Exactly 100 years ago, the largest volcanic eruption in the 20th
Century blasted away for three days in a remote patch of southwest Alaska. The
eruption blackened the skies over Kodiak, nearly 100 miles away, and covered
the village in a quilt of ash two feet deep. Residents in Juneau, 750 miles
away, heard the explosion an hour after it blasted. The eruption eventually
tarnished brass in California and Colorado, and lowered the earth’s average
temperature that year by 2F.
Although the eruption was a century ago, one of its more visually
astounding effects remains. In the middle of Katmai
National Park and Preserve, a 6,395-sq-mile swatch of wilderness
known mainly for its bear watching and salmon fishing, a wide, ash-covered
valley is surrounded by steaming, snow-covered volcanic mountains and marked by
a surprisingly small, yet several-story-high black mound. This mound is Novarupta
(which means “new eruption”), a volcanic vent and the source of the massive
Intrepid hikers can explore the valley, while those less keen on the
often-harsh conditions can enjoy the views from the Griggs Visitor Center, a
tiny facility located at the end of the valley.
The 20th Century’s biggest
The eruption was so huge that it drained the magma from the area, causing the top
of Mount Katmai to collapse, six miles away. When Robert Griggs of the US Geological Society (USGS) led an expedition to
the area in 1916, he came across the otherworldly sight of a once-verdant
valley covered in ash and peppered with thousands of steam jets. He named it
of Ten Thousand Smokes -- and though there are no more hissing fumaroles, the
sight of this grey valley in the middle of Alaska’s lush summer greenery is no
less awe-inspiring today.
On this same expedition, Griggs discovered the two-mile wide caldera of
Mount Katmai and mistakenly identified it as the source of the eruption. It was
not until 40 years later that researchers realized that the domed mound, now
named Novarupta, is what actually blew. This steaming, squat black rock dome –-
only 90m high and 1,185m wide -- is a new volcano, a previously undiscovered volcanic
vent now plugged by a lava dome several stories high. Its small size makes it difficult to imagine
that it caused one of the largest recorded volcanic eruptions in history.
The valley, which was never inhabited by humans, has always been an
important traverse for animals travelling between Katmai Bay on Shekilof Strait
and the salmon-filled Brook River . It is still common to see grizzlies or
their prints, and nearby Brooks Falls is
a world-renowned bear watching spot, where grizzlies perch on top of a small
waterfall and snap up the salmon jumping upstream.
Trekking the valley
While thousands of visitors descend upon Brooks Camp (set
at the mouth of the Brooks River near Brooks Falls) each summer, most only make
a day trip to the Griggs Visitor Center. From here you can hike a mile to the
tip of the valley at the ash flow’s farthest reach, or to a raging waterfall at
Three Forks Overlook, on the outer edge of the valley. But spending a few days
in the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes can be the trip of a lifetime.
A several-day trek is the best way to explore the valley. There are no
official trails and at least two river
crossings, depending on where you explore. Treks should not be undertaken by
inexperienced hikers, and you should plan for inclement weather and tough
To reach the valley, catch the park bus ($52 each way) from Brooks Camp,
which is in turn reached by air via Katmailand
air service from either Anchorage, Alaska's largest city, or the town of King
Salmon. Though the valley is only 23 miles from Brooks Camp, it takes an hour
by bus up a bumpy dirt road to get there.
The bus drops hikers off about a mile from the Griggs Visitor’s Center,
at the Windy Creek trailhead. Hikers follow a small path through alder trees to
Windy Creek, a silty creek that must be forded. It is best to take hiking poles
(and a friend) for this one. Search out the best spot to cross, and continue until
you find the unofficial trail into the valley, packed down by other hikers.
Because there are no official routes, you will need a map and compass to get
your bearings. You will also need to ford the Lethe River, which slices through
the valley’s ash in a deep, thin canyon.
A good destination and base for a multi-day trek is the USGS Baked
Mountain Huts, 11 miles from the drop-off point. The huts, which are free and
open to the public (no reservations), are often filled with researchers, but
you can set your tent up nearby and make use of the outhouse and gear shed.
From here, you can hike two more miles to Novarupta or continue on beyond
Katmai Pass, the lowest point in the mountains separating the Shekilof Strait and
Because it is so remote and often changing, the valley and what lies
beyond it remains shrouded in mystery. Nearby Trident Mountain has showed
activity recently, resulting in changed topography and inaccurate maps – the
huts have maps on the wall with scribbled updates; the USGS huts’ log books
record rumours of hot springs; and when the clouds clear, at least three
steaming, snow-covered volcanoes are in sight. It is safe to say that there is
no place on earth like this one.
The article 'The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.