When planning our trip to Alaska, we pondered if we should or should not make the side trip to Katmai National Park. We knew this was one of the largest grizzly populations in the world. After crunching some numbers, I found a way to make this work.
Deciding where to stay
Several factors came into play when it came to researching how to make this side trip work. There were three options on where to stay; stay at Brooks Lodge, day trip from Anchorage or stay in King Salmon.
Availability in Brooks Lodge was very limited. The park is only open a few months out of the year so reservations go quick. There is actually a lottery system to stay at Brooks Lodge. When I was looking, there was minimal availability. It is also very expensive to stay here at $850/night.
Perks of staying at Brooks Lodge – you get first dibs on the bear viewing. Day trippers arrive as early as 8:30 AM. By staying at Brooks Lodge, you can get out to the viewing platform by 7:00 am and as late as 10:00 pm. You can also squeeze in bear viewing and the Valley of 10,000 smoke tour in the same day. The tour runs from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm so it makes it challenging to do on a day trip. The only way we could have done this is if we booked an 8:00 am flight to Katmai and a return flight at 7:00 pm. This would have given us time to do both the tour and view the bears.
Day trip from Anchorage
Day tripping from Anchorage is also expensive at $980 per person. Perks: Less expensive if you are a solo traveler instead of staying in King Salmon or Brooks Lodge.
While we knew this side trip would be expensive, we felt it was worth it. When traveling for two, we booked a flight to King Salmon and stayed two nights at King Salmon Lodge. We really enjoyed our stay. The room was clean, spacious & food was good. They served a free hot breakfast and every night was a themed dinner. The menu consisted of two entrees to choose from. We also packed plenty of snack food and packed this when traveling to Katmai National Park. We booked a flight from King Salmon to Katmai National Park on a float plane through Katmai Air for $290 round trip per person. After crunching numbers, this ended up being the cheapest way to visit Katmai National Park.
Perks: Cheaper than staying at Brooks Lodge if booking for two people. Cheaper than doing a day trip from Anchorage for two people. Beautiful scenery right on the river. Bonus bear viewing if you are lucky. We watched bears roam the grounds near the lodge. You can also book the first plane to Katmai National Park and beat the crowds coming from Anchorage. We booked the 8 am flight.
What month should you visit?
July and September are the best months to visit Katmai National Park to view the bears at Brooks Falls. To ensure the salmon are running, I would book the 2nd week of July. We were at Katmai National Park on July 19th. The salmon ran late this year and showed up several days into July vs. their normal run in late June.
What happens when you arrive
When you arrive, you immediately go into “bear school” with your park ranger. Since you are sharing the park with grizzly bears, it’s important to know how to act around them. You’ll learn what you need to know to feel safe.
What to Know About Brooks Falls
Walking out to Brooks Falls requires a 1.2 mile walk
This is nice to know ahead of time. Be sure to wear comfortable clothing and shoes. Just outside the Brooks Lodge cabins, gift shop and information center is an observation deck. It’s closed in with a gate to help keep the bears out. The first deck allows you to see salmon swimming underneath you and most likely you can view bears from a far.
What to know about Brooks Falls Platform
There is a limit of 40 people on the platform. Once the limit is reached, a ranger starts a wait list. You are allowed 30 minutes on the platform. There are two levels on the platform, one higher and one lower. I personally stood on the lower platform to observe the bears and take photos.
If you can, try to get to Brooks Falls before 10 AM.
This will help keep your wait time low. We arrived by 9 AM and waited about 20 minutes. We were able to view the bears from the Riffles platform while we waited. Wait times can get up to 3 hours long for the Brooks Falls platform. We went out to Brooks Falls 2x during our day trip. After lunch, we headed back out and waited close to 2 hours. Wait times start to die down after 4:30 PM when the day trippers start to leave the park.
You see people using all types of camera lens at Brooks Falls. At the Riffles platform, I used my largest lens (600mm). I also used this lens on the North and South platform. Surprisingly, at Brook Falls, I used my normal lens (18-55mm). By standing on the lower section of the platform, I was surprised to realize how close you can get to the bears and my big lens would have been too close for the photo I was looking for. You are not allowed to use a tripod, but you can use a monopod. I packed by tripod and set it up as a monopod. This worked perfect for photos.
During my visit, the bears were more active during the early morning. We counted up to 25 bears in the morning. The fish were most active during the afternoon. We counted about 10 bears at Brooks Falls in the afternoon. Since the salmon ran late in 2021, rangers counted up to 55 bears at Brooks Falls.
Everyone talks about the bears, but what about the fish?
I couldn’t believe the amount of fish at Katmai National Park. Views below the North and South Platform were amazing as well as watching up to 15+ fish jumping at the same time trying to swim up Brooks Falls.
Pack your own lunch. There is a buffet style lunch & dinner offered at Brooks Lodge, but it is reserved for people staying at the lodge first. It is also expensive. You can purchase snack food and drinks in their gift shop.
Expect to store all your food & drinks in the food cache when you arrive. There are also special areas to eat in Katmai National Park to keep you safe.
Pack bug spray. I wish I would have packed a travel size bug spray for my trip. I counted 10+ bites on me at the end of the day.
Other things to do at Katmai National Park –
- Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes tour