National Parks Journal: Ranger Cheryl Spencer on the ‘Must-Do’s of Katmai National Park

by Jon D. B.

Speaking exclusively to Outsider, Katmai National Park & Preserve’s Ranger Cheryl Spencer details the lesser-knowns, must-sees, and must-dos of her incredible park.

No one knows America’s grand national parks system like the rangers who live it. It’s one thing to plan a visit to a national park with their website, but to get the inside scoop on what to see and where to go from an actual park ranger? Now that’s the beginning of a brilliant stay.

For our latest National Parks Journal, Ranger Cheryl Spencer is helping fellow Outsiders accomplish exactly this. And from the lesser-knowns to must-sees, she’s as excited to share Katmai with others as we are to get there.

“The park itself is really big. Katmai National Park and Preserve is over 4 million acres combined,” Ranger Cheryl offers right off the bat. There’s a lot to see. But it’s worth it. Within those millions upon millions of acres are some of North America’s most incredible hidden gems.

Lesser-Known: Katmai’s Incredible Human History

Cheryl and I both have Fat Bear Week to thank for our introduction to Katmai, as do hundreds of thousands across the globe. Yet aside from our love of all things ursine, we also share a fascination with archaeology and human history. National park fans may not yet know it, but Katmai holds one of the most fascinating and thorough archeological histories in North America – something Ranger Cheryl says is a “must-visit” opportunity her park provides.

“When I first got hired and came on here at Katmai, I was really surprised by the sheer amount of really cool things the park offers,” she offers. “In and around Brooks Camp,” which is Cheryl’s home base, “we have what is I think the 6th largest concentration of archaeological sites in all of North America. Which, unfortunately, most people don’t know because our fat bears kind of overshadow everything else.”

Ranger Cheryl Spencer poses in front of the sign for her base at Katmai, Brooks Camp: the home of Fat Bear Week. (Photo courtesy of Ranger C. Spencer, Katmai National Park & Preserve)

“But there’s a lot of cultural history in the area,” Cheryl continues. “People have been living in and around Brooks Camp for at least 8,000 years. And there’s a ton of really interesting human history here. Here at the camp, we even have am amazing recreation of a subterranean dwelling you can visit.”

Katmai’s NPS website cites everyone from the Native Alaskan Alutiiq people to Euro-American trappers, Russian explorers, and American entrepreneurs making the park their home over the millennia. Truly, there’s something for everyone.

Must-See: The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes

If you’re into geology, however, Ranger Cheryl says The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes is unmissable. “It’s actually the site of the fifth-largest volcanic eruption of all time, called Novarupta.”

Novarupta isn’t ancient history, either. The massive volcano would erupt throughout June 6–8, in 1912, just over a century ago. In fact, it’s the reason for Katmai National Park & Preserve’s very existence.

The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. Mounds of ash created by the explosion of the volcano have been eroded by the rivers. (Photo by Jean-Erick PASQUIER/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

“The park was then established by President Woodrow Wilson in 1918 to preserve the valley,” Cheryl says, hence the “Preserve” in “Katmai National Park & Preserve. And if you like geology, she says, “this is one of the craziest places you could ever come to. If you have time to come out to the park at all, you have to visit The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes.

“We do ranger-led hikes out into the valley, and it’s this geological wonderland. And there’s thousands of layers of ash deposit on top of what used to be lush valley. So it formed this sort of other-wordly canyon that is just incredible. When you see pictures of it, you won’t believe it’s in Alaska. It looks like Moab or something. Whenever people come up here to Brooks Camp and ask, ‘What else can we do here, we’re here for a few days?’ I usually scream, ‘Go to the valley!'” Cheryl laughs. “You won’t regret it!”

Most people land in Brooks Camp at Katmai, and the Valley is about 23 miles away from there. Brooks Lodge runs a bus up to the Valley twice a day for visitor access, with the destination proving particularly attractive to backpackers. So take note, Outsiders!

Must-Do: Katmai National Park Bear Watching

And for fellow bear lovers like Ranger Cheryl and this Outsider, Katmai also houses between 2 to 3,000 brown bears. They’re everywhere, and bear watching remains one of the most popular visitor activities in the national park, she says.

(Photo credit: Daniel Wise / Barcroft Media via Getty Images / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

For those looking to spot a brown bear or twelve, Brooks Falls is always a safe bet. Brooks Camp’s viewing platform is a hotspot, and hosts the famous Live Bearcam that helped catapult the park’s Fat Bear Week to international fame. But Brooks River & Falls aren’t the only places to spot these bountiful bruins.

If you’re looking for a less-crowded bear viewing experience, Ranger Cheryl says that “The beach of Naknek Lake always has bears on it. It’s like the bear highway that sort of runs next to the river.”

In the fall, “bears also like to fish up at Lake Brooks,” she adds, “which is where Brooks River originates.” Planning a trip in autumn makes the lake a must-visit, alongside another popular destination: Hallo Bay.

“Bear viewing is excellent at Hallo,” Cheryl offers. “It’s easily the second-most visited spot in the park behind Brooks area.”

From Hallo Bay to Margot and Funnel Creek

For those seeking a less-tourist-heavy bear watching experience, however, she points to Katmai National Park’s Margot Creek, a place where browns “love to fish.”

Funnel Creek, too, is a less-visited spot where the park’s giants frequent. But as always, Katmai visitors must stay bear aware in all areas, something Ranger Cheryl reiterates is of paramount importance.

“People have to remember that these bears are wild. We all love bears, but this is their home, and there’s never a situation where someone should feel comfortable getting too close to a brown bear.”

To plan your own trip to Katmai National Park & Preserve, be sure to visit their NPS ‘Plan Your Visit’ site for plenty more tips.