It’s a thrilling and chilling Alaska wildlife moment in a classic “Last Frontier” setting – bear viewing, where dozens of the big brown bears of Bristol Bay, treat you to a view of authentic Alaska. Haunches deep in cold, crashing waterfalls, grabbing fat flopping salmon out of the water and even out of midair with unforgiving chomps and precision paw swipes, these majestic animals thrive in their natural habitat at Brooks Falls. Just feet away, practically close enough to hear those jaws snapping, visitors hover above the action on perfectly perched platforms, safely watching the incredible age-old Alaska passage play out.
Bear viewing in Alaska is at its very best at the remote and breathtaking Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park, an all-time adventure etched on the permanent short list of ultimate Alaska experiences. The scene is so iconic, it’s the image that many instantly conjure when thinking of Alaska animals. The area and its up-close access is so unique, every summer the bear viewing business bustles and there’s even a 24-hour webcam fixed on the area’s hot spots.
Yet, there are no roads to this spectacular site. Instead, bears usually outnumber the humans, who have to fly into Katmai from numerous South Central Alaska and Kenai Peninsula runways. The ride usually takes 2-3 hours. Anchorage is the most popular launching point with float planes taking off from picturesque Lake Hood and heading southwest. No matter the flight route, the ride is an impressive Alaska appetizer before the bears, packed with views of glaciers, mountain passes, volcanoes, more wildlife and endless awe-inspiring natural beauty.
Many make this once-in-a-lifetime visit a day trip, focusing their attention on basking in bear viewing and then returning. A few stick around for multiday activities, setting up at the nearby lodge or even camping and taking in bear viewing opportunities at Brooks Falls and other active areas nearby (Lake Clark National Park and Preserve) that can provide different vantage points (by boat, ATV and plane). Some even give it their best bear act, trying to catch a prized salmon – using rods and reels instead of teeth and hands, of course.
The fish funnel into the falls from the Bering Sea and Bristol Bay as they swim upstream toward spawning grounds. Their convergence along the surging waterway makes the marine travelers somewhat easy pickings for the gathering of 20-40 bears who seemingly never tire of fattening up on fresh oily salmon. The bears range from longtime visitors to first time fishing cubs. On the decks, visitors watch the circle of life play out with such proximity and intensity that it sends hearts racing and fingers feverishly tapping on cell phones camera shudders.
Travelers aren’t the only enthusiastic bruin viewing visitors. Park rangers work the area, keeping humans safe and bear aware while minimizing bear-human interactions. It’s also a prime time destination for photographers, professional and amateur, who try capturing that perfect image seemingly as hard as the bears try snagging a salmon. And then there are the ever-present biologists and scientists who appreciate the rare opportunity to study the bears and fish up close.
Safety is always first and foremost at Brooks Falls, and bears always have the right of way. Human-bear encounters are rare due to the strict safety rules and precautions around the falls. The bears are more likely to interact with one another, occasionally aggressively as they fight for fish or area dominance. Visitors have it a lot easier – there’s plenty of space to spread out with additional elevated decks being built, so they can find that perfect, unobstructed angle for a view they’ll never forget.