Located along the Alaskan peninsula, Katmai National Park is a vast and untamed wilderness of volcanic peaks, dense forests, and windswept coastlines. The park’s sprawling landscapes cover more than 4 million acres, making it larger than the state of Connecticut.
Here, visitors will find a setting that is breathtakingly beautiful and awe-inspiringly vast. A place where the forces of nature remain fully in charge and mankind remains a visitor, even after 9,000 years of habitation. For outdoor enthusiasts, adventure travelers, and animal lovers, Katmai is a place unlike any other.
But you’ll have to leave your RV behind on this journey. There are no roads within the park, and the only way in or out is by boat or float plane. Those who make the trip are rarely disappointed, however. As this is a place that stays with you long after you’ve gone home.
Why Visit Katmai National Park?
Remote, wild, and indescribably beautiful, Katmai National Park is a destination that humbles visitors with its size and scope. The Alaskan landscape is one of the last true wildernesses on the planet, barely touched by man. That alone is a reason to visit, as there are few places on the planet where we can still witness nature in its purest form.
Katmai is also a destination where the Earth’s awesome volcanic forces are fully displayed. The park sits along the Pacific Rim’s fabled Ring of Fire and is among the most active volcanic regions on the planet. At least 14 volcanoes inside the park show signs of activity, including Mount Katmai itself.
That mountain exploded in 1912, becoming the largest eruption by volume of the 20th century. Since then, it has continued to rumble, spitting ash, smoke, and steam from time to time.
One of the biggest reasons to put Katmai National Park on your must-visit list is its large bear population. Each year from June through October, many of the park’s brown bears gather at Brooks Camp to feed on salmon and fatten up for the winter.
The ursine inhabitants seem oblivious to their human audience, preferring to spend their time feasting on fish and occasionally sparring with one another. This makes Katmai one of the premiere destinations to see these massive creatures in their natural habitat, where they put on a show worth seeing.
When to Visit Katmai National Park
The park is accessible year-round by plane or boat, with the weather playing an important role in its accessibility. Because Katmai sits between the North Pacific Ocean and the Bering Sea, conditions can change quickly and dramatically at any time of the year. Come prepared with layers of clothes, rain gear, and a sense of adventure, as you never quite know what to expect.
Katmai National Park in Spring
Winter is slow to release its grip on Katmai National Park, making spring a cold and damp time to visit. Daytime temperatures average around 30ºF early in the season but climb into the 50s as the weeks pass. Overnight, the mercury falls into the teens and 20s, with warm sleeping bags and four-seasons tents in order.
Snow and rain aren’t especially common but are possible on any day. The park’s famous bears begin to emerge from hibernation in April but are seldom seen at this time of year. As a result, crowds are minimal, even at the most popular locations.
Katmai National Park in Summer
Summer brings warmer weather, more rain, and larger crowds. At the season’s peak, temperatures climb into the mid-60s, with overnight lows averaging in the mid-40s. This is the busiest and most crowded time in the park, although it is so massive that it is easy to avoid large groups of people.
The exception to that rule is Brooks Camp and other areas where the brown bears gather. By June, the creatures have begun to gather in large numbers as they fatten for winter. The areas where they tend to congregate can get very busy well into September and beyond.
Katmai National Park in Fall
In autumn, the warm summer weather quickly gives way to cooling temperatures, with daily highs dropping from the low 50s early in the season into the low 30s by the end. The conditions get even chillier overnight, with lows tumbling into the 20s and teens. Rain and snow are still somewhat common, although not as prevalent as in the summer months.
Katmai’s bear population remains active into October, although they become increasingly more challenging to spot in the wild. By November, they return to their dens to hibernate throughout the long cold winter.
Katmai National Park in the Winter
Winter is long, cold, and harsh throughout Katmai. The bears are nowhere to be seen, and the days are very short, offering little sunlight. Visitors to the park are minimal, with only a few hardy, adventurous souls braving the conditions.
Daytime temperatures typically hover around 20ºF throughout the winter, with overnight lows falling into the single digits. An arctic cold snap can bring heavy snow and sub-zero conditions, making this the harshest, most difficult time to come and go from the park.
No matter which season you visit Katami, pay close attention to the weather reports. Conditions can change quickly, leading to the cancellation of a flight or boat excursion. Be prepared to be flexible with your plans, as your schedule could be disrupted by the weather.
Where to Stay
Because the park has no roads in or out — and very little infrastructure in general — there are no RV campsites within Katmai. Visitors can stay at lodges operated by an independent concessioner called Katmailand, Inc. The company has cabins at Brooks Camp and a second lodge called Grosvenor.
Both are rustic and remote lodges with few amenities. Visitors will need to bring their own gear and supplies for the length of their stay, including food. Katmai visitors also have the option to stay at private lodges located on private lands or inholdings adjacent to the national park. Those locations include the following:
- Battle River Wilderness Retreat
- Enchanted Lake Lodge
- Katmai Wilderness Lodge
- Kulik Lodge
- Royal Wolf Lodge
Tent camping is also an option for experienced backpackers visiting Katmai National Park. There is a primitive campground located at Brooks Camp that is open from May 1 through October 1. The campsites fill up early, so make a reservation at Recreation.gov as soon as possible. Dispersed camping is allowed in Katmai’s backcountry, although there are now established campsites.
