Most people have seen videos of the brown bears gathering to catch salmon at Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park, but have you ever thought about witnessing this spectacle in person?
Seeing the Brooks Falls bears up close – and hiking alongside them on the trail to the viewing platform – was one of my favorite national park experiences yet. In two days, I saw more than 50 bears, including several mothers with cubs!
Let’s go over everything you need to know about visiting Brooks Falls, in Q&A format. And I’ll share some personal photos and advice for how to travel here and see the bears up close.
Frequently Asked Questions About Brooks Falls
Where is Brooks Falls located?
It’s in the center of Katmai National Park, in southwest Alaska on the Alaska Peninsula. This is one of the more remote U.S. national parks, which is why it’s also one of the least-visited parks.
Can you drive to Brooks Falls?
No, you cannot drive there from Anchorage or anywhere else on the Alaska road system.
How do you get to Brooks Falls?
Since driving isn’t an option, you’ll need to fly to Katmai, usually via the nearby town of King Salmon.
Alaska Airlines has daily summer flights to King Salmon, or you can take a private bush plane.
For more specific detail, I have an entire article that explains how to get to Katmai National Park, covering all the options from day trips to extended visits with overnight lodging.
Can you take a boat to Brooks Falls?
Technically, yes, but you have to fly to King Salmon first. From there, you can take a one-hour ride on the water taxi ($400 roundtrip) to Brooks Camp.
You cannot take a boat directly from Anchorage or the rest of the Alaska mainland to Brooks Falls.
Why is Brooks Falls so famous?
Brooks Falls is famous because during the summer months, dozens of brown bears gather at the falls to catch salmon swimming upstream.
It’s one of the largest gatherings of bears, which normally don’t like to share space. They tolerate each other here because food is so plentiful.
Brooks Falls grew in popularity even more when the National Park Service set up a streaming webcam that allowed viewers to watch the bears at the falls in real time.
Where can I see the Brooks Falls webcam?
What kind of bears are at Brooks Falls?
These are brown bears, which can grow to huge sizes. Some bears at Brooks Falls weigh more than 1000 pounds!
They are much larger than the black or grizzly bears you may have seen back home.
Are brown bears the same as grizzly bears?
Basically, yes. They are the same species (Ursus arctos), but grizzly bears are a subset of brown bears. In other words, all grizzlies are brown bears, but not all brown bears are grizzlies.
Generally, folks use the term “brown bear” for the bears that live in coastal areas. They tend to be larger, due to their heavy consumption of fish.
They use the term “grizzly bear” to describe bears which live inland and are a bit smaller.
Why do bears visit Brooks Falls?
They come here to feed on salmon, which are migrating upstream to spawn in the place they were born.
In most Alaska rivers, it can be difficult for bears to catch large quantities of swimming salmon, but here, the falls create a temporary barrier that makes fishing easier.
When salmon reach the falls, they have to launch themselves out of the water and up onto the top of the falls to continue upstream. Often, this requires repeated attempts for the fish to make it up there.
Smart bears stand right on top of the falls and wait for a fish to jump right into their open mouth.
When do salmon pass by at Brooks Falls?
In late June, sockeye salmon start moving into the Brooks River in large numbers. July is peak salmon season at Brooks Falls, as the fish begin swimming upstream and attempt to jump the falls.
July is when most tourists come to Brooks Falls, since there are more salmon and bears at that time.
By August, most salmon have reached their spawning grounds, and few remain at Brooks Falls. A lot of the bears move on to other places to look for food.
In September, the salmon have completed spawning, and their life cycle ends. They often drift downstream in the current, where their carcasses again reach Brooks Falls. At that time, bears return to the falls to fatten up on the salmon bodies.
So July and September are peak visitation times to see the most bears at Brooks Falls.
How many salmon cross Brooks Falls?
The NPS estimates that more than 200,000 salmon successfully leap over the falls each summer. That’s such a huge number! No wonder bears love this place.
How high is Brooks Falls? How wide is Brooks Falls?
The falls are about 6 feet high and somewhere in the neighborhood of 150 feet wide.
How does bear viewing at Brooks Falls work?
There are viewing platforms located in the forest near the falls. Guests can use these boardwalks to get fairly close to the bears and take some remarkable photos.
The main platform is two-tiered and has a capacity of 40 people. It’s located very close to the webcam, so visitors get the same perspective that you see on the live stream.
What hours is the Brooks Falls viewing platform open?
The Falls Platform (the closest viewing platform) and the Riffles Platform (the next-closest) are both open from 7 am to 10 pm.
The park closes the platform overnight so the bears that are more reluctant to be around people have a chance to visit the falls in peace and catch their share of salmon.
How long can I spend at the Brooks Falls viewing platform?
It depends on the time of day. During peak hours (roughly 10 am to 4 pm), the park may start a waiting list and limit guests to 30 minutes on the main platform.
There are a couple other platforms a little further away, and those have no time limits or waiting list.
If you visit early in the morning or later in the afternoon, you’ll find smaller crowds. If you want to avoid crowds, go before 9 am, when the first water taxi full of tourists arrives, or after 7 pm, when everyone else is at dinner.
