| |

Bear Viewing Alaska – Eye to Eye With a Brown Bear

Bear Viewing Alaska is your dream? Have you heard about Brooks Falls or Brooks Camp? It’s the best place for bear-watching in Alaska. You can encounter bear catching fish and bear eating salmon. So, bear watching and bear photography in Alaska is possible in remote Katmai National Park. In this article, we share our bear viewing Alaska experience on how to get there, where to stay, when is the best time to go to Katmai National Park & Preserve. And most of all, how to take great bear pictures. We give you Alaska photography hints. For us, Katmai National Park is one of the best places to visit in Alaska! But we also show you some other unique places in Alaska where you can observe bears.

This article may contain affiliate / compensated links. For full information, please see our disclaimer here.

Bear Viewing Alaska

Alaska Bear Viewing is a dream for nature lovers and wildlife photographers. Alaska is huge, so it’s worth getting well prepared for your lifetime adventure. We experienced bear viewing few times during our Alaska road trips. We experienced Alaska bear viewing during organized tours, which was amazing, so we shared reviews and tips. But we also spotted bears during our hikes or just on the road.

One of the best and unforgettable adventures was watching bears catching salmon in the famous Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park, and we will tell you this story in detail and with lots of tips that help you prepare for this adventure.
Be warned, Alaska Bear Viewing is not a cheap attraction. But it is definitely worth the money. Every fan of wildlife and bears will be delighted.

Bear Viewing Alaska

Bear Viewing Alaska – Why Organized Tours?

Most of Alaska’s bear areas are open to visitors and photographers only as organized bear viewing tours with a local guide. It is connected both with the need to protect wildlife and the safety of tourists. Moreover, these are hard-to-reach wilderness areas that you cannot reach on your own. Most of these destinations can only be reached by plane, floatplane, or by boat. There are no roads at all. The number of permits for visitors is limited, so book your trip ahead.

An organized bear viewing tour with a local guide gives you the chance to admire these amazing animals in their natural habitat. You have a chance to see and photograph bears from a closer distance, but at the same time staying safe and without interfering with the life of wildlife and not disturbing it. The local guides know the habits of wild animals, paths, and places where you can often spot them. Most of them are great enthusiasts of wild nature. They have a lot of knowledge about it and are willing to share it. With such a guide, you have a much better chance of observing bears or other wild animals and photographing them. Sometimes you can spend a week or two alone in a national park hoping for a good photo of wildlife and fail to get it. With a guide, your ods are much more significant. During these trips, you often have the chance to spot and photograph other wildlife as well.

PRO TIP: plan your Alaska bear viewing trip several months in advance because the number of visitation permits issued is limited in each national park and other wild areas of Alaska. Importantly, most of these tours have a friendly Cancellation Policy, in case you have to change your plans.

brown bear Alaska
wildlife Alaska

Bear Viewing Alaska – Which Trip to Choose?

Which Alaska bear viewing trip you choose depends on your needs, budget, the region of Alaska you plan to visit, time, and the season of the year. So these few factors you need to consider when making your decisions. The following sections provide details on arranging a trip to Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park. But the number of places in this park is minimal, it’s not easy to get tickets to get there, and the season is short.

In addition to the Katmai National Park, you have fascinating bear viewing trips from Juneau, Soldotna, Ketchikan, or Lake Clark National Park, and more.

Bear Viewing Alaska – One Day Trips

From Juneau, you can visit the Pack Creek Brown Bear Viewing Area, a protected wildlife site with one of the highest concentrations of brown bears in the world. This day trip includes a floatplane flight over Tongass National Forest and a kayaking journey through Windfall Harbor. A certified guide takes you into the Alaskan wilderness to watch brown bears frolicking in the meadows and catching salmon in rivers. Read reviews and book this trip here.

If you plan to visit Soldotna you can book Alaska Bear Viewing Tour to Wolverine Creek. After a 30-minute trans-glacial flight, you join a local guide on a comfortable boat rides downriver to the bears’ feeding spot. You’re then free to photograph the bears from an unobstructed viewpoint. It’s a day trip, which you can book here.

