Camping with Bears at Brooks Falls in Katmai Nat’l Park

In Adventure, Alaska Travelgram, Katmai National Park, Parks, Southwest Alaska by scott

Special Correspondent Jennie Flaming is a fourth-generation Seattleite. She lived in Alaska but now calls Seattle home. Again. She writes about outdoor adventure and travel in Washington, Alaska and Western Canada. This is her report.

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to camp at Brooks Camp in Katmai National Park? Let me tell you all about it! My trip was amazing but also featured lots of heavy rain and lots of bears. It was an intense and nerve-racking adventure, that’s for sure.

Katmai is an expensive destination. I saved money by using Alaska Air miles to get to King Salmon and camping after I got to Brooks Camp. There are some downsides to camping at Brooks Camp, but the the National Park Service does an amazing job with Bear School (required orientation when you arrive). There’s also an electric fence around the campground, a designated food cache and cooking shelters.

After flying to King Salmon, I checked into Sockeye Cabins (highly recommended, they were perfect). After that, I explored the town of King Salmon a bit, repacked all my gear and had dinner at the Sockeye Saloon. The Sockeye Cabins and the Sockeye Saloon are walking distance to the airport (<5 minute walk with my luggage). If you ever find yourself with time to kill in King Salmon, this is a great place to do it.

Beer and bar food at Sockeye Saloon.

The next morning I headed over to Katmai Air’s office on the Naknek River to fly to Brooks Camp. The low cloud ceiling had me wondering, but then a plane took off. hooray!

Arriving in Brooks Camp.

After 25 minutes at low altitude, we splashed down on Naknek Lake at Brooks Camp. We pulled right up to the beach and were guided by a ranger directly into the Visitor Center for bear school. 

“Bear School” at the Visitor Center is mandatory for all arriving travelers.

“Is it insane to camp here by myself??” I asked the ranger at the desk. He said “Oh no, you’ll be just fine!”. I’ll be fine. Fine, fine, fine this will be great! Stay positive.

Just before heading over to the campground I turned around and found a friend! A fellow traveler (a ranger from another park who I previously met on another trip), Matt was also there at the same time camping for a few nights. What an unbelievably small world! We both were happy to have someone to walk with in bear country. Walking by yourself at Brooks Camp is not a good idea.

Feeling lucky, I grabbed my backpack and walked the third of a mile to the campground. For one miraculous hour of my three day visit, it wasn’t raining while I set up my tent. A true miracle!

Home, Sweet Home in Bear Country.

I got my tent set up and my food cached in the cache and then Matt and I went to see the bears at Brooks Falls. It’s about a two mile walk from the campground to the falls by way of the lodge. 

The electric bear fence and gate protecting the campground.

After leaving the lodge there’s an elevated walkway over the Brooks River. As soon as we stepped out onto the elevated walkway we saw at least six bears and then we kept seeing more in the distance. 

Bears were everywhere in the Brooks River even before we got to the falls.

Once we got to the viewing platform area, we had to wait a few minutes. The Ranger explained: they give people 30 minutes on the platform. Some day-trippers were there, so the line was longer. We went over to the Riffles platform to wait and saw even more bears!

When it was our turn to go on to the Brooks Falls viewing platform, I wasn’t sure what to expect.

It was amazing. Not only were the bears everywhere, if you stay out there long enough you start to get to know their different ways, and which ones are dominant and how they fish. That was incredible. 

Salmon taking advantage of a short break in the bears.

I also loved watching the fish. And it was amazing that while walking back and forth you can hear the bears chewing (!) since they’re all sitting around in the brush eating fish. You can’t hear the chewing so much at the falls because of the noise of the water. 

I watched them for hours! We kept going back through the line and then all the day-trippers left. It was awesome.

Afterwards, we headed back to the lodge for dinner. The Lodge was a great place for meals, and a really pleasant way to get out of the rain for awhile and get to know my fellow travelers. They have a buffet and the food was really good, as well as a bar and a big fireplace with chairs, couches, board games and cards.

After waiting as long as I could keep my eyes open, Matt and I walked back to the campground which felt like the longest 0.3 miles I had ever walked. We had to detour around one bear that was just chilling along the trail, and then another. 

This is fine. Fine!

After running “calmly walking very slowly” through the gauntlet back to the campground, I could not believe I was actually going to sleep in a tent after that! I texted my husband on my Garmin InReach to let him know I was still alive (for now). Then, I went to bed and read a novel for a few hours. It didn’t help that around 1am I heard a very loud growl (it was far away…but STILL). Eventually exhaustion took over and I fell asleep to the sound of the heavy rain on my tent (which stayed dry! yay!).

