Taking Off 3-17-2006

Popular Katmai is best seen from above

By: Christopher Batin

Alaska’s Katmai is far from being a stroll-about national park. Katmai Park and Preserve has grown in popularity among Alaska’s must-see sights, not only for the catastrophic destruction caused by the eruption of the Novarupta Volcano near Mount Katmai, but also the geological and diverse wilderness that surrounds it. While only the fifth largest national park in Alaska, Katmai is larger than Connecticut and Rhode Island combined, stretching over 3.7 million acres.

While established concession tours are delightful, they can be crowded. For the best views and opportunities to enjoy Katmai, guided air travel is the way to go.

Pilot Kevin Kellogg of Slab Creek Guiding personally guides clients on flightseeing and adventuring tours to Katmai, the Valley of 10,000 Smokes and the Alaska Peninsula.

I felt comfortable in the co-pilot seat of his Cessna 170 bush plane specially equipped for travel in this environment. At 2,000 feet, I felt dwarfed by the mountains ahead. This section of the “ring of fire” is home to 14 active volcanoes, crowned with alpine glaciers and snowfields.

Below was the pyroclastic ash flow from the Novarupta explosion of 1912, the largest ever recorded. Almost a century later, the destruction is still mind-boggling. Deep-winding canyons cut through layers of ash, and icy whirlwinds swirl off a nearby volcano. Yet on the periphery, the land is blanketed with lush forests.

Kellogg’s tour took me to areas of Katmai the tour bus crowds never see, to walk the edges of the 100- to 700-foot-deep canyons carved into these rivers of ash. He guided me along glacier-melt rivers, and we hiked at the bottom of deep gorges of compacted ash and pumice. When we had finished exploring one area, we flew to another gravel strip.

Animals are abundant in Katmai, and Brooks River is one of the top spots to see brown bears, where as many as 60 congregate at Brooks River Camp. Clients can safely view bears from three elevated platforms, but the one near the falls is one of the best places to take photos of bears catching salmon. While bears are numerous in July and September, so are visitors. For fewer crowds, plan a visit for late June into August or late September.

Katmai stays open year-round, but the park concessions the onsite accommodations and restaurant are only open to the public from June 1 to mid-September.


Getting There: Clients can get to Katmai via Alaska Airlines’ direct jet service from Anchorage to King Salmon.

Where to Stay: Adventurers can camp out in the refuge or overnight each evening in King Salmon. A spike-camp option allows more time for fishing, birding, photography or hiking. I chose the latter and returned to the Quinnat Landing Hotel in King Salmon every three days for a shower and to catch up on phone calls and e-mail. Don’t miss Eddie’s Fireplace Inn near the hotel for good food and local color.

Tours: Kellogg offers guided trips ranging from $325 per day for a group of three in the early season, to $570 per person, per day, during the peak season. Group discounts apply.

Commission: 10 percent