Bears are always a concern in Katmai, so backpackers and campers are required to bring a bear canister to secure their food. Carrying bear spray to ward off aggressive creatures is also permitted. All visitors to the backcountry should read the park’s rules and regulations before arrival. Inexperienced travelers may want to hire a local guide for their journey.
Staying Outside the Park
Since you won’t be traveling to Katmai in an RV, you’ll want to find a secure place to park it while you’re away. Anchorage and Homer have several good campgrounds where you can leave your rig while exploring the wilderness. Here are a few options:
- Anchorage Ship Creek RV Park: Located in Anchorage, AK, about a one-hour and ten-minute flight to Katmai.
- Ocean Shores RV Park & Resort: Located in Homer, AK, about a 15-minute flight to Katmai.
- Heritage RV Park: Located in Homer, AK, about a 15-minute flight to Katmai.
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Tips for Your Camping Stay
If you plan to camp inside Katmai National Park, here are a few tips for your stay:
- Be bear aware. The park’s ursine population is large, active, and curious—especially when food is around. When in camp, keep your food in a secure container. Bring bear spray for extra protection.
- Katmai is a remote and wild place with few facilities and little infrastructure. All camping in the park is primitive, and there are no designated campsites or fire rings, so minimize your impact on the environment by practicing the principles of Leave No Trace.
- The weather can be unpredictable in the national park, so bring a tent, sleeping pad, and sleeping bag appropriate to the Alaskan conditions.
- If you’re visiting Katmai in the summer, be prepared for long days and short nights. During June and July, the sun stays up well into the night, with only a few brief hours of darkness.
- Brooks Camp offers storage caches for backpackers who want to stash extra food and water. Those caches are mainly intended for visitors to the campsite, however, so space may be limited.
- While dispersed camping is permitted throughout Katmai, most backpackers pitch their tents on Dumpling Mountain or the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. The hike to Dumpling Mountain is more difficult and strenuous but offers excellent landscape views. Conversely, the walk to the valley is easier and more accessible, with campsites located amongst spruce trees.
How to Get Around Katmai National Park
Like most of the national parks in Alaska, Katmai is only accessible by air or by sea. Many services are available for flightseeing or day service to Brooks Camp, Naknek Lake, and the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. The park headquarters in King Salmon is a great jumping-off spot, with direct air service from Anchorage.
Once in the park, travel is on foot or by bike, depending on the area. Because Katmai has no roads and few designated trails, travel can be slow and challenging. Wear comfortable shoes, such as hiking boots, that are appropriate for the terrain and environment.
Places to Go
There are plenty of places to go and things to see while visiting Katmai. Just about anywhere inside the park is worth seeing, with breathtaking, sprawling landscapes in every direction. The following is a list of some of the must-see places:
Without a doubt, the most popular area inside Katmai National Park is Brooks Camp. Here, visitors can stay in lodges close to where many of the park’s brown bears congregate during the summer, watching them feed on migrating salmon in the Brooks River.
There is a visitor center here, where guests must attend “bear training” before heading out to view the creatures. Several boardwalks and viewing platforms are provided to keep humans safely cordoned off, allowing the animals to catch fish without being uninterrupted.
A one-room log cabin along Naknek Lake’s Bay of Islands, this home was built by a Lithuanian immigrant, Roy Fure, in 1926. Today it is a public-use cabin available for nightly rent. It is a popular stopover for kayakers and hikers looking for a comfortable space in the backcountry.
Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes
Covering 40 square miles, this ash and the steam-filled valley is lined with 18 volcanoes, seven of which are still active. The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes was named after the 20th century’s largest volcanic eruption, which occurred here in 1912.
At the time, Novarupta spewed a vast amount of pyroclastic material into the air and across the region, creating a valley of ash up to 700 feet deep. A geologic survey in 1916 recorded thousands of smoking vents throughout the valley, thus giving it its name. It is a popular place for visitors, with plenty of geothermal activity on display.
Things to Do
As you would expect with an outdoor playground as vast and wild as Katmai, there are plenty of things to do while in the park. Here are a few suggestions for outdoor enthusiasts exploring the region.
The most intriguing aspect of Katmai National Park is its large concentration of brown bears (known as grizzlies in the interior). Today there are over 2,200 of these enormous mammals that wander the park’s wilderness. Visitors can enjoy bear watching at Brooks Camp, where the salmon runs entice bears every summer from June through September.
There are only five miles of trails within the 4,000,000 acres of the park, but Katmai offers unlimited opportunities for exploring the backcountry. In fact, there are a number of great locations in Katmai that require extensive hiking. The list below includes a few destinations that attract visitors traveling on foot, with links to maps for those locations.
Because of the large bear population in Katmai National Park, hikers are urged to know and practice bear safety rules and follow regulations regarding food storage at all times.
