How to Camp in Katmai National Park: With Bears and All
First, a little story…
Staff camping trip: Spring of 2023
Usually held at Hallo Bay, the guides decided to try a different location this year. Spotting a large whale during a recon flight, the group made basecamp at Four Peaks Glacier Lake at the base of Mt Douglas. Thankfully, in early spring, the foliage was still sparse enough you could hike it or rather “bushwhack” through thick alders. Additionally, there was boulder hopping and swampy river crossings. On the first day, after acquiring splinters and little twigs on their packs along the way, they arrived at the beach three hours after starting their journey. Finding the whale was not easy, but when they did, it was the most rewarding and magical experience, minus the smell. Sitting from a respectful distance, the guides were able to experience bears and wolves sharing an incredible meal. At a time when their body mass is at the lowest coming out of winter, this large meal is an exquisite source of high protein. That experience is one that most of us would only imagine watching on TV. After returning back to basecamp that night, no doubt exhausted but captivated, they took a polar dip in the glacier lake, because, why not?
From Erica (guide) on this year’s camping trip: “It was absolutely epic. Camped on the most beautiful glacier lake. We couldn’t land on the beach because of the rocky shore and the big open swells from the Shelikof Strait. We hoped to find a route to be able to get guests to see the whale for upcoming trips, however, with the distance to the lake and the overgrowth of vegetation, it just wouldn’t be possible. On the second day, we tried a different route which took forever and was likely around 7 miles roundtrip. On the beach with the whale, it was absolutely so much fun. There were two to three wolves present at one time and they were howling. Lance (guide) howled back at them and they were answering him which was very cool. The whale was huge and very smelly. At one point one of the bears, had his head entirely in the whale with a flap of skin across his head like a shower curtain *giggles*. The bears and wolves were keeping an eye on each other, but they were sharing. They would take naps signaling a food coma. At another point, there was an otter on a rock eating a fish when one of the bears swam up to the rock and tried to grab the otter. At the last second, the otter noticed and jumped off the rock. It was just ridiculously cool. We had so much fun, it was the absolute best.”
As a company, camping with the bears allows us to reacquaint ourselves with the land and the bears. We do this every spring before our busy season kicks off to refresh the skills we’ve built through the years. Although our staff uses these trips as trainings, we personally enjoy them so much more besides the fact that it is an important portion of our jobs.
If you ever have the opportunity to camp in Katmai National Park, it will be a truly magical experience, one that is hard to fully describe. Spending the time to see the meadows, the creeks, and the wildlife as day and night progress, is just an indescribable feeling. It’s as if you too become a part of the wild.
Being the 3rd largest park in the United States, there are many areas to explore within Katmai National Park and Preserve. Whether bear viewing, fishing, hiking, packrafting, or just general enjoyment and exploring, you’ll want to do your research ahead of time to get the most out of your adventure. Visiting respectfully allows you and future visitors the same opportunity to explore such a magnificent and untouched part of our world.
Getting to Katmai National Park
Planning an adventure of this magnitude requires a lot of planning and simple luck. Because of the size of the park, you’ll likely need a bush plane to get you to your destination. Boats can take you out there as well, however it will be a longer journey. There are many options to reach the park from King Salmon, Kodiak, and Homer, but it will really depend on your adventure location. Plan to have 3-4 contingent days, and extra supplies, after your intended trip dates in case weather delays departure and/or pick up.
You may have to cross different weather patterns to get to your destination depending on your starting point. With flights, visibility is one of the biggest concerns as well as the conditions of where you will be landing. Even the afternoon day breeze can create swells and make beach landings difficult for floatplanes.
If you’re camping on the coast, tides can a be big factor determining what time to set departure and pick up. Missing your tide window could mean having to carry heavy water buckets, tents, coolers, and personal gear several hundred more yards than you have to. Perhaps it may not even be possible if the tidal flat is more mud than it is sand. Carrying gear across low tide is not ideal. The unwritten rule about shuffling gear is that you never leave it alone. Bears get curious and may decide some of your belongings are playthings and run away with them. And we highly advise against wrestling a bear for your items… So, shuffling your belongings in full every 20 yards or so is a rule of thumb so you always have eyes on it. Weather can make you miss your tide window and that is just part of the nature of an adventure such as this one. We’ve been delayed sitting in our adventure clothes for an additional 12 hours. It happens.
Necessary Gear and regulations regarding camping in Katmai National Park
First and foremost is following the regulations for camping in Katmai National Park. Camping in the backcountry has specific guidelines to follow such as camping length limits, awareness of camp area closures to certain popular bear destinations, limits to collections from the field, firearm rules, fishing, and more. One of the most important rules is the use of bear-resistant food containers. It is mandatory to have an “Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee” approved container for your food storage. This is not just for your safety, but for the safety of the bears and their natural habitat.
