Brooks Falls

Brooks Falls, Katmai National Park and Preserve: Tickets, Tours, Address, Phone Number, Brooks Falls Reviews: 5/5

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Area on the Brooks River where a large number of brown bears spend their summer due to salmon migration.
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PLG1951
Mesa, AZ24 contributions
Bears....Great. Katmai Air...Great. Salmon...Great. National Park Rangers...Not So Much
Jul 2020
Inspired by the work of wildlife photographer Thomas Mangelsen, we traveled to Alaska to see the Katmai grizzlies up close and personal. Brooks Falls is not an easy place to get to, and it's a pricey one-day excursion compared to other experiences. But if you go during the right time of year, mainly in July when the salmon are running and the bears are fishing, it's well worth the expense and you will end up with photos that emulate Mangelsen's!

After reading many reviews and researching the various float plane companies, I chose Katmai Air/Bristol Adventures. Keep in mind that whichever company you choose, the cost is comparable and covers only the flights. It does not include a tour guide, which is fine because you don't need one. The National Park Service rangers are every where in Brooks Camp and at the Falls.

I chose Katmai because their flight time from Anchorage to King Salmon was only 1 hour and 15 minutes compared to other companies. I think the difference is that Katmai Air uses a larger turbo prop (9 passenger Pilatus PC-12) for this leg. Because this was my first time on a small plane, I wanted it to be a quick trip! Upon arrival in King Salmon, we boarded a shuttle to get us to the float plane takeoff point. The only hitch that morning was that we left Anchorage an hour late because of fog in the King Salmon or Brooks area, so the float planes were delayed due to low visibility. But you can't help the weather. Otherwise, we were fortunate that we happened to choose a sunny day for Katmai, because it rained nearly every day during our 2 1/2-week vacation in Alaska. I booked this excursion just prior to our trip after I checked the long-term weather forecast. Prior to the pandemic, one would have to book this months if not a year in advance due to its popularity. We decided to do the trip this year because I'd read so much about the long waits/bear jams at the Brooks viewing platforms. Tourism is WAY down this year in Alaska, so I figured it would be the perfect time to cross this off my bucket list...vacationing in a beautiful state where social distancing is easy. Before you go, be sure to check state of Alaska health regulations re: COVID-19 testing and quarantining so that you can factor these into your itinerary.

Also, do not schedule this excursion for the last day or two of your trip; if the weather is stormy or foggy, you risk cancellation. I had read this in other reviews, so I scheduled our Katmai grizzly day during the first week of our Alaska trip.

The flights with Katmai Air all went smoothly, including the float planes in and out of Brooks Camp. We were extremely satisfied with this component of the day. And Katmai Air/Bristol Adventures was very professional and organized. I never thought I would ever board a float plane in my lifetime, but I would do this again in a heartbeat! It was actually very relaxing, a little surreal. Word of advice: Do your due diligence because some companies have had crashes. Make sure you choose one that has seasoned pilots who've flown thousands of hours in Alaska. I wasn't looking for pilots with personality. I just wanted to get from point A to point B smoothly and safely. Katmai Air was the right choice for me.

Next up....the brown bears and the National Park rangers. Upon arrival, we were briefed on bear safety, i.e., maintaining a 50-ft. distance, no food in our day packs, how to react if you encounter a bear on a trail, etc. We were instructed to store our food in their bear closet. Because we would be out on the trails and platforms for a few hours, I ate a granola bar beforehand. When I came out of the bear closet, I was still chewing and the ranger was still briefing. She barked at me to go back inside until I was done eating! Meanwhile, I noticed a group of six people eating at a picnic table behind the electric fence. One of the women poured her leftover cola into the grasses, which seems irresponsible if the rangers are trying to keep grizzlies out of the area.

As we walked across the wood bridge over the river, the bears were out in full force! We stopped briefly on the bridge to take photos, but a ranger told us to keep moving to the platform area. Why? The bridge and the platforms were not at all crowded that day....and probably not for the entire summer due to the pandemic. After the bridge, we continued on a trail that took us to the lower and upper platforms at Brooks Falls. Along the way, we encountered three bears lying under the trees. We were in a spread out group of 16 and just kept walking. The bears looked at us but weren't interested. My guess is that they are accustomed to people traffic in and out. And because of the abundance of salmon and sedges in the area, they aren't interested in our food....unlike the infamous Yosemite bears, whose behavior has been altered by irresponsible human behaviors.