How do I get to the Brooks Falls viewing platforms from the visitor center?
You’ll have to walk 0.6 miles from the visitor center down a gravel road, and then another 0.6 miles on a narrow, forested trail to reach the main viewing platform.
Will I encounter bears on the trail when I walk to Brooks Falls?
There’s a very good chance that you will run into bears on the trail. The Brooks Falls Trail that you’ll be walking on is the same one that hundreds of bears cross daily to reach the falls.
Now, don’t freak out. The bears here are used to humans, and they tend to scamper off the trail when they see or hear one.
When you arrive at Katmai National Park, you’ll be required to watch a 10-minute “bear school” orientation video describing how to stay safe in bear country. Travel in groups if possible, and make a lot of noise so bears know you’re coming.
I had four separate bear encounters on my two walks to and from the Brooks Falls viewing platform. Two of those were mothers with cubs!
Can you spot the bear on the trail?
The encounters were slightly scary, but I was hiking with other people, and we just waited at a safe distance for the bears to move into the woods so we could continue our walk.
None of the bears were ever aggressive or threatening in our direction, even the mothers. But the cubs sure were curious about these strange “humans” in their forest!
Do visitors need bear spray?
No, and you won’t be able to bring bear it on the plane anyway. Unlike other places in bear country, at Katmai, the park doesn’t recommend bear spray – probably because it would be too easy for a tourist to get spooked and shoot off bear spray unnecessarily.
If you do encounter a bear, just give it plenty of space, speak in a calm voice, and walk slowly backward until it moves away.
What happens if a bear stays on the trail and doesn’t leave?
Then you have to stop and wait for it. This is called a “bear jam,” and it does happen from time to time.
I got stuck behind this mother and cubs for a good 20 minutes as they walked down the road and sat down right in the middle of the trail for a while.
Rangers held back pedestrian traffic on both sides of the bears, until they finally moved into the woods.
The rule of thumb in Katmai National Park is to never be in a hurry, because you never know when you might get stuck in a bear jam.
What is the best time of day to see bears at Brooks Falls?
There really isn’t one. Rangers say that it’s completely random. Large groups of bears may show up any time of day.
There’s a television in the visitor center broadcasting a live stream of the Brooks Falls webcam, so you can stop in and see how many bears are there before making the mile-long walk over to the falls.
How many bears will I see at Brooks Falls?
You never know. In July and September, you may see 25 bears around the falls at once. A ranger told me his personal record was 37.
I visited in late July and saw at most about 15 bears near the falls at one time. Three or four stood atop the falls, others sat below the falls, and others walked around in the river.
How many fish do the bears catch?
Dominant male adults can sometimes nab up to 30 salmon per day. Imagine devouring that much fish in a single day!
Smaller bears catch a lot fewer, but still more than enough to survive.
What techniques do bears use to catch the salmon?
While many bears stand atop the falls waiting for an easy meal to jump into their mouths, other tried different hunting techniques.
Some sat at the bottom of the falls in the “jacuzzi” of swirling water, hoping to nab salmon that swim too close.
Other bears walk around in the river and try to jump on salmon and pin them to the ground.
Many of the bears eat their meals right at the falls or in the river. Smaller bears sometimes took their fish into the woods to eat it, so that other bears wouldn’t be tempted to steal it.
I was really surprised how bad many of these bears were at fishing! Quite often, a bear would catch a salmon and it would slip out of their claw or mouth before they had a chance to eat it.
I thought these fearsome predators would’ve been better at securing their meals. But the salmon are so plentiful that it’s not a big deal to lose one. They could just catch another one a minute or two later.
Bear Viewing at Brooks Falls: My Photos
Once you get to the platform, you can take those iconic photos. Some bears will be standing atop the falls, while other will be wandering around in the river or on shore.
If you’re lucky, you might just get pics or videos of a brown bear catching a salmon in its mouth.
I found it interesting that the bears didn’t even eat most of the salmon. They seemed to like ripping off the skin, and then discarding the rest of the carcass!
Why would they do this? Well, Brooks Falls is essentially an “all you can eat salmon buffet” for these bears.
There’s no chance they will run out of food. So they can be picky and just eat the parts of the fish they most enjoy.
The result is that bright red salmon carcasses litter the Brooks River. Seagulls pick them over a little bit, but not too much. Mostly, the salmon bodies just lie there underwater.
On occasion, no bears were at the falls, meaning that the salmon swimming upstream had free reign to jump up without being caught.
These fish had no idea how lucky they were to be there at the right time!
Some bears don’t stand at the falls and instead try to catch salmon in the water. They attempt to pin down the salmon with their claw.
Most of these efforts fail, but I saw a few that were successful.
Make sure to look down when standing on the viewing platform. You just may see huge brown bears sleeping below you!
There’s another viewing platform at the mouth of the Brooks River, a little further from the falls.
Here, you can see the falls from a distance, and you can also see bears wandering around in the shallow waters.
You can also rent waders and fishing gear to fish right in the river. Which means you’ll be fishing alongside bears. It’s so strange, but normal here.
Would you ever visit Brooks Falls to see the brown bears up close?