It is feasible for us to walk among bears thanks to these “etiquettes” that have been in place for decades.
It is not mandatory to use an electric fence, but it is recommended. While they are not bear proof, they are used as a deterrent to any curious bear that may want to inspect your camp. If a bear gets shocked by the fence, they should avoid your camp thereafter. In all of our camping trips, we have always used one. As a company with a commercial permit in the park, we try to be the example of best practices showing a safe and respectful visit. Park rangers are known to visit campers to ensure regulations are being followed. Failing to comply with these could result in consequences both in fines and removals by rangers or a severe detriment to the safety of future campers. Pro tip on the electric fence: read the instructions before your trip if you’ve never used one before.
Campfires are allowed but discouraged due to the impact they tend to have on the habitat. In all our camping trips at Katmai, we have refrained from having fires. Leaving no trace for us means there is absolutely no evidence we were in the area.
While some may feel safe carrying weapons, they are illegal to fire within the federal park boundaries. Bear spray can be included with your gear. However, it cannot be brought in the cabin of the plane for safety reasons I’m sure you can understand. If pepper spray goes off inside a small plane, no one wins. Some spray cans may be stored in the floats if you are going by seaplane, but please check with your pilot. Our guides carry flares when they’re in the field. They have never had to discharge them, but it is our preferred form of bear defense. It will create a bright light, smoke, and hissing noises which is enough to ward off any bears should you need to escalate to a defensive stance. Please visit our About Bears Page to learn more on preventing and dealing with bear encounters.
Yes, I said pooping. Unlike most national parks, Katmai is special because of the large concentration of bears. They are opportunistic feeders which means they will eat just about anything edible, including your poop. Although regulations for the park state to dig a cat hole 6-8 inches deep, we recommend bringing designated human solid waste disposal bags. This would mean you have to pack out these bags. Even though you may be digging a deep enough cat hole, we have personally seen evidence of bears digging them up and it’s just not a pretty sight. If you must dig a cat hole, please remember not to include toilet paper. Camping on the coast may give you more flexibility with an outgoing tide.
Camping at Brooks Camp
The facilities at Brooks can offer an easier camping experience with easy access to multiple activities. Having public restrooms, food lockers, an electric fence area, and fire rings, Brooks Camp is a popular destination for those who want to go bear viewing, hiking, fishing, and more. You can camp at the official campground or outside the designated Brooks Camp boundary.
Backcountry areas to explore in Katmai National Park
Dumpling Mountain: Outside of the Brooks Camp Developed Area. Approximately 2.5 miles up the trail at about 1,000 feet of elevation. This is considered backcountry and you will not have access to any facilities unless you hike down to the developed area.
Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes: Backpack to North America’s largest volcanic explosion site of the 20th century. Explore the volcanic ash field once used to train astronauts in the 60s. This area is the reason why Katmai NP exists today. The access to backcountry camping starts about 1.5 miles down the road.
Fure's Cabin: Katmai’s only public use cabin is located on the eastern shore of Naknek Lake. It is a destination on its own, however many use it as a stopover in the Savonoski River Paddle loop. While this isn’t technically backcountry camping, it is backcountry glamping! Cost is $45 a night.
American Creek: 40-mile-long creek located on the northwestern boundary of the park. Popular with fishermen, spend 7 to 10 days floating the river, fishing, and enjoying the beautiful scenery.
Savonoski River: 80 miles in length and requiring intermediate paddling skills. Travel from Brooks Camp across Naknek Lake to Lake Grosvenor, then through Savonoski River to Iliuk Arm and back to Naknek Lake and Brooks Camp.
Hallo Bay: Minding camping closures, Hallo Bay offers some of the best bear viewing experiences in the spring. See tiny cubs exploring and learning about their new world. Camp outside of the meadow boundaries during popular bear viewing season. This meadow is nestled between mountains and volcanoes with Hallo Glacier in the background. Early summer has a higher concentration of bears.
Geographic Harbor: Minding camping closures, Geographic Harbor is another popular place to view bears and marine wildlife. It was named after the National Geographic Society in 1919 by Robert Griggs during one of the expeditions to the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes.
Moraine Creek: Situated in the Katmai National Preserve, it is another popular bear viewing and fishing location. In late July, the salmon reach these streams and makes for entertaining bear viewing. You’ll find the bears happy and full bellied after splashing around catching salmon. This is beautiful tundra terrain, but can be exposed to strong wind at times.
Katmai National Park is over 3.4 million acres. There is an abundance of beautiful rugged terrain to explore. It only takes some research and a sense of adventure!
Additional Educational Resources:
IGBC Bear-resistant: Product List and Information
Camping in Brooks Camp Developed Area (BCDA): FAQs
Backcountry camping in Katmai NP: NPS Information
Katmai NPS camping: Rules and Regulations
Booking Fure’s Cabin: Recreation.gov