Day 3: Excursion to Katmai National Park
My coworker and I indicated that we were interested in hiking and seeing wildlife on the welcome form we filled out on the first night. To accommodate this request, Bear Trail Lodge planned a once-in-a-lifetime trip for us to Katmai National Park to see the brown bears at Brooks Falls.
Traveling to Katmai National Park by Boat
The lodge coordinated a Katmai National Park shuttle to pick us up at 6:15 in the morning. I rolled out of bed, got dressed, and headed to the main lodge to grab my morning cup of coffee to take on the shuttle. Unfortunately, the driver told me that I couldn’t bring my coffee with me. I asked if I could pour out one of my water bottles and fill it with the coffee instead, thinking the issue was spillage. The driver told me that the rule was in place because of the smell. To this, I replied, “Oh, I Iove the smell of coffee!” He said, “It’s not about me. It’s about the bears.” How do you argue with that? So I reluctantly poured out my delicious cup of piping hot coffee and climbed into the bus.
The shuttle then transported us to the National Park Service dock. Here, we boarded a water taxi that took us up Naknek Lake and to our destination. Katmai can also be accessed by floatplanes, but I enjoyed getting to experience another mode of transportation since we traveled by air the day before.
Bear Viewing at Brooks Falls
We arrived at Brooks Camp right when it opened at 8 am. After undergoing a bear safety orientation and earning a neat little pin, we headed to Brooks Falls. The 1.2-mile trail took us about 20 minutes of easy walking. Since we got there right when the park opened, we were some of the first people on the viewing platform. And what a sight to behold! Dozens of brown bears were meandering around the falls looking for breakfast. Several bears stood on top of the falls, attempting to catch the salmon as the fish flung themselves through the air to continue their journey upstream. Some salmon snuck past these intimidating preditors. Others were not so lucky.
Watching the bears’ social dynamics was absolutely fascinating. They often fought over their position in the water or a caught fish, but all of the confrontations were limited to “yelling” at each other until one backed off. No physical brawl ensued. I’m sure this isn’t always the case, but we did not see any intense bear fights at Brooks Falls.
After observing the bears for about an hour, we returned to Brooks Camp. Unlike my coworker and I who were just there for the day, some people actually stay at Brooks Camp overnight. There are cabins and also camping sites where visitors set up tents within an electric fence-protected area. Brooks Lodge serves all of their meals. We had walked past Brooks Lodge on our way to the viewing platform and seen people inside eating and — yes!!! — drinking coffee. Unfortunately, by the time we made it back to camp, Brooks Lodge was closed. After checking at the visitors center and confirming that the lodge would reopen for lunch, I came to terms with the fact that we had some time to pass before I could get my caffeine fix.
Hiking Dumpling Mountain Trail
We checked the map we received during our bear safety orientation and found a hike called Dumpling Mountain. To reach the summit, we would need to hike 4 miles out and 4 miles back. Alternatively, there was an overlook 1.5 miles up the trail. A 3-mile round trip sounded more manageable on empty stomachs and with no caffeine, so we set out knowing we’d only go partway up the mountain before turning back.
AllTrails rates this hike as moderate, but my coworker and I must respectfully disagree! The Dumpling Mountain trail is very steep. We’re both in fairly good physical condition, and we worked up quite the sweat. Maybe we can attribute this to the difference in hiking on the West Coast versus the East Coast. Something to note is that the trail isn’t very clearly marked. You don’t run the risk of losing the trail, but knowing when you’ve actually reached the overlook is tricky. Once you reach it, you know you’re there, but there are several false alarms along the way.
The overlook was beautiful and well worth the steep trek. After snapping some photos, we headed back down the mountain. Luckily, we didn’t have to use our bear safety training on this hike!
Coffee at Brooks Lodge — Finally!
When we arrived back at Brooks Camp, we high-tailed it to Brooks Lodge. Other day visitors and overnight guests were there for lunch. There was a full-meal option and just a soup and salad option. The serving system was set up cafeteria-style. Bear Trail Lodge packed us our lunch, so we were there for one reason: coffee. A large stone fireplace sits in the middle of the lodge surrounded by chairs, so we camped out there to enjoy our coffee alongside other guests.
We had also worked up quite the appetite on our hike, so we retrieved our packed lunch from the bear-proofed food closet and ate it in the fenced-in picnic area. The delicious meal consisted of sandwiches, soup in a thermos that was still warm, and some snacks.
A Second Trip to the Falls
Before the water taxi returned for us later that afternoon, we decided to walk back to Brooks Falls to see what the bears were up to. A lot more people were at the falls in the afternoon, so we waited on the lower platform until a spot for us opened up closer to the falls. The sun was in a different position, so we were able to get pictures with less backlighting than in the morning.
Back to Bear Trail Lodge
After an adventure-filled day at Katmai National Park, we climbed aboard the water taxi and headed back up the Naknek River to the National Park Service Dock in King Salmon. The shuttle took us back to Bear Trail Lodge, and we cleaned up for happy hour. The drink of the day was a Moose Kicker, or Bear Trail Lodge’s version of a Moscow Mule. Then we sat down to dinner with the father and son duo we fished with the day before and swapped stories about our days. They had fished for silver salmon on the Naknek right in front of the lodge, which was on our itinerary for the final day of our trip.
Continue reading: Day 4: Fishing for Silvers on the Naknek