Ketchikan is a perfect base to visit Prince of Wales Island when you can spot lots of bears. During this half-day trip, you can observe bears in their natural habitat. After the 40-minute scenic flight over the Inside Passage to Prince of Wales Island, you will land at Polk Inlet and visit the United States Forest Service bear-viewing platform. Your guide helps you get a close look at wild bears as they hunt for salmon along the creek. Check it here.

Lake Clark National Park is also a remote area. Its immense rain forest, tundra, and volcanoes make it accessible only by boat or air taxi. With this Airplane Adventure Tour from Anchorage, you fly directly to the park’s best places to see bears. You will land near the bears and spend several hours safely observing them. Check & book it here.

Bear Viewing Alaska – Multi-Days Trips

If you have more funds and have more time for your visit, consider a multi-day trip. We spent three days in Katmai photographing bears, and we still want to come back there.

You can choose a 9 Day Alaska Wildlife Tour with Bear and Whale Viewing. What’s important, during this trip you will visit two breathtaking national parks—our favorite Katmai National Park with famous Brooks Falls and amazing Kenai Fjords National Park. This trip is full of outdoor adventure, incredible wildlife viewing, and landscapes. The program is exciting and provides the best attractions in Alaska. Check details.

If you dream of seeing the bears and the highest peak in North America – Denali, consider an Alaska 7-Day Brown Bears and Denali Adventure from Anchorage. During this trip, you have the opportunity to see brown bears in Katmai National Park and/or Lake Clark National Park. You will experience a cruise through Kenai Fjords National Park with the possibility of observing ocean wildlife includes orcas, humpback whales, dolphins, puffins, and seals. And you’ll explore the vast and unforgettable Denali National Park. Book it here.

bear viewing alaska

Bear Viewing in Alaska – Our Story from Katmai National Park

Good morning, how are you? Have you just landed? Come on inside for bear orientation, please.

Good morning. Yes. We’ve just landed. But first, we must collect the campground permit and check-in.

Bear orientation is first.

But we have a tent, and we need to check-in.

You are in a bear country, in a Brooks Falls Bear Camp, and I know what you have to do first. The first is bear orientation. It’s essential for your safety. Immediately! – The ranger of the Katmai National Park said.

It’s true. We were in bear country. Katmai National Park and Preserve contains the world’s largest protected brown bear population, estimated to number about 2 200. Why are there so many of them here? Thanks to the huge amount of salmon that come to this area to Brooks River and Brooks Falls. So, it is, without a doubt, the best place to see bears catching salmon.

Are you staying in a tent? – Asked ranger.

Yes – We answered.

bear viewing alaska

Bear Viewing Alaska at Brooks Falls

After we had put up the tent, we went to experience Alaska brown bear viewing of Katmai. We came to Brooks Falls. Our eyes could not have believed it. Brown bears were sitting in the water and catching sockeye and silver salmons to build fat reserves for the upcoming winter.

The bear viewing platforms are wide and comfortable so that we could focus on bear photography.

Brooks Falls in Katmai National park
Brooks Falls in Katmai National park

Our cameras warmed up because of the number of photos we have taken. We were afraid that this spectacle would last only a short while. But it turned out that bears loved this place. Suddenly another bear and even one more appeared at the waterfall!!!
For three days, we have been viewing Alaska bear and their habits. It was a fantastic experience. We have taken thousands of photos.

Every bear has its own number in the park. But we just decided to call them with our names. So Brownie was the most active. And the oldest and most powerful got the name, Grandpa.

Katmai Bear Viewing Facts

All bears are working hard to catch as many salmon as they can at Brooks Falls before the salmon run ends. They packed on the pounds for hibernation. Aging isn’t easy for any species, and brown bears are no exception. Bear Grandpa is approximately 20 years old, and like other bears his age, he has lost some teeth. That may have slowed his rate of salmon consumption, but the loss of teeth hasn’t stopped him from eating enough to become a massive bear.

Bear Viewing Alaska at Brooks Falls
Bear Viewing Alaska at Brooks Falls
Bear Viewing Alaska at Brooks Falls

Bears did their work hard. It’s not an easy task to catch a fish. After the success of eating salmon, bears lazily walked along the waterfront or took a bath in waterfalls enjoying the water like people in a jacuzzi.
For three days, we could observe their habits, different ways of fishing, and even a fight for domination.