Other recent reviews have provided the play-by-play on platform protocol, so I'll skip that part. We were on the bear trail by around 11:30 AM and our float plane was scheduled to leave at 4:15 PM, so we were supposed to have about 4 1/2 hours with the bears. It would have been 5 1/2 hours, but the one-hour delay due to fog in the morning lost us an hour. Not a problem because 4 1/2 hours is plenty of time to see and photograph the bears, eat a snack, and maybe buy a T-shirt.

Seeing the brown bears that close in the wild was a breathtaking experience! We photographed cubs playing, salmon jumping, and bears fishing. When it was our turn to get to the upper platform, there were no bears standing over the falls. But there was one very large grizzly sitting in the water near the falls. Eventually, after about 30 minutes into our time on the platform, the bear made its way to the falls to fish for lunch. The cameras went wild! And yes, as you can see from our photos, we did capture the iconic Mangelsen image. I'm sure others may have been disappointed that there was only one bear fishing over the falls. But we were thrilled just to see one, who was obviously very experienced and knew exactly where to stand over Brooks Falls for its "catch of the day."

Under normal circumstances, however, we wouldn't have been so fortunate as the rangers rotate people on and off the platform every 15-20 minutes. But attendance is extremely low now due to COVID-19. So we actually had at least 45 minutes on the upper falls platform. If you need more, you're allowed to put your name on a list to rotate back on. We already had amazing photos so decided to weave our way along the trail back to the bridge to watch the bears play and to grab a bite to eat afterward with the two+ hours we had remaining before meeting our float plane on the beach.

Here's where the day fell apart. Apparently, there were a couple of bears sleeping beneath trees less than 50 ft. from the gate to the bridge. The rangers said they couldn't wake and move the bears for 30 minutes. OK...not a big deal, and the bears shouldn't be disrupted from their routines. However, after 30 minutes, another bear went down for its nap, which starts the clock all over again. We weren't concerned at this point because we still had plenty of time to make our flight. But the delay caused another group of about 10 people waiting with us to miss their flight. By this time, the "bear jam" had expanded to 40 people and two rangers. The rangers radioed the ranger at the bridge gate, but there was no progress. More than two hours later, one ranger finally started leading us in groups of 10 off the trail. We waded through trees, reeds, and wetlands for about a quarter mile to access another part of the bridge, bypassing the gate area and the sleeping bears. During that quarter mile, we were like sitting ducks. How was that safer than walking by the sleeping bears and onto the bridge?

No more photos or bear watching, no time for food or for buying a T-shirt. The bear jam had eaten up more than two hours, and we thought we missed our plane. However, Katmai Air didn't leave without us!
Still, bad judgment on the part of the rangers deprived us of a full day experience.

Based on our experience with grizzlies during the entire trip, our small group, which over the course of two hours grew to 40, could have walked onto the bridge without bothering the bears. Nor would they have bothered with us. We did, after all, encounter three bears in the trees along the trail on our way TO Brooks Falls, and the bears showed no interest in us even though we were within about 12 feet of them. Had the rangers seen this, they would have kept us 50 ft. away in a bear jam until the bears decided to move.

I get it....the NPS has its rule book and trains the rangers accordingly. But the NPS needs to install more experienced rangers at Brooks Camp or at least rangers who aren't afraid to exercise their own discretion based on the group size and circumstances of a specific situation. Because of their poor and delayed decision-making on that afternoon, about 10 people missed their return flight. We would have missed our float plane as well if it hadn't been for the patience of Katmai Air.

I have read reviews indicating that the newly installed bridge eliminates the bear jams. It does not....only because your fate during the day is largely dependent upon the experience, or lack of it, of the park rangers on duty that day. Poor communication and judgment by the rangers can turn a perfect day into a frustrating one where you end up feeling that you didn't get your money's worth.

Bottom line: Katmai Air gets a 5 on TripAdvisor's 1-5 scale; the grizzlies are most certainly a 5; and the rangers get a 2....which is why I rated the overall experience a 4.

