Alaska is known for the number of national parks and national forests and their size. For most people visiting the 49th state, Denali and Kenai Fjords national parks are at the forefront of the places to visit and are the most-visited national parks in the the northern part of the state.
When Larisa and I were originally planning our trip to Alaska, we didn't even consider any other parks due to their remote locations, high cost, and low popularity. As I started doing more research and talking with people who have been to Alaska, I've discovered that the true gem of a park is actually located several hundred miles southwest of Anchorage on the Alaska Peninsula - Katmai National Park and Preserve.
Katmai National Park, established only 35 years ago in 1980 to protect the area of extreme geological interest and the prime salmon and costal brown bear habitat is located 235 air miles from Anchorage and getting there isn't easy.
With no roads that lead to that area of the state, the only way to visit Katmai is by plane. There are various options, but the most affordable, the option we chose, was flying Alaska Airlines from Anchorage to King Salmon, then taking a Katmailand air taxi to Brooks Camp - the main Katmai destination. The total cost comes to roughly $500. At first glance, spending that much to get to one park, after paying less than that amount to get to Alaska seems ludicrous. It took me weeks to convince the rest of our travel party to give Katmai a chance to wow us. And it did.
Kenai was scenic. Denali was spectacular. Katmai was the best.
We arrived in King Salmon after a short flight from Anchorage. The King Salmon "airport" is really just a small shack where the security, gate, waiting area, and baggage claim are all in one small, basic space the size of a small grocery store.
As we waited for our bags, the conveyor belt mostly carried coolers and fishing gear as most people on our flight were visiting with the intent of fishing in the park. Katmai is often dubbed "angler's paradise". With the largest sockeye salmon run in the world, there's enough salmon for bears and humans.
King Salmon impressed us with the quickest baggage service I've ever had. After all, the bags just had to make a quick trip from the jet, through something that resembles a garage door to the small baggage waiting area.
After receiving the bags, I had to pack my backpacking backpack and leave anything non-essential like souvenirs from the first part of the trip and extra clothing in the bag that we then would leave in Katmailand's office prior to taking the floatplane to Brooks.
When everyone received their baggage, a small shuttle bus drove us to the Katmailand office where our bags were weighed and we waited for our floatplane to arrive. Our bags were boarded on an earlier float plane flight and departed. Then, we boarded an old Otter from the 60's which would take us to Brooks camp.
I've never been on a plane that small, and I've never been on a float plane. The take off from the river was both a bit scary and fascinating at the same time. As the small plane took off and headed further inland towards the park, the pilot listened to his iPod - because that's what bush pilots do, since there's little traffic to be concerned about in the Alaskan wilderness.
We flew over hundreds of lakes and vast expanses of forests. At some point, we flew right past a bald eagle, soaring just a few dozen yards below us. Unfortunately, I didn't get a shot of the eagle, however I wish I had gotten Larisa's facial expression more than the soaring eagle because we were both very amazed after seeing one flying not above us, but below. At the end of the flight the pilot asked "would you have told anyone if I hit the eagle?". Doesn't happen on your typical flight every day.
We landed on Lake Naknek and pulled up to a sign that read "Katmai National Park and Preseve - Brooks Camp". We were finally there. I haven't been this excited about arriving somewhere in a long time. As soon as we got off the plane, we saw a mother bear with two cubs strolling on the beach a few hundred yards away. You really do see a bear as soon as you land in Katmai.
We went though a "bear-intation" and managed to get a camping spot for our last night of the trip. The first night of the trip hiked up Dumpling Mountain to set up camp, and the next day we'd be spending in the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes.
So a little bit about Brooks Camp.
Brooks Camp is located on the Brooks River which flows over a short stretch between Lake Brooks and Naknek Lake. Salmon enter Naknek River at Kvichak Bay west of King Salmon, then migrate upstream through Naknek Lake, eventually overcoming the main barrier on the route - Brooks Falls before landing at their final destination. The sockeye salmon run peaks in mid to late July, so we visited Brooks at the best time possible. During peak salmon run, fish jump continuously and there can be as many as 16 or 20 bears fishing at Brooks Falls.
The falls are a 25 minute walk from Brooks Camp, a walk that can often turn into an hour or more, if the floating bridge over Brooks River is under a "bear closure". Bears have the right of way in Katmai and the rangers go to great lengths to ensure that humans do not disturb normal bear activity. Unlike other parks, bears at Katmai are wild and do not associate humans with food - this allows the National Park Service to have the 50 yard bear proximity limit, unlike other parks where it is 100 yards or more.
During our 4 day stay at Katmai, we have visited the bear-viewing platforms several times, and each time, something was a little different. The bears are truly fascinating animals. They are clever, charming, adorable, fuzzy, but also mysterious, powerful, and unpredictable.
The salmon run was at the peak when we were in Katmai, but even during the peak salmon season, fish aren't always jumping at the falls. One evening we were at the falls, salmon were jumping out of the water every couple seconds. When fish are that plentiful, the bears don't bother with the meat. Consuming just the skin allows their demanding bodies to be filled with lots of fat and vitamins. When the fish are less plentiful, the bears eat everything to the bone (bones included).
There are amazing hierarchies in place at the falls - larger males dominate the best fishing spots, sometimes, younger males attempt to use a spot on the falls. Sometimes, their attempts succeed, other times, they get chased away by older, more powerful males. The females rarely show up at the falls but when they do, competition for mating is intense and often breaks out in bear fights.
I could go on and on about the life at the falls - but I'd recommend that you visit Katmai yourself and see these amazing animals in their natural habitat with your own eyes.
For many, the bears are the main reason to visit Katmai, but Katmai was originally created to protect a scenic volcanic valley - the Valley of 10,000 smokes.
The eruption of Novarupta in 1912 was one of the largest eruptions in recorded history. To put things in perspective - Novarupta produced 30 times as much ash and lava as the eruption of Mt. St.Helens in 1980.
The Valley of 10k Smokes was formed as the result of this massive eruption. The once green valley was covered with a thick layer of ash that was thick enough that for several years after the eruption the entire valley was still hot enough to produce thousands of fumaroles - hence the name of the valley.
There's a bus that takes tourists from Brooks to VTTS every day. We took the bus out, and spent the night in the valley.
This is difficult, wild terrain. While many people backpack as far as the caldera of Mt. Katmai, navigating the valley takes time. We were planning on camping at the top of Buttress Range, a roughly 8-mile one-way backpacking trip. Coming down to the valley took a substantial amount of time as we had to make way through thick brush. Once at the bottom of the valley, we had to cross Windy River. Reviews on various hiking sites have cited the crossing to be "the most difficult river crossing". Water has been running low, thanks to a dry winter season. We were relieved to find that the river crossing was only about ankle deep.
We continued through the strange, Martian-like surface of the valley. Completely desolate of any plant life, spare a few rugged flowers and grasses, it was easy to forget that this was Alaska. Some of the photos probably look more like the southwest than a place in Alaska.
After a long hike through the valley, we decided to come up to the top of the first peak on the Buttress Range and set up camp. Hiking any further was going to take a lot of time since there was no trail up the range.
The following day, we hiked back and took the bus back to Brooks. That night we spent at the campground in Brooks and enjoyed more time with the bears, and took the canoe out the last day before heading out.
I could write much more about all the awesome things in Katmai, but words do little justice to a place like that. If there is a place to visit before you die - it's Katmai.