Brooks Falls at Brooks Camp in Katmai National Park & Preserve is one of the best places in the world to experience the best bear viewing in Alaska because it is one of the first streams in the region where energetic and pre-spawned salmon are available to bears.

What is the best time to see bears catching salmon in Alaska in Katmai NP?

In July, most salmon are moving through large rivers and lakes where bears cannot successfully fish. Early in the salmon run, Brooks Falls creates a temporary barrier to migrating salmon. This results in a particularly successful fishing spot for bears. Once salmon stop migrating in large numbers, Brooks Falls is no longer a good place to fish and bears quickly abandon that spot for better fishing elsewhere. So, summer is the best for bear watching in Katmai. July, August, and the beginning of September are the best for bear photography.

Talking with BearsOne of Us: A Biologist's Walk Among BearsThe Bears of Brooks FallsThe Nature of Alaska
View ItemView ItemView ItemView Item

Katmai Bear Viewing – Fishing styles

Fishing styles are often learned behaviors. Many bears use the same techniques as their mother, plus others that they learn on their own. Some bears have mastered many styles, while other bears stick with the one that works. Bear watching in Alaska is extremely addictive and hypnotizing. Bears are fabulous. It’s hard to believe that these huge heavy animals can be so fast and agile. At Brooks River, you can observe many different types of fishing styles, including:

Stand and Wait

Bears will stand on top of Brooks Falls and wait for sockeye salmon to jump close enough to catch in their mouths. This fishing technique is generally used by adult bears that can defend this fishing spot, but it is also used by some younger bears when space is available. This is a good technique to use when many salmon are jumping at Brooks Falls, but this spot is quickly abandoned when no salmon are jumping. Standing on top of the falls is precarious, however. Bears sometimes fall off, so they rarely shift position once they have established a place to stand.

Sit and Wait

Bears will sit just underneath Brooks Falls in several places, like the plunge pool or “jacuzzi,” and wait for salmon to swim to them. Bears in the jacuzzi sit and wait for fish to swim into them. When they feel a fish in the water, they quickly pin it to the stream bottom or against their body with their paws, bite it, and begin to eat. The plunge pools below the falls are the most coveted fishing spots and are typically occupied by the most dominant bears.

Dash and Grab

Bears often chase fish and attempt to pin them to the river bottom with their paws. This is commonly used early in the salmon run, but because this technique is energetically costly, it is quickly abandoned when the salmon run begins to thin.

Katmai bear viewing
Katmai bear viewing
Katmai bear viewing
Katmai bear viewing
Katmai bear viewing alaska

Snorkeling

Bears that snorkel are simply looking for fish under the water. This technique is used almost universally by bears throughout the summer. Still, it is widespread and useful in the fall when many dead and dying salmon are in the Brooks River and Naknek Lake.

Pirating

Those bears steal fish from other bears. Pirating is more common early in the salmon run but is not often observed in September or October. The threat of piracy will cause certain bears (like smaller subadults) to run with their fish away from the river and into the forest, where they are less likely to have their fish stolen.

Please check our video from Brooks Falls in Katmai Bear Viewing below – it was recorded with a fantastic DJI Osmo Pocket camera. Check also our Pocket camera review here.

Diving

This is a fishing technique that most bears do not use. However, at the Brooks River’s mouth or even in the jacuzzi at Brooks Falls, you might see a bear completely submerge seeking fish. Diving is used more frequently in the fall, with dead salmon littering the river bottom.

Begging

Bears do not share food with other bears, but some bears will still beg others. This interaction occurs between bears that are highly tolerant of each other. Begging bears approach another (usually more dominant) bear-eating fish and often position themselves inches away from the other bear. If a begging bear gets any fish, it is usually leftover scraps (gill plates, mandibles, and entrails) that the other bear doesn’t want. Begging bears often vocalize loudly, making noise reminiscent of a bawling cub. Begging is not common behavior.

Katmai Bear Viewing – Numbers

First of all, Katmai National Park and Preserve contains the world’s largest protected brown bear population, estimated to number about 2 200. Brown bears of Katmai are some of the largest bears in the world. They can stand 3-5 feet (.9-1.5 m) at the shoulder and measure 7-10 (2.1-3 m) feet in length. Most adult males typically weigh 600-900 pounds (272-408 kg) in mid-summer. By October and November, large adult males can weigh well over 1000 pounds (454 kg). Adult females average about 1/3 less in weight than adult males.