Read my recent TripAdvisor review, "The Bear Whisperer," which is about a second excursion we took out of Homer/Kenai Peninsula to Chinitna Bay/Lake Clark National Park during our July trip to Alaska. We spent an entire afternoon with grizzlies in the wilderness. No rangers, no platforms, no electric fences. Most of the time, we were within 10 feet of them...AND we were carrying snacks in the day packs we were wearing. The pilot/guide had told us ahead of time not to bring fish or anything that smelled fishy. We sat on rocks among the sedges to eat lunch with grizzlies clamming just 30-40 feet away from us during low tide.
If you are only doing one bear excursion, make your way to Homer, Alaska and do this one. We weren't on a platform or on some boat waiting and watching. We were on the beach and among the sedges with Alaskan brown bears/grizzlies. This was an amazing, unforgettable day. No crowds, more personal. It's also less expensive than flying to Katmai/Brooks Camp, and the scenery during the flight is more spectacular.
Most definitely the experience of a lifetime!
Written August 21, 2020
This review is the subjective opinion of a Tripadvisor member and not of Tripadvisor LLC.

bilberrymom
Monroeville, PA208 contributions
The Ultimate Alaskan Experience!
Jul 2020
This was the ultimate experience of our two week Alaska vacation. The timing was great for us. Foot traffic was way down because Brooks Lodge was only open for day trips when we were there on July 12. We booked our tour through Katmailand which is directly associated with Brooks Lodge. We flew from Anchorage to King Salmon on Katmai Air. Because it was a "regular" airplane we were able to fly out of Anchorage that morning. We heard later that day that float planes from Anchorage directly to Brooks Falls were not able to fly out because of the weather. We then took a float plane from King Salmon to Brooks Falls. That was another unique experience for our trip and a lot of fun. We could see the falls from above as we were arriving, and that was cool. Since there were brown bears with cubs on the shore when we landed we saw brown bears immediately upon arrival. We had our bear safety training where we learned to stay at least 50 yards from any bears, and to face them and walk backwards if we see them on the trail. If they kept coming, we were to turn 90 degrees and walk off the path. We were told to talk and not to run. It just so happened that as we were walking on the trail out to the main viewing platform to start our day, I happened to turn around. (There was a group of about 6 walking and talking several feet in front of us, and then my husband and me.) I saw two brown bears, one several yards in front of the other, walking on the path following behind us. We were in the middle of the path, and they were on the side of the path. I immediately started walking backwards as directed in our training, and I alerted my husband and the others in front of us. The first bear in front started scampering in our direction (but not looking at us, so he didn't appear to be chasing us), but as he got within about 10 yards of us he turned off the trail into the woods beside the trail. The second bear then started scampering in our direction as well, but he just followed the other bear into the woods. It was a pretty exciting start to our trip! Because of covid they were limiting more than usual the number of people on the main viewing platform (Only four family groups at a time). Masks were also required while on the main viewing platform. We put our name on the list and walked down to the lower viewing platform while we waited for our turn. There was much bear activity happening at the lower platform, so we were watching bears while waiting our turn at the main falls platform. It was cool watching the younger bears walking, jumping, playing, diving for salmon, etc while we were waiting. It was amazing to see all of the salmon remains along the shore. Apparently the bears are more interested in the skin where the oils are than they are as much the meat of the salmon. We were told there will be less waste later in the season as the number of salmon decline. Watching the salmon swimming and jumping, or attempting to jump up the falls was just as cool as watching the bears. It was also interesting to watch what I think was called a salmon "boil" or "roil". That's when the salmon get startled or scared, and they all start moving and jumping together and the water gets churned up. The older bears apparently have the main run of the falls area itself. Otis, one of the older large brown bears pretty much sat at the bottom of the falls, sometimes just sitting, sometimes sitting and fishing/eating. Thankfully Lefty came along at the top of the falls while we were there. We got to see him catch a salmon jumping up the falls and carry it off to the side to eat. That was pretty cool as well. We hiked the trail down to the lake, but it was kind of overcast so the view wasn't that special to look at that day. We had three opportunities on the main viewing platform, which was ample time and much more time than we would have had in a "normal" season. (We were allowed 50 minutes, I believe, each time, but we never stayed the entire time allotted to us.) We saw brown bears even on our walk back to the lodge for our return flights to Anchorage. There was bear activity everywhere. I am so glad we had this experience in person (rather than just on a screen). It was definitely the highlight of our vacation. If you have the time and the money, this is one trip that should not be missed! (I'd share more photos, as I took over 200 photos and videos, but most of the files are too large to upload.)
Written July 28, 2020
This review is the subjective opinion of a Tripadvisor member and not of Tripadvisor LLC.

