Bears of Katmai: A Backpacking Adventure, Alaska

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 14013A, Backpacking


  • Watch grizzly bears fish for salmon at Brooks Falls
  • Backpack in the volcanic Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes
  • Travel through a geologic wonderland of volcanic ash and rock


  • Round-trip flights from King Salmon to Brooks Camp
  • Campground fees, all meals and snacks
  • Shuttle to and from the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes


DatesJul 23–Aug 1, 2014
Difficulty3 (out of 5)
StaffJohn Kolman

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Trip Overview

Please note that the trip leader and dates have changed from what was originally published. If you have questions, please contact us.

The Trip

In a state known for its superlatives, Katmai National Park stands alone.  It is home to the largest protected grizzly bear population in the world, the spawning ground of literally millions of salmon, and the location of one of the largest volcanic eruptions in modern times. But mostly, Katmai is known for its bears. Because of the abundance of food and the management of the rangers, the bears in Katmai Park are uniquely uninterested in humans and will allow people to approach (and photograph) much more closely than bears elsewhere.  The Park Service has set up a system of walkways and platforms to allow us to safely watch these magnificent creatures feeding on salmon as they make their way up and over Brooks Falls.

But there is more to Katmai than bear watching. We will travel into the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes to see the park in a much different setting.  The Valley was created in 1912 by one of the greatest volcanic eruptions in recorded history.  Ash flowing from the volcano buried the Ukak River valley up to 700 feet deep, creating a large plain that is now the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, a 300-square-mile moonscape of richly colored yellow, red, and tan ash. The valley no longer has “ten thousand smokes,” created by steam from the cooling lava, but it remains a geologic wonderland, with active fumaroles amid immense ash flows, active glaciers, and flowing rivers.  A major attraction to the area is the plug dome of Novarupta volcano, the top of which we will hike to, weather permitting.


Day 1:We meet in King Salmon and then fly to Brooks Camp in Katmai National Park. We’ll stay in a NPS campground and have the opportunity for a short hike to Brooks Falls to get our first look at the grizzly bears fishing for salmon.

Days 2-7: We take the shuttle to the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes and begin our seven-day backpack trip. We plan to backpack at a moderate pace, covering about six miles per day. There are no trails in the area, and river crossings are not bridged.  Be prepared for wet feet.  Our current route calls for a trip of approximately 30 miles, starting along the Lethe River and heading toward the lakes at the base of Mt. Mageik. We will circle around the Novarupta volcano and Broken Mountain areas, hiking alongside the Knife Creek Glaciers and looking up at Mt. Katmai, elevation 6,715 feet. Depending on the strength of our group and our final itinerary, we may have several layover days during the loop. Possible optional side trips include a trip over Katmai Pass, a summit of Mt. Griggs or Mt. Mageik, and exploration of the areas around Mt. Juhle, Mt. Ikagluik and the Ukak River.

Days 8-9: We return to Brooks Camp and stay in the NPS campground. Hot showers available! We now have a unique opportunity for extensive bear viewing and photography as grizzlies are at the peak of their fishing activities at Brooks Falls. If the weather is clear, an optional day hike up Dumpling Mountain will provide us with great views of the surrounding area.

Day 10: On our last day together, we fly from Brooks Camp to King Salmon.



Getting There

Our trip starts in King Salmon, Alaska. There is regular commercial jet service to King Salmon from Anchorage International Airport. 

The trip leaders will be staying near downtown Anchorage for two days before the start of the trip. It is recommended that participants meet the leaders in Anchorage sometime before the start of the trip. This will allow us to review your personal gear and to help you “fine-tune” your preparations for the trip.  You will have the opportunity to obtain any missing clothing or equipment at REI in Anchorage. King Salmon has no such stores.  Also, participants typically overnight in Anchorage and then travel to King Salmon on the morning of the trip since sleeping accommodations in King Salmon are limited.

Accommodations and Food

In Brooks Camp we will be staying at a National Park Service campground. The campground is surrounded by an electric fence that is meant to discourage any curious bears from interacting with campers. In addition, the campground has storage cabins for food and gear. While backpacking, we will store food in bear-proof containers and avoid bear trails. All meals and snacks are included in the trip fee, beginning with lunch on the first day and ending with lunch on the last day. As usual on Sierra Club outings, all members help with cooking and cleanup chores. Any special diet requirements should be discussed with the leaders well in advance to be sure they can be accommodated. Trip members and leaders will all share in carrying group food and commissary equipment.

