Most travelers journey to Katmai National Park to catch a glimpse of grizzly bears gorging themselves on river salmon, but few stop to explore one of the more unique sites in Alaska, the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. Created in 1912 by an enormous volcanic blast, the once-fertile Ukak River valley was forever changed into a barren landscape of ash and pumice. While it has since cooled and the ground is no longer smoking, this cataclysmic event left behind evidence of the raw, destructive power of nature.
What is the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes?
The Ukak River valley was an uninhabited stretch of land located on the Alaskan Peninsula in an area that would one day become Katmai National Park. It was so isolated, in fact, that the site of the blast wasn’t discovered until nearly 4 years later, even though the effects of it had been felt around the world. The eruption lasted nearly 60 hours, spewing ash 20 miles into the air, blackening the sky and burying the surrounding areas. Haze from the blast could be seen as far away as Washington, D.C. and the Earth’s average temp decreased by 2 degrees Fahrenheit that year. It is now considered to be the largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century.
The full extent of the eruption wasn’t discovered until Robert F. Griggs came upon the valley during a US Geological Society expedition to the area in 1916. The site was like nothing he had ever seen before and he later wrote:
“The sight that flashed into view…was one of the most amazing visions ever beheld by mortal eye. The whole valley as far as the eye could reach was full of hundreds, no thousands—literally tens of thousands—of smokes curling up from its fissured floor…It was as though all the steam engines in the world, assembled together, had popped their safety valves at once and were letting off surplus steam in concert.
Our feeling of admiration [for the Valley] soon gave way to one of stupefaction. We were overawed. For a while we could neither think nor act in a normal fashion.
What he was seeing were thousands of steam vents called fumaroles spread out over 40 square miles of ash and debris. Since the whole valley had been covered in volcanic ash and lava in a matter of hours, water from snowfields and glacial streams had became trapped underneath. The water, fighting to escape the heat and pressure, erupted into these fumaroles, creating the otherworldly landscape of the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes.
Since its discovery, the valley has cooled and most of the hissing fumaroles have stopped venting steam, but the valley is still an impressive sight. The ash and pumice from the lava flows look like the surface of the moon and stand in stark contrast to the green summer foliage of Alaska’s Katmai National Park.
Hiking the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes
The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes covers a large area and takes days to fully explore. Luckily, there are several hiking options for adventurous travelers of all experience levels. Many start their journey at Brooks Lodge, famous for its location next to the Brooks River and the bears that gather there yearly to feast on salmon. From there, you can hop on a bus that will take you on a day trip to the Griggs Visitor Center. This trip is the best option for inexperienced hikers. Ranger-led hikes to the bottom of the valley are available, or you can make the short trek to the waterfall at the Three Forks Overlook.
For more seasoned hikers, there are several places to camp and many different places to explore. The Baked Mountain Huts make a good base camp since they are free to use and include basic facilities such as outhouses and bunk beds. The location also allows hikers access to several of the valley’s top destinations. You can hike towards Mt. Katmai, partially collapsed due to the nearby 1912 volcanic eruption, or you could head out to the actual site of the eruption, Novarupta. The force of the blast reduced the volcano to a small, still steaming, pile of multicolored pumice. If you’d like to take a quick dip, you can travel instead to the Mount Mageik lakes, which change color depending on the time of year.
While most of these hikes are not difficult for experienced hikers, there are some dangers that are unique to the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. Most hikes require a stream crossing. The ash and pumice can cloud stream waters making it difficult to judge depth and the run-off from glaciers can make the currents especially fast. High altitudes and the lack of clean water can also pose a threat. It’s always a good idea to do some research and prepare properly if you’re going to be hiking solo.
Glaciers & Grizzlies Adventure Tour
If you’d like to see the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes but you don’t want to travel solo, then you might consider Gondwana’s Glaciers & Grizzlies Adventure tour. This tour not only offers a guided trip to the valley, but also a stay at Brooks Lodge to see the great grizzlies, a kayak trip through the Kenai Fjords, and a visit to Exit Glacier! It is the quintessential Alaskan summer experience, showing you the best of Alaska while including everything you need to travel comfortably and with confidence.