On days when many salmon migrate in the river, a large and dominant male bear will sometimes catch and eat more than 30 fish per day. Smaller bears that cannot compete for the best fishing spots, or bears that are less skilled at fishing, may catch and eat considerably less fish.

You can read more about bears’ behavior in the books presented below. It is worth reaching to them, especially if you are interested in nature photography and would like to take exciting bear pictures. You will learn a lot about these animal’s behavior from the book: What Bears Teach Us. The author has been working with bears for nearly 20 years. You can learn a lot from this inspiring book. Another one we like is Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance. Very informative and useful in the wilderness.

wildlife photography at Brooks Falls Alaska
Katmai National Park and Preserve Alaska
Katmai National Park and Preserve

We could also see how Katmai brown bears fight. Bears are generally solitary creatures, but they predictably congregate around high quality food sources. To avoid physical conflicts, bears use a series of vocalizations and body posturing to express temperament and dominance. Less dominant bears (typically smaller subadult bears and females) yield space, like fishing spots, and resources, like a dead salmon, to more dominant bears (larger bears and adult males). Through the establishment of a fluid hierarchy, bears have evolved a social adaptation that allows them to avoid fighting in most instances.

So, bear viewing in Alaska’s natural habitat was an amazing experience, and the best Alaska bear adventures.
Our adventure lasted three full days, but it was so amazing that we would like to come back to Katmai National Park.

Katmai National Park and Preserve Alaska

How to Get to Katmai National Park – Practical Information

Before you go – please read our previous post about King Salmon which is a gateway to the Katmai National Park. You can try to get to Katmai on your own, and below are some tips on how to do it. But, the limited number of places isn’t easy, so it is worth considering one of the previously suggested Alaska bears viewing trips.

Transportation to Katmai National Park

There are no roads to Katmai National Park. And it’s not easy to get there. And it’s not cheap to get there. So, how to get to Katmai National Park?

Two options are available:

  • buy a trip which is expensive. But the best price you will get from Homer and Anchorage. So, this tour is worth considering.This tour sells out quickly due to the limited number of permits and the short season. It seems that a day trip costs a lot. But when you compare Anchorage’s prices to King Salmon and King Salmon to Katmai flights and add the cost of accommodation and meals, this trip from Homer is not expensive at all. We paid more. Consider it, especially if you have limited time for your visit. Furthermore, our regular plane was canceled twice, and we lost two days of waiting. We had time. We were on the 8 monthly long journey. But if we were limited time, we would have to cancel our Katmai adventure. So, in our opinion, the tour from Homer is the perfect solution. However, if it is no longer available, consider another of the available bear viewing tours.
  • organize the trip by yourself as we did.

If you do it yourself you can take a plane to King Salmon in two ways:

  • regular flight served with Ravn/PenAir from Anchorage to King Salmon (we took this option) and then floatplane or water taxi to Katmai
  • a charter flight with Katmai Air from Anchorage or King Salmon to Katmai

Float Plane or Water Taxi

From King Salmon to Katmai National Park and Preserve, you can take a water taxi https://katmaiwatertaxi.com or floatplanes with Katmai Air.
We took a floatplane, and it was an amazing experience. And if you have limited time for your bear viewing Alaska, it’s the best option to get to Brooks Camp.

Brooks Camp Lodging

When you get there you have two lodging options:

Brooks Lodge in Katmai

The only lodge in Katmai is the Brooks Lodge, which is fabulous, but the number of places is very limited, and you have to take a chance in a lottery to encounter Katmai’s brown bears. It is difficult to win a lottery.

Brooks Camp Campground

Or you can stay on the campground with your own tent (it was 26 USD per night). Permit and more information you can find: https://www.recreation.gov/permits/249991 and: https://www.nps.gov/katm/planyourvisit/plyovicamp.htm

We really enjoyed staying at this campground. We can recommend it. If you decide to camp in a tent in Katmai, check what we packed for Alaska camping in this post.

