Hikers head to Alaska for wild landscapes, rugged terrain, and some of the most gorgeous mountain and tundra vistas in North America. Katmai National Park has all that—plus about 2,200 brown bears, one of the densest concentrations of the animals in North America. And with more 4 million acres of space to explore, it pays to come with a plan.
Time it right
If bear-viewing is your ultimate goal, then you need to follow the food. Salmon begin their up-river migration from the ocean in late June; by July, the waterways in Katmai are teeming with a brown bear’s favorite food. (In spring and early summer, catch bears along the coast and in the marshes digging for clams or feeding on vegetation.)
No matter what time of year you venture to Katmai, bring waterproof outerwear: cold rain and wind can be expected in any of the summer months. This is coastal Alaska, after all.
Your best bet for catching brown bears feasting along the riverside is the 1.2-mile Brooks Falls Trail. This paved trail is the most popular in the park, and for good reason: it leads hikers through a boreal forest inhabited by hundreds of brown bears before reaching two viewing platforms overlooking the river. Here, you’re likely to see dozens of these heavy-weight carnivores catching sockeye as they make their way up the icy waters.
For optimum bear-viewing opportunities, plan an overnight at Brooks Falls Campground. But book early—these coveted spots fill up fast.
Aside from the main attraction of brown bears, Katmai is known for the otherworldly scenery in the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. Hop on the park’s bus tour of the valley and arrange to be dropped off at the Robert F. Griggs Visitor’s Center. Begin at the Windy Creek Trail and follow it into the valley, where the trail disappears after about 3 miles. Continue 11 miles, crossing the Lethe River and ending with an 800-foot climb to the Baked Mountain Huts below Katmai Pass (reservations are not required to stay in the huts, but they fill up quickly, so be sure to pack in a tent). Make this a base for day-trips, exploring Novarupta—the vent from Katmai’s massive 1912 eruption—which lies just 2 miles from camp. Return to the trailhead the way you came to meet the tour bus (arrange a pick-up in advance).
Hikers hungry for an even wilder experience should hone their route-finding skills for a 50-mile trailless trek across Katmai Pass to Katmai Bay. Begin at the same trailhead and camp at the Baked Mountain huts before continuing the trek over Katmai Pass. Travel beneath towering volcanic peaks, across a rainbow of mineral-rich pumice, and to views of alpine lakes before reaching the coastline at the base of the Aleutian Range.
Free to roam
Camping is permitted anywhere in the park, and hikers don’t need permits. But with less than 5 miles of maintained trails within the park boundaries, route-finding for both day trips and overnights can be a challenge. Harness your inner animal to sniff out game trails, as these often follow the path of least resistance through this rugged northern landscape. But remember: you’re not the only one out there. Wildlife like brown bears, gray wolves, and caribou are likely to be traveling along the same backcountry highway—they’re the ones who carved it out, after all. Pitch your tent away from anything perceived as a feast for fauna, use all the necessary bear-safety precautions, and always practice Leave No Trace.
With no road access, the easiest way to get to Katmai is by air. From Anchorage, take a scheduled flight to King Salmon, then catch an air taxi to Brooks Camp; plan on spending around $850 on transportation in total.