Canoeing and Kayaking
Traveling by kayak, canoe, or pack raft is a popular way to explore Katmai, as the park includes numerous rivers, streams, and large lakes. Paddling on Naknek Lake is an exceptional experience, with waypoints that include Brooks Camp, Fure’s Cabin, Grandma Rock, and Gull Island to visit. Whitewater rafting can also be found along American Creek, with especially wild rapids following the spring thaw.
Exceptional fishing opportunities await anglers within the park boundaries, where rainbow and lake trout, dolly varden, char, and five species of salmon can be found. Rangers carefully manage fish populations, and fishermen should be familiar with state rules for sport fishing before embarking. In order to preserve Katmai’s natural state and protect its fish species, all anglers must adhere to catch and release tactics while in the park.
Because Katmai National Park has the largest density of brown bears in the world, anglers may find themselves competing for fish with these large animals. So extra care is required when casting a line here, especially during the summer salmon runs.
One of the best ways to experience Katmai’s grandeur is by airplane. From the sky, visitors get a unique vantage point of the park’s immense topography of volcanoes, lakes, and islands. Flight passengers can even catch sight of brown bears and moose wandering the landscape and schools of salmon swimming upstream.
Flight services originate in the surrounding communities of Homer, King Salmon, Soldotna, and Anchorage.
What to Bring and How to Prepare
Here are a few tips on what you should bring with you to Katmai National Park and how to prepare for your visit:
- Dress in layers. The park’s weather can vary wildly throughout the day, even during the summer. Bring layers that allow you to adjust to changing temperatures and conditions. Be sure to bring a rain jacket just in case a storm rolls through while you’re there.
- Pack your binoculars and a camera with a long lens. While it is possible to get up close and personal with the bears at Brooks Camp, you may spot other animals while hiking in the wild. A pair of binoculars will allow you to watch them from a safe distance, while a camera with a good zoom can capture the moment for posterity.
- There is no cellphone or internet service inside the park. Plan on being offline for the entirety of your stay. If you plan to bring your smartphone, tablet, or other devices, a small USB battery pack will help keep them charged.
- If camping or staying at one of the park’s lodges, you’ll want a warm sleeping bag even during the summer. Bring one rated for the appropriate temperatures you’ll experience while you’re there.
- Bring extra food, fuel, and other supplies. Because the weather can be unpredictable, your flight or boat ride out of the park could be delayed. Having a few additional things to eat will help you stay comfortable while you wait.
- Wear comfortable and sturdy hiking boots while traveling through the park, and a pair of trekking poles are recommended too.
A Brief History of Katmai National Park
The Katmai Peninsula has been inhabited by ancestors of the Alutiiq people, who built villages along the southern coast more than 6000 years ago. They were the most prominent indigenous tribe for centuries, with a population of more than 13,000 people and 60 villages as recently as the 1800s.
The first Europeans to arrive in the Katmai area were Russian fur traders and explorers who has come to seek their fortune in the new world. Later, American fur traders would also make their way to the Alaskan frontier, trapping sea otters in large numbers.
When those creatures all but vanished in the early 20th century, the commercial fur trade left the area, leaving the Alutiq to continue to live off the land there. By 1912, when Mount Katmai and Novarupta volcanoes erupted, the four remaining villages in the region were abandoned, but their descendants and legacy can still be found in the community of King Salmon.
With the eruption, the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes got its name as countless volcanic vents and fumaroles opened up, spewing out steam in a 40-mile area. The landscape was irrevocably changed by the geothermal activity, becoming more like the surface of the moon, with thousands of volcanic fissures strewn across the valley floor.
A 1916 expedition headed by explorer Robert Griggs and funded by the National Geographic Society surveyed the post-eruption landscape for the first time. They discovered a wilderness unlike any they had ever seen, with volcanic activity reshaping the land before their eyes. The expedition team found the region so awe-inspiring that Griggs and his men lobbied Congress to protect it, with Katmai National Monument created by congress in 1918.
Things changed in the 1950s when Katmai was recognized for its prime breeding grounds for brown bears and spawning runs for sockeye salmon. Not long after, a park headquarters was built, and a seasonal ranger was tasked with reducing the amount of poaching. Those were important steps to establishing the national monument as a destination for adventurous travelers.
In 1964, National Park Service director George B. Hartzog commissioned a survey of the Alaskan wilderness that identified 39 locations for potential preserves and recreational spaces. Following that survey, Hartzog recommended that Katmai be expanded to encompass more of the land that surrounded the volcanic activity.
Four years later, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a directive doing just that, and by 1971 a full-time superintendent was assigned to oversee the wilderness area.
It took another nine years for Katmai to gain national park status, with Congress conferring that status in 1980. In doing so, the park grew dramatically, becoming the fourth largest in the country. Today, it is a sprawling wilderness that receives about 40,000 visitors annually, most of whom come to see the bears.
Have you ever been to Katmai National Park? What were your experiences there?
Shelley Dennis is a travel photographer and writer who threw caution to the wind and gave up most of her belongings to travel the country in an RV. Her trusty sidekick for this lifetime adventure is her Golden Retriever, Sully. You can find them both at www.PhotoTrippingAmerica.com