Food at Brooks Camp

In Brooks Lodge, there is a bar and great food. Breakfast was 17 USD, lunch was 24USD, and dinner 40 USD per person. It’s a buffet. Wine of bottle (Meiomi) is 35 USD. (prices in 2019 and 2020).

It’s the only place when you can buy something to eat or drink. 

Katmai National Park and Preserve – Facts

Katmai National Park and Preserve is an American national park and preserve in southern Alaska, notable for the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes and for its brown bears (2 200 brown bears). The park and preserve encompass 4,093,077 acres (6,395.43 sq mi; 16,564.09 km2). Most of the national park is a designated wilderness area where all hunting is banned. The park is named after Mount Katmai, its centerpiece stratovolcano. The park is located on the Alaska Peninsula, across from Kodiak Island, with headquarters in nearby King Salmon, about 290 miles (470 km) southwest of Anchorage.

Katmai is open year-round. But at Brooks Camp, services are offered only from June 1 through September 17. The Brooks Lodge and campground are also open only this time. So, it is the best time for your visit.

Bear Viewing Alaska – Photography Hints

Below you will find some photo tips we have checked that will be useful during your Bear Viewing Alaska.

What season is best for Katmai Bear Viewing?

The season lasts 4 months – from June to September. Optimum activity is in July and September, so try to be there in those months.

What time of day is best?

All the day is good, but it depends on the weather. In Brooks Falls, bears are active the whole day. On the beach, it is more probable to encounter them in the morning and evening.

What photographic opportunities are here?

There are some excellent spots. One is on the beach, one is on the first bridge just after brooks lodge heading Brooks Falls, and brooks Falls itself – from the platform.
Beyond bears, you can make a trip to the Valley of 10000 Smokes and photograph magnificent landscapes there.

What gear should I take with me?

Any gear will do, but if you can afford it’s good to have a camera with fast AF and lens range 200-600. Tripod is recommended because sometimes you are waiting like 10-20 minutes for action having the frame ready and waiting to press the shutter. In such a case, a tripod is saving your muscles. It’s good to take a lot of charged spare batteries and memory cards. The only place to charge is Brooks Lodge, but the number of sockets is limited, so be prepared. You can also check our Alaska Photography Gear Packing List to see what we use.

What kind of clothes do you need for Bear Viewing Alaska?

Be prepared for rain during your bear viewing Alaska – you can take great pictures in the shower, and there are fewer people on the platform in such weather, but you must protect yourself and gear against water. Otherwise, it’s slightly warm in the summer, and maybe for September, you should have layers. You can also check our Alaska Packing List.

How long I need to get great pictures here?

Suppose you are interested in bear photography; the longer, the better. Our stay lasted three days, and we would love to back. But if we had only one day, we would make this trip anyway. We would definitely use this option with a flight tour from Homer because we met some satisfied photographers who chose this tour. If you have more time consider one of those Alaska bear viewing trips.

Sources of information about brown bears and Katmai National Park and Preserve: https://nps.gov

19 Comments

  1. I would love to see some bears when I travel to Alaska. And Brooke Falls seems to be just the perfect place to do it. Can’t believe you saw so many bears there. I love your guide and all the helpful and interesting facts you put in there. I had no clue that bears have different fishing styles. That sounds so interesting.

  2. The first time I saw a bear catching a fish was on a TV documentary in Canada. The bear was so lovely just like the one in your pictures. I have learned many facts from your post and hope one day I would have a chance to be close to a bear in the nature.

  3. Now
    this is a post you don’t read about every day! I’ve only ever seen brown bears in
    wildlife documentaries, so this would be an amazing, and slightly anxious, experience! Brooks Falls sounds like a top place for some bear watching, plus I love that all the bears have their own numbers! Great photos of the bears with their catch, I’d like to try my skills out too.

  4. Oh. My. God. And all of a sudden I want to become a camper! This is incredible! I’m not sure I’m brave enough to stay in a tent with bears wandering at night and the lottery for the lodge sounds risky but the risk would be worth it! 

  5. Aww how sad for grandpa bear to have lost some teeth! Funny how that is pretty similar to human grandpas LOL! This is for sure an incredible experience, and you’ve captured it perfectly. It seems that getting to this experience is no easy task – but all of your diligence and hard work certainly paid off!

