Bears are all over Alaska; facts vary but it is generally thought that over 30,000 grizzly/brown bears roam Alaska compared to just over 1,000 in the entire lower 48 states. Then of course there are black bears and polar bears, but my point is that despite there being a large number of bears, just turning up to Alaska doesn’t necessarily guarantee you will see one. However, spend a few days in select locations of Katmai National Park and you’re virtually guaranteed a sighting. With this in mind we splurged on the flights to get us to Brooks Camp in Katmai National Park, one of the easier destinations to arrange independently.
Reasons to Visit Brooks Camp
- High likelihood of seeing brown bears feeding on salmon (during salmon seasons)
- Regular commercial flights (you don’t need to charter a plane)
- National Park campground (simple to book, safe to stay in)
Where is Brooks Camp?
What Does it Cost?
- $685 Round trip flights from Anchorage to Brooks Camp http://www.katmailand.com/air-services/packages.html
- $12 per night for the campground (safely surrounded by an electric fence) http://www.nps.gov/katm/planyourvisit/plyovicamp.htm
- Showers are available for a fee, it was something between $6-$8 plus a towel deposit (hot water, limited time). Just between you and me, the tap right next to the shower has hot water and no time limit.
- You can cook your own food in which case you will need to buy a gas canister (around $8) or you can buy food at the Brooks lodge $35 for the dinner buffet which is worth doing once, but we didn’t hear much positive news about the breakfast and lunch so we never tried it http://www.katmailand.com/lodging/brooks-travel-tips.html
- If you don’t have a tent you can rent one from REI in Anchorage http://www.rei.com/stores/rentals.html#alaska
- Of course if you have a larger budget you can stay in the lodge (Brooks Lodge), but frankly, if you have a larger budget perhaps you should consider a tour to a more remote area of Katmai National Park or Kodiak Island.
We stayed for three nights and it cost us a small fortune (by our normal travel spending habits), but no regrets, it was amazing seeing so many bears in such proximity and from the costs I’ve outlined above you can see that 95% of your cost is getting there – camping is cheap, and food is as cheap as you make it.
When to Visit?
The bears come when the salmon do. We visited in early September 2012 after a run, the salmon were in the river and the lakes, but they were no longer so active at the falls.
July and September typically offer high concentrations of brown bears in Brooks, July tends to have the bears fishing in the falls and September when we went tends to have the bears more dispersed in the lower river and between Lake Brooks and Nanek Lake. www.nps.gov/katm/planyourvisit/bear-watching.htm
We wanted to be as close to the bears as could be safely managed, that’s why we chose Brooks in Katmai National Park. Here they have a plentiful food source with the salmon so they have no interest in the humans around them. Compared to Denali National Park where you are advised to keep 300 yards between yourself and any grizzlies, in Katmai we were advised to keep 50 yards distance (100 yards if you encounter a sow with cubs). Of course when you are safely up on the viewing platforms you don’t need to retreat if a bear comes closer.
Over the three days we saw brown bears constantly. We would see them on the beach as we walked to and from our campground, they would occasionally wander through the Brooks Lodge cabins as we dined, and on the viewing platforms we would commonly have 5 – 10 bears in sight.
The bears were always in the water; diving off the banks for salmon swimming near the edges, ‘snorkelling’ in the deep searching for salmon, swimming out in the lake… I was surprised by how comfortable they were in the water.
The Brooks Falls were less interesting during our visit because the salmon were not actively running. The odd fish would jump up, but not enough to justify a bear waiting at the top for one to leap into its mouth – although one particularly stubborn bear did spend hours standing in the falls, as if waiting for this precise but unlikely occurrence.
Staying in a campground surrounded by an electric fence was also an interesting experience, felt like we were in Jurassic Park! Frequently we saw bears wander by on the beach, not 5 yards from the fence. To get from the lodge area to the campground was roughly a five minute walk along a path in the woods which ran parallel to the beach but 5 – 10 yards away. On a couple of occasions we would see a bear walking the opposite direction along the beach, at which point we would back off into the shrub just to give the bear a little more distance. In these situations the bear would have had 15 – 20 yards max, but they had no interest in us – barely giving us a brief look as they lumbered by.
From the viewing platforms you don’t get a true sense of their size, but when you get eye level with one you really see how big they are.
Katmai is also a popular spot for fly fisherman as well as kayak and canoe trips.
I literally just found out they have a live web cam, so you don’t actually need to go to watch the bears. You may spend heaps of money flying there (like we did) have an amazing time (like we did) then get back excited to tell everyone what it was like and they’ll go “Yeah, saw it on the webcam. Did you see when the two large males brawled over a sow? Frecklin amazing, here, check out my screen shot!” Or something similarly disparaging.
But really, there’s no reason not to go out and see brown bears in the wild, so just do it!