When Is the Best Time
Katmai, located in Alaska, is an exceptional place to watch grizzlies close, sometimes even too close. Katmai is the bear country, so it does not come as a surprise that my friend Chris took the same path as a bear with his catch, and he had a close encounter. This is not an exception be prepared that this can always happen. Most important, do not run away, give the bear space, remain calm. The first thing you get after your arrival is an introduction on how to behave in the "Bear Country".
More than 2000 bears call the National Park their home. Brown bears are in the area from mid-spring until October. Usually, the salmon run takes place from the mid latest end of June until the end of July but can be August as well. The salmon run is not predictable. The sockeye salmon coming from the sea swim and jump upstream to spawn where they were born before they die. This is a spectacular event annually.
The best time to spot the highest concentration of brown bears catching red salmon at Brooks River and Falls are July and September, followed by June and August.
During the salmon run session, you may spot 20 to 50 bears along the falls. Usually, less food is available in June and August at Brooks River. Nevertheless, you always may spot bears, just fewer. The bears wander around where most food is provided by nature. The largest and most dominant bears have the "right" to be around Brooks Falls.
In 2021 the salmon returned later for spawning than usual. This causes stress for the bears who depend on high energy food. Many bears do not catch as many fish as they usually do at this time of the year. Bears are more aggressive, more fights where they usually tolerate each other. Also, a higher number of visitors stresses the bears. Please, if you visit Katmai you need extra caution bears may be less tolerant. There were already human-bear contacts which are also unusual and not documented for the last years. These bears live in the wild and behave accordingly.
Remain 50 yards away from bears all the time. Give way to the bears when they want to access the river and falls. The park rangers will give you advice.
Update March 2022
Camp capacity at Brooks Falls is back to 100 %. New permits are available from March 21 onwards.
Avoiding Tourist Crowds
In July, expect crowded conditions at the viewing platforms. There is a limit of 40 people watching the bears for a maximum of one hour controlled by rangers. September is much better with fewer tourists. Time of day suggestion: Stay overnight at the lodge or the campground. Then you can get to the platforms between 5 and 7 PM when the day visitors already left, taking the plane back to Anchorage or another lodge. At that time of the day, the viewing platform is less crowded. Livecam: Brooks Falls Bears Livecam
In late spring, summer and early fall, it's often rainy, overcast. Especially in the summer months, the weather is unpredictable. Summer temperatures range from 30˚ to 80˚ Fahrenheit (-1˚ to 27˚ Celsius) so everything is possible. Only 20% of the days are clear and sunny in summer: the downside bugs are even worse. Winters are drier and very cold.
Monthly Bear Activity Overview
- April to Early May (higher slopes) - Emerging from their hibernation and bear fightings.
- Mid-May to mid-July - Mother and Cubs and mating season
- End of June and July - Salmon Run - Bears gather around the falls. The grizzlies are feeding mainly on the nutrient-rich brain and eggs of the salmon. The leftovers are for other animals and fertilize the land. They are a key species for the entire ecosystem of the Katmai National Park. Bears are more aggressive.
- In August, fewer bears because the salmon already passed Brooks Falls and reached the breeding grounds where they were born.
- September is a feast for the bears again. The salmon dies after spawning/breeding and floating down the Brooks River. Now the bears feed more on the salmon. Bears are less aggressive.
- Mid-September to mid-October - Bears Resting.
- Before November, bears are digging a den for hibernation
- November until March - Bears hibernate because of the harsh winter conditions.
- Up to four cubs are born in mid-winter from January to February.
There is a Visitor Centre and Ranger at Brooks Camp open from June to mid-September. Another Visitor Center can be found at King Salmon Airport. You get a brief bear safety talk after arrival in Brooks.
Katmai National Park from Homer
You want a more affordable tour to watch Grizzlies in their natural environment, have a look at Hallo Bay for brown bear spotting in the Katmai National Park. It's cheaper and easier to experience the park from Homer. You may see them feeding on salmon, on mussels, grass, mother and cubs, bear fights, and other activities. You like to know what is essential and what to pack for Katmai? Read on my second article about Katmai and the bears.
How to get to Brooks Falls
It is a little tricky to get here. Brooks Falls is situated in the remote wilderness. The nearest airport is King Salmon (AKN) commercial flights are offered. From here you have to change into a floatplane or a water taxi to get to Brooks Falls which takes 20-40 minutes depending on what you chose.
There are two places to stay in Brooks Falls. The Brooks Falls Lodge and the campground. The lodge is a little pricey. The campground is around 9$ per night, but already fully booked end of January.
Another opportunity and hassle-free are Alaska's Gold Creek Lodge next to the airport. They pick you up and offer day trips to Brooks Falls. However, you miss the best time for perfect shots in the evening.
Best Months to Visit
Location and Tips
Katmai has one of the highest densities of bears in the world, estimated at 2.200. The food search determines their life. Due to the long hibernation, they need to gain a lot of weight to survive. So the question is where to see these majestic creatures. They are spread in the entire Katmai National Park. Once protected for the volcanic devasted area in 1918, Katmai is nowadays most famous for brown bears and fishing. The bears are not only at the Brooks Falls; they can be found along the entire Brooks River.
There are two more viewing platforms, one before and one after the falls. These outlooks are less crowded. It is relatively safe around Brooks Falls; however, it is their wild habitat. There is no guarantee! Safety first always!
If you like to watch bears hunting for sockeye salmon at a waterfall, this is the best place at all. Getting to Mc Neill Falls is more complicated, and a permit is necessary.
Safety Advice for the Viewing Platforms - Wheelchair Accessibility
The viewing platforms are wheelchair accessible, especially the north and south at the river mouth close to the lodge. Shortly before the falls, the Brooks Falls and Riffles are not paved and therefore a bit muddy in poor weather conditions. There is one platform at the falls, one shortly before the falls and three at the mouth of Brooks River. The platforms are closed and not accessible for safety reasons from 10 pm to 7 am. It is more than one mile - two km to walk to Brooks Falls platform
- Stay on the trail to the viewing platform
- Remain quiet
- No use of a flashlight
- Don't leave any trash
- Please, don't smoke.
- Only pure water is allowed to drink
The Salmon Migration
It is the salmon life circle. The salmon born in the upper river in freshwater migrates to the ocean when reaching maturity after one to two years. It is a long process adapted to freshwater first and then saltwater. They live and feed for years in the ocean before turning back for reproducing and spawning. When the urge to migrate back appears, they stop feeding, relying on their energy and fat. It is a demanding migration getting back to the spawning grounds. Depending on the salmon species, they are between one and six years old. The released salmon eggs hatch in mid-winter.
The History of Katmai National Park
One of the largest volcanic eruptions happened in 1912 on the Alaskan Peninsula, and Mount Katmai collapsed, forming a 2000 feet deep caldera. There was 30 times more magma released than at the St. Helens eruption in 1980, caused by the eruption the amazing "Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes" got created. In 1918 it became the National Monument status to protect the entire area. It is still an active volcanic park remembering the power of mother nature. Katmai became a National Park status in 1980. There is a park ranger-led bus ride and hike to the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes offered. The tour starts from Brooks Lodge.
Also, these breathtaking Alaska Bear pictures are provided by my photographer friend Chris.