  6. I have always seen bear in national parks or zoos but not in their natural habitat. The first photo of bear trying to catch his prey is really an awesome and natural capture. Good to know that Brooks Falls is one of the best places in the world to experience bear viewing in Alaska as they get their prey in abundant here. Knowing about pirating between the bears sound funny. Finding bears everywhere or encountering them at any moment sounds very adventurous. 

  7. Just awesome. What an experience you gave me. Your pictures are wonderful and gives a real feel. Loved how the bears wait and grab. Alaska! Desperately want to visit.

  8. I am blown away by these photos of Brown Bears in Alaska. Visiting Katmai looks like a truly heart-pounding adventure. Love how the park ranger recommends paying the bear a compliment if you meet one on the path! Not sure I could as I would be trying to pick up my jaw from the trail. Thank you for this inspiring post!

  9. This sounds like an absolutely amazing experience! I am a huge animal lover, so this would be #1 on my list. I can see by your first statements in the post regarding the bears and safety how important it is for them at Katmai National Park to maintain the safety of the bears and their guests. Your photos are stunning! I loved reading about the different hunting styles that bears have, so interesting. I think watching a bear pirating would be very interesting, I love watching animals in their natural habitat. 

  10. This would be the most amazing experience!  I have only seen a bear in the wild once and I sure would love to see more!  I visited Alaska in May, which is a bit early for the salmon run, but I plan on going back. I loved it!

  11. I have to admit, every time I camp I am most fearful of bears so I admire your courage to tent camp in this area! However, after reading this through and seeing your photos I would love to go here if given the opportunity. Seeing bears always seems like such a rare but sought-after occasion when I have traveled elsewhere, so it is so cool you got to experience this! Thanks for sharing!

  12. Bear watching is a great way to explore a wild country like Alaska. next time you want to see bears, I recommend you to come to my country – Romania. Our forests are still packed with bear and you can see them in their natural habitat. I used to hike the mountains every weekend and I remember how we were always forced to yell in the wood the keep bears away. 

  13. When we did our Alaska cruise, one day trip we saw bears along the shore.  But I would love to spend more time watching them – at a safe distance of course!  You got some amazing action shots.  I am not sure how I would feel about bears walking around the campground!  Would love to visit in July when the salmon are running.

  14. I am surely visiting Katmai now. I would love to watch bears catching fish with various techniques that you have mentioned. I have also noted that summer is the best month because of the temporary barrier for the migratory fish. What a treat it will be to watch them getting caught by the bears, sorry for the salmon, though.

  15. OMG! This. Is. So. Cool! I’ve never seen a bear up close before. I had a close encounter with a black bear once, but I was hiding in a tent with a few other people, so I didn’t actually get to see it. This looks like an unforgettable once-in-a-lifetime experience. You took amazing pictures of the bears. I think a good camera is a must for this experience. Putting this on my bucket list right now.

  16. That conversation is really something! When bear orientation is the first & foremost priority, that really gives an insight to the region! 2200 bears that congregate here to catch salmons? Wow! Reminds me of the Asian Elephants that congregate at a point for fresh grass in summer, in India. 
    I love how nature-friendly and nature-prioritized it is. Its a bear beach, it is! Humans have many other beaches, let this be for the bears! That said, I’d be absolutely freaked out to come face to face with a bear. As much as I want to visit this place, I also don’t want to! ‘Schrodinger’s place’, haha…. Its amazing how you caught some awesome photos. 

  17. Wow this sounds like a fantastic experience, definitely something I’d love to do. It’s great to have all the information in one post, saving this for when we can travel again. I didn’t know bears beg for food, that’s such an interesting fact. 

  18. OMG!!! Those pictures are absolutely stunning! I always imagined one would definitely see a bear or two in Katmai National Park just because of the bear population in the reserve but so many! and so many near one falls, this must have been some experience.To be frank, it felt like I was reading some Nat geo blog and I absolutely loved it!! I didn’t even know there were so many fishing styles bears used, very interesting. 😀

  19. You are so lucky to be able to do this. It’s been in my dreams since the first time I saw bears catching on sockeye salmon in tv’s documentary. Your pictures are stunning as always. So I guess even bears like to lazing after their stomach full. hehe…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *