brooks River Archaeological District was established in 1993 as a National Historic Landmark. You can take a self-guided walk or a ranger guided walk that is scheduled daily. We did the ranger guided walk so we could see the reconstructed prehistoric house, or barabara, inside the exhibit building. It is unlocked for the tour, otherwise you miss it. Our ranger guide provided a running narrative on the over 9,000 years of human history in this area, descendents of the native Alutiiq people.

Common merganzer ducks on Lake Brooks
Common merganser ducks on Lake Brooks

Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes Trail-Road: This challenging trail takes hikers on an unforgettable journey through the dramatic aftermath of the Novarupta volcano eruption in 1912. The road trail spans approximately 23 miles with three river crossings. In the valley you get breathtaking views of volcanic ash deposits, rugged canyons, and otherworldly landscapes.

Snowshoe Hare Lake Brooks Trail
Snowshoe Hare Lake Brooks Trail

Viewing Platforms at Brooks Camp-Katmai National Park

Bear viewing platforms are available along the river, which offer safe opportunities for observing bears. The three viewing platforms give you an incredible vantage point to observe brown bears catching salmon.

Brooks River Spit Views

Brooks Falls Lower River Bridge

The Brooks Falls Lower River Bridge was our favorite spot for observing brown bears and watching the multitude of rainbow trout in the crystal, clear water. The bridge spans the Brooks River, allowing you to safely cross from the Brooks Camp area to reach prime viewing locations, including the famous Brooks Falls itself.

Lower River Bridge over the Brooks river-Katmai NP

The bridge offers an excellent vantage point for observing bears in action as they chase the salmon in the summer months. From the elevated platform of the bridge, we witnessed a few bears as they navigated the river’s current, attempting to find salmon swimming upstream. Bears don’t seem to have any interest in the rainbow trout as they don’t provide enough protein (no roe). We saw a rather large beaver making his way upstream on our first day.

Panoramic view of Brooks Falls from the Platform

Up close Look: The Brooks Falls Viewing Platform

The park strategically positioned the Brooks Falls Viewing Platform near the iconic Brooks Falls on the Brooks River. To reach the platform, visitors typically start from the Brooks Camp area and follow a short trail that leads directly to the viewing area. The platform is designed to provide an optimal view of the falls and the bears’ fishing activity.

Brooks Falls Viewing platform with a close up of the falls

The elevated Brooks Falls platform is best for watching salmon as they leap up the falls into the unsuspecting jaws of these massive brown bears. The viewing platform is nearest to the base of Brooks Falls. It is renowned worldwide for offering an up-close and safe vantage point to observe brown bears as they fish for salmon. We waited for bears to emerge from the thickets, fishing for salmon in the sparkling Brooks River. These massive creatures displayed both power and grace as they skillfully caught their prey, showcasing their remarkable fishing abilities. Alas, this early in the season, we did not witness any bears at the falls. We knew that this might be the case with the late arrival of salmon this season.

Riffles platform panoramic of the river

A different Perspective: The Riffles Platform

Riffles Platform is downstream from Brooks Falls. We found the riffles gave us a different perspective compared to the Brooks Falls viewing platform. From this vantage point, spectators can witness momma bears with cubs navigating the river’s riffles. Here the river is shallow, although there are some faster-moving sections of water it is safely away from the bigger boars. Again, due to the late arrival of salmon, we did not see bears here. We saw common mergansers, snowshoe hares and a variety of other birds.

Riffles Platform on Brooks River-Katmai
Riffles Platform on Brooks River-Katmai

Throughout our adventure, I was reminded of the importance of responsible wildlife viewing and conservation. Strict guidelines and regulations were in place to ensure the safety of both visitors and bears, allowing for a harmonious coexistence between humans and these magnificent creatures.

NOTE: June 15 through August 15, the platforms for viewing the riffles and falls are closed between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. The reason is to allow shy bears easier access to the falls and river.

