Katmai National Park

Great, powerful Alaskan brown bears gather sometimes in the thousands in Katmai National Park on the Alaskan Peninsula to breed, hibernate, and in summer and fall to feed and fatten on salmon spawning by the millions in rushing streams of this stunning pristine wilderness.

It is the largest protected population anywhere of these titans among terrestrial carnivores. They are larger here—many well over a half-ton (500 kg)—because of rich seafood diets, not only salmon but clams, crabs and occasional whale carcasses along the rugged 480-mile (775-km) Katmai coast.

At home as well against this dazzling backdrop of snowy mountains, green glacial-hewn valleys, and deep blue lakes are beaver, moose, caribou, wolves, lynx, snowshoe rabbits and, among birds, tundra swans, black-billed magpies, ravens, seasonally great flocks of ducks and shorebirds, and majestic bald eagles. Five species of salmon breed as do supersized rainbow and lake trout, arctic char, grayling.

Katmai’s more than 6,250 square miles (16,000+ km2) was set aside originally to preserve the famed 40-square-mile (103-km2) Valley of 10,000 Smokes, fumaroles left after ash was deposited 100 to 700 feet deep (30–210 m) in the June 6–9, 1912 eruption of Novarupta, called the most explosive event of the 20th century. At least 14 volcanoes remain active though none currently in eruption beyond an occasional steam plume.

Archeologists in the interior of the park have found remains of North America’s highest concentration of prehistoric human dwellings, nomadic hunters’ camps 9,000 years old.

The park is open all year but Brooks Camp, most popular destination, only June 1–September 17. Park office is in King Salmon, 290 spectacular air miles (467 km) southwest of Anchorage (there is no road access). From there transport to Brooks, also two other park lodges, can be arranged by air or boat. Weather can be extremely changeable, cool even in summer. There’s one campsite; hiking trails; bear-viewing platforms; fishing with strict catch-and-release and bag limits; backpacking by permit.

In all activities visitors are cautioned: Katmai is prime bear habitat.