"Katmai Calder, Glacier, and Mt Griggs" by U.S. National Park Service via Flickr Creative Commons

You've likely never heard of Katmai National Park and Preserve, but after reading this, it'll likely jump to the top of your must-see list. Katmai sits opposite Kodiak Island, on the Pacific Ocean side of the Alaska Peninsula. The Aleutian Range runs through the coastal southeastern part of the park, snowcapped and desolate. In fact, it may even remind you of a "Star Wars" set. The western section features flat lakes, endless rivers and streams in between. Katmai is an astounding mix of glaciers, mountains, canyons, craters, volcanic ash, wet soil, peat, bays, inlets, and ocean.

The vastness of the terrain is a stark reminder of just how small we are in the grand scheme of things. Covering more four million acres, they only receive about 30,000-40,000 visitors a year so you'll easily feel like you're trekking in majestic solitude.

Photo Credit: U.S. National Park Service

How it Formed

In 1918, Katmai was designated a national monument to protect the area around the 1912 volcanic eruption of Novarupta, the “largest in the 20th century.” As a result, Mount Katmai collapsed and the molten lava formed the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. The park includes 18 volcanoes, seven of which are still active. It wasn't until 1980 that Katmai officially became a national park. The only section that is quasi-developed is Brooks Camp, which sits at the base of the Brooks River near Brooks Falls. This area has a concession stand that runs during summer months, lodges and a campground, toilets, a fish freezing facility, a visitor center, a ranger station, and an auditorium with ranger-led programs. A bear-viewing platform has also been built here.

Photo Credit by U.S. National Park Service

What to Do There

Whether you have limited mobility or the stamina of an endurance athlete, you can find plenty to do in Katami.

Hiking and Backpacking: With fewer than five miles of maintained trails, hiking the park and preserve can be a real adventure. The park service recommends bringing a few essential items when you hike Katmai: a backpack, appropriate footwear, maps, GPS or a compass, water plus a water filtration system, high calorie food in bear-proof containers, rain gear, extra layers, safety equipment, sunscreen, sunglasses, bug spray, bear spray, and a flare gun or airhorn.

Camping: Camping is permitted anywhere within the park with no backcountry permits required. The Brooks Campground is the only officially designated campsite where reservations must be secured and paid for in advance (and where an electric bear-proof fence is there to protect you).

Fishing: Fishing in Katmai can be great fun, as the rivers are teeming with rainbow trout, arctic char, and sockeye salmon. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game carefully monitors the fish, particularly the salmon population, and promotes catch and release with strict guidelines. Only fly-fishing is permitted on the Brooks River, and all fishing must be done at least 50 feet away from bears. In other parts of Katmai, visitors are permitted to keep one salmon per person per day. That fish must be immediately placed in a sealed plastic bag and transported to the Freezing Fish Storage Building because of the bears. A fishing license is required for non-Alaska residents ages 16 and older.

Kayaking, Rafting, and Boat Tours: Katmai has hundreds of miles of rivers, creeks, streams, and lakes that have been used for centuries by Native Alaskans. Kayaking, canoeing, and boating can be used as both a method of transportation in the backcountry and as a way to taking in the breathtaking scenery. The most route is the Savonski Loop, an 80-mile intermediate level paddle that takes between four and 10 days to complete, starting and ending at Brooks Camp. The American, Moraine, or Funnel Creeks are the most popular spot for rafting, all of which feature class II to III+ rapids.

Interpretive Programs: From June 7 through September 17, rangers lead talks, walks, and campfire chats at Brooks Camp. Topics include the cultural and human side of Katmai, the wildlife of the park, a tour of the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, and much more. Many of the programs are free of charge.

Bear Watching: Bear watching is the main reason many people come to Katmai; to see grizzlies up close. This can be done from the viewing platform at Brooks Camp or by going on an organized small group tour from Homer or another nearby town. Cost runs from the price of park admission to hundreds of dollars per person for a private float plane. Katmai has 29 species of mammals and 127 bird species so there's plenty to see. I've caught sight of porcupines, wolves, hare, and moose, in addition to many playful cubs and awe-striking adult brown bears.

"Sow with Cubs Lost Amidst Floatplanes Naknek Lake" by U.S. National Park Service via Flickr Creative Commons

How to Get There

Katmai is one of the few national parks in the US that is completely inaccessible by road or car. The only way to get there is by plane or by boat, with most people arriving via plane. Commercial flights are operated from Anchorage via PenAir or Alaska Airlines, while air taxis are available from Dillingham, Homer, King Salmon, Kodiak, and other nearby towns. Private water taxis or group tours are the only option if you want to boat to Katmai; no ferry service exists.

Photo Courtesy U.S. National Park Service

Where to Stay

Accommodations within the park are limited unless you want to camp. Katailand operate three lodges: Brooks Lodge, Kulik Lodge (the preferred fishing spot), and Grosvenor Lodge. The National Park Service also allows people to stay at the historic Fure's Cabin (pictured above) from June 1 through September 17, for $45, which you can book through the visitor's center. There are a few other places to stay nearby like Enchanted Lake Lodge, Battle River Wilderness Retreat, Katmai Wilderness Lodge, and Royal Wolf Lodge. Many are only open seasonally (June through September) and require months of advance booking. Costs can run anywhere from $3,000-10,000 per person for the week.

Know Before You Go

Katmai is open 24/7, 365 days a year though the vast majority of visitors come between June and September. All visitors to Brooks Camp are required to attend a bear safety talk. Most facilities are wheelchair accessible, but the trails are unpaved and often muddy, so if you have limited mobility, you are in for a challenge. Even if you plan to visit for just a few hours, prepare to rapidly changing weather as conditions have been known to fluctuate quite dramatically. Summer temperatures only get up to about 63 degrees Fahrenheit with winter lows between -4 F and 40 F. Traveling in groups is your safest bet, and make sure to leave no trace.