Five Things You Didn’t Know About Katmai National Park & Preserve

baby brown bear playing with mama brown bear on her back in the sand in alaska

Located on a vast peninsula in southern Alaska, Katmai National Park and Preserve is an awe-inspiring land full of varied landscapes, incredible wildlife, and rugged coastline. Established in 1918 in response to the Novarupta volcanic eruption, this beautiful region is now a popular destination for hiking, camping, fishing, and of course – bear viewing!

We love every visit we take to Katmai National Park. It’s a special place worth protecting for many years to come. Still, Katmai is more than just bear viewing and fishing. With thousands of years of human history within this unique and varied landscape, there’s so much more to learn. Here are five things you probably didn’t know about the park to prepare you for the visit of a lifetime!

Katmai is enormous

cliff side running down to the water with mountains in the background

Katmai National Park and Preserve covers an impressive 6,395 square miles. For scale, think larger than the state of Connecticut and smaller than New Jersey. This expansive size makes it the fourth largest park in the United States, just behind Wrangell St. Elias, Gates of the Arctic, and Denali National Park. 

Katmai is not connected to the Alaska road system. For this reason, it is only accessible by plane or boat, making it one of the most remote national parks in the United States. Thankfully, we couldn’t imagine any other way of arriving at this other-worldly landscape! Getting a bird’s eye view of the park on the flight from Homer is an exceptional experience, allowing you to see more of the park in a short amount of time.

It’s a volcanic landscape

Not many people realize the extent of this volcanic landscape, if they are aware at all. In fact, the Novarupta eruption that sparked plans to bring Katmai into the park system was the largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century and one of the five largest in recorded history. In terms of volume, the 1912 Katmai eruption was 30 times larger than that of Mount St. Helens in 1980. This eruption happened over three days and formed both the Katmai caldera and the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. 

These days, Katmai and the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes are invaluable sites for volcanologists. There are at least 14 active volcanoes within the park boundaries, making it one of the world’s most active volcanic areas. Thankfully, volcanoes usually show signs of unrest before they erupt. The Alaska Volcano Observatory has over 20 seismic monitoring stations across the park, which monitor the activity to mitigate hazards to both life and property.

Katmai was also affected by the Exxon Valdez oil spill

Even Katmai National Park and Preserve wasn’t spared from one of the worst environmental disasters in human history, the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Although over 250 miles away, the strong coastal current brought oil right into the park’s boundaries. It took over five months to remove over 1055 tons of the oily debris. The spill also killed between 100,000-300,000 birds, not including marine mammals and wildlife.

Even Katmai’s remote location couldn’t save it from the Exxon Valdez disaster. We have to work to protect our wild places and make sure something like this never happens again.

Thousands of bears call the park home

young brown bear standing up and leaning against mom brown bear in alaska

We all know about Katmai National Park as the ultimate bear viewing destination, but how many exactly? Park researchers estimate over 2,200 brown bears call this park home. This number makes Katmai one of the largest and highest density of brown bear populations in the world!

While there are many black bears across Alaska, they rarely call Katmai home. Due to the competition for resources with the larger brown bears, along with a preference for forested areas, black bears are seldom seen.

The key to Katmai’s success as a national park destination is the special relationship between people and bears. Scientists, rangers, and the public all work together to maintain this fragile balance. For that reason, it’s critical that visitors respect the land they are visiting and follow all park rules and regulations. Bears need their space, and we’re just lucky to be able to visit it!

Katmai loves fat bears!

big brown bear walking on a gravel road with green alders behind it

In no other place would the size and obesity of an animal call for a week-long competition and celebration, but in Katmai, size matters! Every fall, Katmai National Park and Preserve hosts Fat Bear Week, a tournament to celebrate the feeding success of bears on the Brooks River. 

During Fat Bear Week, participants compare photos of bears from their first visit in the spring to their current size at the end of summer. Oftentimes, the differences are drastic! Over the course of a few months, these bears have gorged on so much salmon that sometimes they increase their body mass by 50%. Don’t worry; this is a critical survival tactic for a bear and is not unhealthy at all. These bears are preparing for their hibernation through our long Alaskan winter. Every pound counts towards helping each bear make it to the next spring.

To participate, head over to Explore.org to see when it’ll be time to start casting votes. Here you can learn about the bears, compare spring vs. fall photos, and check out previous champions. Fat Bear Week is a subjective competition, so make sure to take in mind the bear’s growth, any noted extenuating circumstances, and its current size to vote for your favorite!