River Crossings on the way to Valley of the Smokes
River on the route to Ten Thousand Smokes Credit: Katie Prince

Exploring the Volcanic Wonder: Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes Adventure in Katmai National Park

The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes is a valley in Katmai National Park and Preserve. The valley is the site of one of the most massive volcanic eruption of Novarupta occurred in 1912. It reshaped the landscape, burying the valley in tons of ash, pumice, and volcanic debris. The name “Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes” comes from the thousands of steam vents that still rise from the valley floor.

The whole valley as far as the eye could reach was full of hundreds, no thousands-literally, tens of thousands-of smokes curling up from its fissured floor-Robert Briggs

Today, the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes is 22 miles from Katmai’s Brooks camp. It attracts hikers and outdoor enthusiasts. The valley is accessible by trekking miles by foot or expensive flightseeing tours. However, there are daily bus tours that can be booked from Brooks Camp. The “Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes Natural History Tour” is an all-day excursion that requires you to make a reservation in advance, preferably before you arrive.

Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes Tour Bus-Katmai

Book early as this tour fills. If you prefer to hike to the valley, it is a challenging 23-mile round trip, with steep climbs, river crossings, and rugged terrain. Be sure to get the permits and follow all safety guidelines provided by the National Park Service. If you are interested in visiting the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, it’s recommended to plan your trip well in advance and to be prepared for the challenging hike.

Convergence Overlook, where the valley’s three main rivers, Knife Creek, the River Lethe, and Windy Creek converge to form the Ukak River
The Confluence Overlook Credit Alaina Prince

A DAY TRIP TO THE VALLEY OF Thousand SMOKES Tour

Alaina and her sister Katie recounted their adventure on the tour. The drive begins at the brooks road near the lower platform bridge at 9:00 am. During the 2-hour drive, you will cross three different rivers and stopping at several viewpoints. Their ranger guide provided commentary on the flora & fauna. Once they arrived at the Overlook Cabin-Visitor Center, they were treated to spectacular views of the valley and the Novarupta volcano.

View from the Visitor Center of the Valley of 10,000 Smokes
View from the Robert F. Griggs Visitor Center of the Valley of 10,000 Smokes Credit: Alaina Prince

Taking in the otherworldly views while enjoying their packed lunch was breathtaking, they stated. After a quick bite, their small group ventured into the valley using the Ukak Falls Trail. The trail is 3.5 miles out-and-back. After a mile of descent, through lowland shrubs, the trail follows Margot Creek. You can see pyroclastic flow from the 1912 Novarupta eruption up close on the hike to Ukak Falls. The deep gouge was carved by the river through the softer volcanic ash. They told us the eroded walls were incredible.

wall of ash at Ukak Falls Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes
Ukak Falls Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes Credit: Alaina Prince

GUIDED FLY FISHING TRIP Katmai’s Brooks River

If you’re looking for a memorable and rewarding fly fishing experience in Alaska, hiring a guide to fish the Brooks River is a must-do. Fishing at Brooks Falls is a “fly angler’s paradise.” Brooks River is famous for its salmon runs, particularly the sockeye salmon run that occurs during the summer months. But the river is also renown for its trophy-size rainbows. The Brooks river runs between Naknek Lake and Lake Brooks.

Giant Rainbow from the Brooks River

Anglers can fish for salmon, Arctic Char, and Rainbows in the Brooks River below the falls. Brooks River is fly fishing only, and anglers must use single, barbless hooks. The river is catch and release only except downstream of the bridge.

Unleashing our Inner Angler: Fishing for Rainbow Trout on Alaska’s Brooks River

Visitors who plan to fish at Brooks Falls must have a valid Alaska fishing license and get a fishing permit from the National Park Service. It is also important to be aware of and follow all fishing regulations and guidelines to help protect the natural environment and ensure a sustainable fishery. Hiring a guide, they provide the permit for us to walk the river. The cost includes all the equipment. We opted for the 1/2 day fishing trip for rainbow trout. Our previous experience on the Kenai and the Chena Rivers was helpful in casting the fly.

