Established on December 2, 1980, volcanoes and bears—powerful, unpredictable, and awe-inspiring—embody the wild heart of Katmai. Within the borders of the 4,021,327 acres national park and preserve are 15 volcanoes, some of them still steaming, and North America’s largest population of protected brown bears—about 2,000 of them. You can hike, kayak, and canoe here. You can fish waist-deep in rivers as clear as glass. And you can watch the best fish catcher of all, the great Alaskan brown bear, sometimes diving completely under the water for its prey, sometimes catching fish in mid-air. At the end of the day, you can relax in a rustic yet sumptuous lodge on the shore of a sapphire lake and recount the day’s enchantment.
In 1912 a volcano here erupted with a force ten times that of Mount St. Helens in 1980. Suddenly news of Katmai, a place hardly anyone had heard of, was on front pages around the world. Ash filled the air, global temperatures cooled, acid rain burned clothing off lines in Vancouver, British Columbia, and on Kodiak Island, just across Shelikof Strait from Katmai, the day became night. Leading a 1916 expedition sponsored by the National Geographic Society, botanist Robert Griggs ascended Katmai Pass from Shelikof Strait. “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,” he wrote. The smokes were fumaroles steaming 500 to 1,000 feet into the air. Griggs, who named the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, spearheaded the campaign to include Katmai in the National Park System. Today, the smokes are gone from the valley. But steam vents still appear elsewhere in the park.
From Anchorage, scheduled jets fly the 290 miles to King Salmon, park headquarters; from there, June to mid-September, daily floatplanes fly the last 33 miles to Brooks Camp, site of a summer visitor centre and the centre of activity. Air charters can be arranged into other areas. You can drive the 9 miles from King Salmon to Lake Camp, at the western end of the park on the Naknek River, then go by boat to Brooks Camp, the Bay of Islands, and other areas of Naknek Lake.
When to Go
June to early September. Only then, with transportation from between Brooks Camp and the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, are the lodges, cabins, and Brooks Camp Campground open. Bear watching, an increasingly popular pastime is best in July when the sockeye salmon spawn (bear watching suffers a brief lull in June and again in August). Fishing and hiking are good throughout summer, but come prepared for rain. Heavy snowpack may remain in the upper elevations into July. Summer daytime temperatures range from the mid-50s to mid-60s; the average low is 44°F.
How to Visit
If your time is short, get to Brooks Camp. People, fish, bears, boats, and planes concentrate here. Compared to the rest of the park, it’s crowded. But the lodge and campground are comfortable (reservations required) and the bear viewing unforgettable. You’ll find good hiking and fishing. If at all possible, take the bus or van tour 23 miles out from Brooks Camp to the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. Return the same day or hike into the valley and camp. You can extend your stay by boating or flying to the many other lakes, streams, rivers, and lodges in the park. Pick your area, make a safe plan, and go. Credit: National Geographic Society, 5 November 2009.