Sandy L
Colorado Springs, CO26 contributions
A unique experience
Jul 2020
We took a day trip to Katmai NP through Katmai Air. A long day, but providing nearly 6 hours viewing the bears in action. This is an opportunity no one should miss. The chance to see these bears "up close and personal" is unique in our travels. The bears are as close as you would want to get, in some cases closer than that (see photo). The activity of the salmon as they try to make it over the falls is also entertaining. Highly recommend this trip!
Written July 27, 2020
This review is the subjective opinion of a Tripadvisor member and not of Tripadvisor LLC.

Melissa A
293 contributions
Do it
Jul 2020 • Friends
Ignore the cost of what it takes to spend a day here - just do it. It's amazing and totally worth it. I flew out of Anchorage with Katmai Air and they were very easy to coordinate with. I don't know where else you would get to see such a high concentration of bears in such a small space.
Written July 23, 2020
This review is the subjective opinion of a Tripadvisor member and not of Tripadvisor LLC.

Wanderlust1263
Buckinghamshire, UK3 contributions
Best place to see brown bears!
Jul 2019
This is an amazing place to get up very close to brown bears.
Incredible viewing and wonderful place to visit!
Written February 21, 2020
This review is the subjective opinion of a Tripadvisor member and not of Tripadvisor LLC.

rav t
Florida169 contributions
Bear viewing site
Jul 2019
Best viewing site
Must get lucky
Stood hours before one showed up somedays several viewing site limited for duration to allow others to come to area
Approx allow maybe 30-50 at a time
Written October 8, 2019
This review is the subjective opinion of a Tripadvisor member and not of Tripadvisor LLC.

mlevison1
Teaneck, NJ25 contributions
Bear Viewing at Brooks Falls-Perfect!
Sep 2019
We took the walk to Brooks Falls to see the Bears from above on a platform overlooking the falls and this was perfect
Written September 25, 2019
This review is the subjective opinion of a Tripadvisor member and not of Tripadvisor LLC.

superdavesphotos
Atlanta, GA30 contributions
Bears, Bears Bears Everywhere...
Sep 2019
This was a bucket list place for me and it didn't disappoint...the opportunity to photography these animals were just unbelievable...a dream come true...if your into national parks then this is a must see...I might have to go again because it's just that good...just be careful and follow the rules as you might walk up on a big bear...
Written September 23, 2019
This review is the subjective opinion of a Tripadvisor member and not of Tripadvisor LLC.

MyKidsRSaints
Romeoville, IL143 contributions
Bucket list item: CHECK
Sep 2019
We wavered back and forth about paying for this excursion because it is SO expensive. We are sooo glad we did it. We went in September and were told there wouldn't be as many bears as in July, we saw four bears at the falls and one in a lake on the walk back to our plane. I wasn't expecting to see any salmon either, but we were pleasantly surprised that occasionally, one would jump. The ultimate event happened and we saw a bear grab a salmon out of the air with her mouth. It was an amazing moment.

Having said all that: I'd like to give one caveat to potential visitors coming with a float plane service (we used and were happy with Steller). After the walk to the viewing area, you put your name on a list and have to wait down stream for your turn to get to the main viewing platform. This is also a good view and we found it amazing to watch fly fishermen and how they didn't even move when a bear came near them. We only waited maybe 15 minutes for our turn because it was after Labor Day and there weren't many tourists at this time. The more tourists, the longer you're going to wait. Once on the platform, you are given an hour to view the bears. You can put your name on the list again and wait, if you have time. Here's the caveat. We JUST had enough time for one one-hour visit on the main platform before we had to be back on the plane, which was fine with us. But make sure you ask a lot of questions about timing and crowds and how much time you'll actually get at the main platform. Once you know what to expect, enjoy, because this was amazing.
Written September 22, 2019
This review is the subjective opinion of a Tripadvisor member and not of Tripadvisor LLC.

StellaGoose
Atlanta, GA61 contributions
Once in a Lifetime!
Sep 2019
Make this trip - Make the effort! Well worth the journey and experience is once in a lifetime.

Katmai Air and travel services - great group and very professional and communicative. Lodge employees extremely customer service focused and very accommodating.

NP Rangers at Brooks Falls - Top notch and open the sharing information as well as safety training while on site in park. An experience we will never forget.
Written September 15, 2019
This review is the subjective opinion of a Tripadvisor member and not of Tripadvisor LLC.

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