If you are there to see the bears there are several viewing areas. Depending on the time of the year and what the bears are doing, you might be able to look out the window of the lodge and see a bear or two run by. But most people start at the Brooks River, a short walk from the lodge area. There is a viewing area when you first get to the river that is often a good place to see the bears, as long as they are 50 or more yards away. If the bears get closer, the ranger may have you walk back towards the lodge to give the bears room to move.
The rangers are very helpful and knowledgeable about the bears and the other wildlife in the area. While their primary duty is for the security of BOTH the wildlife and the humans, they are great to talk to about the area and what is happening. They greatly enhance the experience of being in Katmai.
Crossing the Bridge
If the coast is clear, and there will be a ranger there to let you know, you can cross the bridge to the lower river viewing platform on the other side. The platform has a set of stairs on each end and a ramp that can be used. The viewing area is about 8 feet up so when you are on the platform you don’t have to worry about keeping your distance from the bears – a good spot to get some nice close-up photos. There is generally a ranger on the platform who can answer questions and who communicates by radio to other rangers to see if the trails are open and what is happening.
One thing you must consider when on the lower viewing platform is if you need to get back to the other side to catch your flight or even just to have lunch is that bears often spend time near the bridge and when they do you might not be allowed to cross the bridge for quite a while. Sometimes 15 minutes, sometimes an hour, and I’ve even had to wait a couple of hours as bears would come and go and block the path. I’ve had a bear lay down to take a nap just below the lower platform next to the bridge. After a while it gets up and moves away but then a bear shows up on the other side of the bridge looking for salmon. While it can be exciting to watch them, if you need to cross it can be a problem.
Near the ramp end of the platform is where the bus is parked that does the daily trips to the Valley of 10,000 Smokes. The road that the bus starts out on is also the road that you take to get to the upper platform and Brooks Falls.
As you walk along that road you need to look in all directions. A bear could be in the woods on either side of the road, or walking down the road towards you, or coming up behind you. It could be a little guy chased by a big guy flying down the road. This is why the Bear Orientation is so important; you need to know how to react.
As you continue along the road for about half a mile you will find an outhouse building on the left and a trail to the falls on the right. If you think you need a visit, these are the only outhouses in the area. If you were to continue along the road it would take you to Brooks Lake where there are some limited facilities and where the planes may have to land if there are strong winds on Lake Naknek.
Trail to the Falls
Taking the trail to the right takes you through the woods for a quarter of a mile or so to the walkway that goes to the falls. The walkway is raised and has a secure gate so once you are on the walkway you are again able to avoid the 50-yard rule.
Continuing along the walkway you come to a covered area called the Treehouse. This is a combined waiting area if the falls viewing platform is full and a place to sit a catch your breath if you need to. There is a walkway that goes to the right of the Treehouse that takes you to the Riffles, an area where you can often see the younger bears or the sows with cubs looking for salmon and wanting to avoid the big guys that are just upriver at the falls.
If the falls viewing area is full and you have to wait a bit, the Riffles can be a great place to spend some time.
The Viewing Platform
Finally you get to head to the falls. Look down both sides of the walkway as you go. Bears, or even a wolf, will sometimes be resting or passing right below you. The viewing platform holds 40 people and has two levels. Try to find an open spot where you can see both the falls and the area in front of the falls as that is often where things are happening. When there are a lot of visitors, the human kind, they limit the viewing to one hour. Then you can return to the Treehouse and sign up again for the falls and then head down to the Riffles to see if anything is happening there.
The primary time for large crowds at the falls is in July when the salmon run is coming up river and jumping at the falls. At other times during the season, there may or may not be many bears at the falls so check with the Rangers and/or other visitors to find out.