Katmai National Park, Alaska

To celebrate my retirement, my husband and I took a once-in-a-lifetime trip to vast, wild and rugged Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska.

I've always dreamed of visiting Katmai (pronounced "cat-my"), renowned for its abundant bears, towering mountains, active volcanoes, misty fjords and mind-boggling vistas. This 4.7-million-acre park, which extends for 340 miles along the Alaska Peninsula, exceeded even our wildest expectations.

Ron and I love national parks, but seeing wildlife up close is often an iffy proposition. That's not the case at Katmai, which features one of the world's largest concentrations of brown bears.

They're especially visible in July and September, when they gather along waterways teeming with spawning salmon. In particular, Brooks Falls is one of the world's premier bear-watching spots.

Watching the bears here from the safety of a viewing platform was one of the most amazing things I've ever done. Shoulder to shoulder with professional photographers and tourists, we watched mesmerized as dozens of bears feasted on salmon--some catching the fish in midair!

Arrive Only by Air

Getting to Katmai is an adventure in itself. You can't drive here--it's only accessible by airplane. We flew from Ted Stevens International Airport in

Anchorage to the community of King Salmon, then enjoyed a 25-minute floatplane ride to remote Brooks Camp.

Here, the park's official concessionaire runs the Brooks Lodge on the shore of aquamarine-colored Naknek Lake, and just a short walk from Brooks Falls. Within minutes after landing, we spotted our first bear--a young cub meandering along the shoreline.

Although the bears here are used to humans, all visitors must attend the park's School of Bear Etiquette upon arrival. If nothing else, just remember that bears always have the right of way!

There's often a short wait to get the best bear-viewing spots at the Brooks Falls platform, where you're only allowed an hour of viewing at a time. But the wait is never boring, as you can see bears from almost any area along the platform. In fact, there's no waiting at a downstream viewing area called the Ripples.

When you get your fill of bear watching, be sure to take the 23-mile bus ride out to the Valley of 10,000 Smokes. Scientist Robert Griggs coined the name during a 1916 expedition when he saw steam rising from thousands and thousands of volcanic vents.

Griggs was there to examine the results of the Novarupta Volcano eruption in 1912. One of the most violent in world history, the eruption spewed ash up to 700 feet thick over more than 40 square miles of the valley. This eerie landscape is something to behold.

We only stayed at awe-inspiring Katmai for 2 short days, but we'll remember it for the rest of our lives.

Fast facts

Katmai National Park and Preserve is on the Alaska Peninsula in southwestern Alaska; it's a 290-mile, 1-1/2-hour flight from Anchorage. Admission to the park is $14 per person, but that fee typically is included in lodging and transportation costs.

The park is open year-round, but park and concessionaire services are available only from June through September 17. Be prepared for volatile weather, including strong winds; summer daytime temperatures range from the mid-50s to mid-60s, and most days are overcast. To learn more, call 1-907/246-3305.

The Brooks Lodge, run by Anchorage-based concessionaire Katmailand Inc., features 16 modern cabins that accommodate two to four people and a central lodge with a restaurant and lounge.

A 1-night stay for bear viewing, including round-trip air transportation from Anchorage, costs $786 for double occupancy (meals not included). Guided bus tours of the Valley of 10,000 Smokes are $96 per person.

Katmailand also offers other lodging/air-transportation packages, some of which include lodging in King Salmon, 25 minutes away from Brooks Camp by air. Book reservations well in advance--up to a year early if you plan to visit during peak bear-viewing season in July and September.

To learn more about the lodge and its assorted travel packages and tours, call Katmailand at 1-800-544-0551.

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