Trophy Rainbow from the Brooks River

Today’s gear included a 9-foot, 7-weight fly rod and matching fly reel with floating line (a sink-tip line is also useful). Our guide, Jon Kuiper (JWK Images), selected a variety of single-hook, artificial flies to entice the giant rainbows. He was extremely patient as I am not the greatest fly caster. Casting dry flies is an art.

I must have had at least six takes during our 4-hours fishing and got none of them to the net. Barry meanwhile caught a massive 26-inch monster that put him on the board at Brooks Lodge. Here the rainbow trout are renowned for their vibrant colors, acrobatic fights, and impressive size.

The Brooks Lodge Fishing Achievment Board

At the end, I redeemed myself by catching a nice rainbow on my last cast. It was a flub, as I never even knew till the fish darted out of the water that I even had him on the line. Luckily, this one made it to the net. Being able to cast our line and experience the thrill of fishing for rainbow trout in one of the most breathtaking locations on Earth—the iconic Brooks River was thrilling.

Subadult bear on the beach on the Brooks River
Subadult bear on the beach on the Brooks River

A Memorable Wilderness Escape: Staying at Brooks Lodge in Katmai’s Cozy Cabins

While Brooks Lodge immerses you in nature’s ruggedness, their cabins provide a comfortable and cozy haven. They equipped our rustic accommodations with all the necessary amenities to ensure a pleasant stay. We enjoy the comfortable bunk beds, as well as the private bathroom. We did not spend a great deal of time in our cabin. Instead, we walked the trails, watched the fishing from the bridge or sat by the fire in the lodge talking to other travellers.

Brooks Lodge Cabin
Brooks Lodge Cabin

After exploring, we ventured over to the Brooks Lodge Dining Hall. Each day, we enjoyed tasty buffet meals prepared by the lodge’s talented chefs for breakfast and dinner. Breakfast consists of the usual eggs, toast, bacon and sausage, cereal, etc. Dinner included a full salad bar, multiple dessert options, two meat/fish choices, soups, vegetables, rice, and breads. Fresh salmon is always available for dinner. The service and staff were excellent. It was an exquisite experience from start to finish.

Firepit at the Brooks Camp Dining Lodge
Firepit at the Brooks Camp Dining Lodge

Sharing stories and experiences with fellow bear lovers and anglers can be done by the fire or at the bar. Wine or beer is available for purchase at the lounge bar. Here we indulged in the peaceful ambiance and relaxed furnishings after a long day of exploration. There was something comforting about the warmth of a fireplace. In addition to the bears, Brooks’ welcoming environment fosters connections, and this definitely enhances your overall experience.

Man walking on a driftwood lNakenek Lake

Final Thoughts on adventure to view the Bear Bonanza at Katmai National Park

Although this was not as much of an up close with Alaska’s majestic bears as we would have liked, we would do it all again. It would disappoint most having spent a disproportional amount of funds to see only a few bears. However, we loved every minute of our time at Brooks Camp. Maybe it was the fishing, or just being in this pristine wilderness. Not witnessing the bear bonanza Katmai National Park was still an unforgettable adventure that will forever hold a special place in our heart.

Beaver under the bridge Brooks River
Beaver under the bridge Brooks River

If you get the opportunity to visit Katmai National Park in Alaska in peak season, it affords a rare and awe-inspiring opportunity to witness one of nature’s greatest spectacles—the Bear Bonanza. This annual event, which takes place during the salmon run, attracts hundreds of brown bears to the park’s rivers and streams as they gather to feast on the abundant fish. Katmai National Park is truly one of the wildest places on Earth. Although we only saw a few bears on our June trip, we still feel incredibly fortunate to have experienced this.

Have you had the chance to see the bear bonanza at Katmai-Brooks Camp? If so, share in the comments your experience. We would love to know your experience.