Using the Garmin inReach (hanging) to text my husband back home. Then, backing up my photos and video to my laptop while the rain came down. The exotic life of a travel writer!

The next day after a hearty breakfast in the lodge, I learned that the Valley of 10,000 Smokes tour was cancelled and I was absolutely crushed. The bus was waiting on a part from the Lower 48 that was held up by a few days with very few flights. And they weren’t taking anyone in the van because the fog was so intense and the rain was so heavy. If a van tour is cancelled because of rain and fog, you know it’s not good! Honestly, I wanted to cry. I’ve wanted to go to the Valley of 10,000 Smokes as long as I can remember. But this is all part of the adventure when you’re traveling and if this was the worst thing that happened on my trip I realized it was not that bad. 

Drying out, fireside, in the lodge at Brooks Camp.

After a quick recovery I spent the morning reading by the fire and tried out the Brooks Lodge lunch which was delicious. After lunch, we did the Cultural Site Ranger walk which I really recommend. When you’re married to an archaeologist you can’t turn down the archaeology tour even if you want to and even if you don’t know anything! Gotta report back. They’ve done a good job of helping you imagine the past, including a reconstructed sod house partially underground at the site of a 650 year old archaeology site.

Reconstructed sod house.

Matt and I befriended some employees and agreed to meet up for dinner and cards later. Then we decided to go back to the falls again. That day there were no day trips so we didn’t have to wait and we spent a couple of hours out there again. I don’t even have a “real” camera and it still was absolutely captivating.

There were even more bears at Brooks Falls on the second day.

Eventually the dinner hour approached and we started back towards the lodge, with the trail feeling weirdly empty all of a sudden. Of course right at that moment a bear came down the trail and we had to move over and stay calm for him to pass. Yikes! I have never ever been that close to a brown bear and I can’t believe I followed the training and didn’t pass out. It was intense! 

After an encounter like that, you definitely need a beer so it was time to visit the bar and then get ready for dinner with the new friends. We had a great time telling stories and hanging out.

Beer and cards to pass a rainy night with new friends while putting off returning to the campground.

After another evening spent putting off the walk back to campground as long as possible, we eventually walked back (bear-free this time). 

On the second night maybe I was used to camping with bears, or the heavier rain drowned out any potential distant growls, or I was just tired, but I went to sleep almost immediately (and almost forgot to tell hubby I was still ok).

The next day was my day to leave, weather permitting. There were a lot of cancelled flights while I was there so I tried to keep an open mind. I packed up everything inside the tent and then went outside to evaluate the cloud ceiling. It looked better than the day before. So, I packed up my tent in another downpour. That made everything wet, so now I was committed to flying out!

After breakfast, there was time for a bit more exploring. I decided to walk along the beach for a few minutes. The rangers stopped me. A Mama bear was walking along the beach with her FOUR cubs, known affectionately around camp as “The Quad”. 

I only managed to get two of the Quad in a photo (the others were a bit further back).

Instead of walking, I just watched The Quad. Amazing. Then, I heard the float plane land. It was time to go.

We had an exciting ride back to King Salmon (thanks to our pilot, Chris), landing gently on the Naknek River. I’m so glad I had this adventure. but I was also happy to get back safely, without unpacking my wet gear. 

Literally the ONLY photo I took of myself. In my defense I was busy and distracted by bears and rain.

If you’re considering a trip, here’s my advice:

  1. Day-trippers: your tour could be cancelled. That’s because the top priority is to get campers and lodge guests in and out.
  2. Be prepared to wait for weather. Bring reading material.
  3. Take a really good rain jacket (maybe two) and bring your XtraTufs. Don’t forget a pack cover to keep your stuff dry.
  4. Campers: your tent must be amazing in wind and rain. No little beanie rain flies! My tent held up great through two days and nights of heavy rain and one night of wind. Other people in the campground were not so lucky. Carefully check your tent beforehand, because this is not the place to find out it has a hole.
  5. The food at the Lodge was really good and I felt it was a good value given the location. A great option for campers as well as lodge guests.
  6. There are bears everywhere. This was amazing but also really stressful.
  7. Traveling solo? This was not an ideal choice for a solo traveler unless you are good at making new friends!

If you want to read my full guide to visiting Katmai, you can find that here.

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