Trip Difficulty

This trip is rated as moderate in difficulty. The elevation gain and loss generally will not be more than several hundred feet per day, though optional day hikes may involve more climbing.  There are no trails in the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, so our travel will be cross-country. Additionally, we will have several un-bridged river crossings where trip participants will be expected to wade through relatively shallow, but very cold, water. There is a real possibility of strong winds blowing through the valley.  When hiking on a windy day, goggles and a bandana may be useful to protect against airborne volcanic ash.  In order to see the bears, we must be in Katmai at the same time as the mosquitoes and the black flies (known as white socks). It is strongly recommended that participants use mosquito head nets and mosquito repellant.

Please understand that the weather in Alaska is unpredictable. It may rain, it may be windy, and we may have to modify the following itinerary. In order to see such an extraordinary place it is necessary to take some chances. Rain is likely at any time and the temperature can range from the 40s to the 70s.

Equipment and Clothing

The Sierra Club will provide stoves, cooking pots and utensils, water purification tablets, cooking tent, first aid, repair kit, food, and an emergency satellite phone. Participants are expected to bring the following:

Backpack: Good quality, large volume, internal or external frame, and a pack rain cover. Your backpack must be able to accommodate a bear-container.

Tent: Free-standing, three- or four-season, with full coverage rain fly. Must be able to withstand high winds. Extra stakes and tie-down ropes are a must.

Sleeping bag: Down or synthetic. Should realistically be comfortable down to 25 degrees. Should be in a waterproof stuff sack.

Sleeping pad: Either inflatable or closed-cell foam type.

Hiking boots: Must be well broken-in to avoid the most frequent first-aid problem on Alaska trips -- blisters.

Rain gear: Two-piece (jacket and pants) of good quality (Gore-Tex or equivalent). Useful for wind as well as rain protection. No lightweight plastic. No ponchos.

Clothing: Wool or polypro pants and shirt. No cotton jeans. Polypro underwear tops and bottoms -- two sets. Three pairs of socks. Warm jacket or vest, wool gloves and cap.  Mosquito head net.

Miscellaneous: Basic personal hygiene and first-aid items, eating utensils (cup, bowl, and spoon), one-quart water bottle, insect repellent. Optional: camera, lightweight binoculars, small day pack, pocket knife, bandanna, and hiking poles.

A more complete equipment list will be sent to participants. Your backpack should weigh no more than 35 lbs without group food and gear. You will be expected to carry food in a bear-proof container along with a share of the group commissary equipment. 




  • Bodeau, Jean, Katmai National Park and Preserve. Alaska Natural History Assn, 1995.
  • Bohn, Dave, Rambles Through an Alaskan Wild: Katmai and the Valley of the Smokes. Capra Press, 1979.
  • Pratt, Verna, Field Guide to Alaskan Wildflowers. Alaskakrafts Inc, 1990.
  • Smith, Dave, Backcountry Bear Basics. Mountaineers Books, 2nd edition, 2006.
  • Breiter, Matthias, The Bears of Katmai: Alaska’s Famous Brown Bears. Graphic Arts Books, 2000.
  • McPhee, John, Coming into the Country, Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Reissue edition, 1991.


The proposed Pebble Mine -- a large scale, open pit, strip mine would literally be on the doorstep of Katmai National Park. The mine threatens the salmon that are the underpinning of the Katmai ecosystem. The Environmental Protection Agency has warned that the mine could have devastating consequences for rivers and streams and wipe out habitat for fish. By visiting Katmai, we will have a better understanding of what is being threatened.  The proponents of the mine point to the jobs that would be created. Our visit will support sustainable ecotourism jobs.

Participants may have conservation stories from home and will be invited to share hometown issues with the group.

In 2014 America celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. The Sierra Club, various other organizations with a wilderness focus, and the four federal wilderness management agencies are vigorously planning this celebration. The goal of the effort is to assure that a broader public knows about the concept and benefits of wilderness. Sierra Club Outings is a vital part of the celebrations for wilderness.

While the Act was far in the future when our outings program started, we were already promoting the principle behind it: to forever set aside from human developments certain special places, by civic agreement. This is the basic principle on which the Sierra Club was founded. The wilderness anniversary gives us an opportunity to highlight our organization’s leading role—in publicizing this principle, in passing the 1964 Act, and in achieving more designated wilderness since then.

Sierra Club National Outings is an equal-opportunity provider and will operate under a permit from Alaska National Parks.



John Kolman has been backpacking Alaska and the west for more than 30 years, including five recent Sierra Club Alaska outings. He is an avid runner and has completed more than 20 marathons and is active in many Chicago area runners’ groups. He feels that running through a Chicago winter is great preparation for any weather Alaska can throw at you. Besides running, his hobbies include photography and yoga. Currently, John works as a software engineer for a Swiss-based company.

Assistant Leader:

Ramon Roth

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