Katmai National Park in southwestern Alaska is known for two things: the volcanic landscape of the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes…and bears. The headwaters of numerous salmon streams bring massive numbers of fish to the region each summer. And those fish lure dozens of Alaska Brown Bears.
On the several photography and paddling trips I’ve led to Katmai, I’m often asked the difference between Brown Bears and Grizzly Bears. The short answer is there isn’t one — they’re the same species. The long answer is slightly more complicated. Grizzly Bears are found in the interior of the continent, while Brown Bears are coastal. In Alaska, coastal bears are much larger than interior bears because they have access to calorie-rich salmon. Grizzlies are smaller, and due to their less reliable food sources, more predatory.
Behaviorally, the two differ as well. Grizzlies are shy, skulking things that appreciate personal space. They don’t mingle with other bears and prefer humans to stay a few hundred yards away. Coastal Brown Bears, particularly those at Katmai, are incredibly social. At bear-viewing areas like Brooks Falls (where these images were made), it’s possible to see more than a dozen bears at once. Katmai’s bears are also much more tolerant of humans, and it’s possible to end up just feet away as one passes by. That proximity yields some of the best bear photography opportunities available.
Getting to Katmai requires a flight or two from Anchorage. There are two main options: a tour (usually day trips) organized by flight services that will take you straight from Anchorage to Brooks in a small float plane, or you can fly commercial airlines to the town of King Salmon, where a float charter can be arranged for the short trip to the park. Neither option is cheap, and if you want to stay overnight during peak season (July and August), make campground or lodge reservations early.