Valley of 10,000 Smokes Memorial Weekend

Scott Chandler

Wildness is a necessity- John Muir
Jan 4, 2014
Get ready for a long TR

Katmai National Park. Even people who don't know the name seem to know why people go there: big brown bears. Yet this was not the original purpose of Katmai.

In 1912, a ferocious blast shook the remote Alaskan Peninsula. An ash cloud quickly rose 200,000ft into the sky and three cubic miles of molten rock erupted out of a weak spot on the Ukak River valley floor. To put that in perspective, Mt St Helens erupted 0.1 cubic miles of magma. The valley quickly went from what was likely a remote Alaskan paradise to a desolate plain of hot volcanic material. Feet of ash fell upon Kodiak Island, burying houses and blacking out the sun. An eruption of this magnitude was unheard of in modern time, and hasn't been surpassed since. This cataclysmic event brought the region into the limelight. The National Geographic Society proceeded to sponsor expeditions to the area, to witness what such an eruption does to the landscape. It wasn't until four years later that an expedition made it to Katmai Pass and witnessed what now existed. Robert F Griggs, the expedition leader, took some inspiration from Minnesota and termed the fumerole filled valley: The Valley of 10,000 Smokes. Inspired by this expedition and a blossoming preservation movement, Griggs and Nat Geo became the champions of this area, eventually getting the Valley and immediate area designated a national monument in 1918 with the name Katmai, off of the volcanic mountain that was believed to have erupted, since it wasn't there anymore. The monument was only ~1 million acres compared to the 4.1 million of today, and did not list bears as anything important. Katmai was all about this new volcanic landscape.

Fast forwarding to now, the Valley is almost a sideshow attraction. It is usually the week long visitor or the most informed that end up visiting the Valley. We rangers lead a tour out there every day, rotating the task among us. We would pile onto a concessionaire operated bus and travel down an isolated 23 mile bush Alaskan road to a Visitor Center and overlook of the Valley. We stop along the way, talk about various things and after lunching we go on a hike to the Valley floor, to better fathom what the Valley is.

At the end of May, after a month of training, we were finishing with a bang. Memorial Day yields a three day weekend and we had the perfect excuse to be out there, so we banned together and set out into this crazy landscape.

First reactions to the Valley are often outstanding. My favorite part of the Valley Tour is the utterances of awe that everyone seems to gasp at the Visitor Center. It is certainly a sight to behold. I've seen the view in many ways: bright sun, high clouds, rain hard enough to barely see anything; but regardless of the condition, people are inevitably drawn to find the sight amazing. On this first time seeing the Valley, we had amazing sun, and a bit of an inversion.

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Southern side of the Valley. Mt Magiek is the dominant mountain, here towering over the Windy Creek drainage. You can imagine the ash cloud extending skyward behind the leftmost extent of the green Buttress Range in the middle.
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The Valley of 10.000 Smokes proper. Mt Griggs is the high peak that looks like a volcano. Mt Katmai sits to the right of it, and used to look very similar. I have closer shots of what it now is later.
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The view north. The Ukak River is visible before it turns west and meets Naknek Lake. Mt Ikigluik is on the right, not volcanic, even though it looks that way.

From the Visitor Center you can see for tens of miles and the Valley is rimmed by mountains that tower thousands of feet above the floor. Canyons gouge into the pyroclastic flow but look like simple gullies. Proceeding down the trail to the Valley floor puts a scale to the whole thing.
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Reaching the Ukak River is always neat for first time visitors. It is a ferocious river, fueled by the death of the glaciers that originally created the Valley.
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Nearing Ukak Falls shows how dramatic 100 years of erosion can be.
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Ukak Falls
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The flow is about 50 feet deep here. At its deepest, near the vent, it is 700 ft deep.
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Life will find a way.
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A side trail goes to an overlook of the confluence of the Valley's three waterways: Knife Creek, Lethe River and Windy Creek.
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I'm a big fan of the perspective from here.
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A whole valley, filled with pumice and similar material. This is a block of banded pumice, a geological oddity, likely formed from two magma bodies (the Novarupta and Mt Katmai bodies) quickly mixing in the eruption.

After hiking back up to the VC and finishing up our training, part of the group set out into the Valley while others decided to overnight up there. I was part of that second group. The thought of the sunset from the VC was too much to pass by.
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Mt Magiek
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Mt Katmai. It used to look like Mt Griggs, but collapsed as its magma chamber was drained by the Novarupta Eruption. There is a crater lake there now. Knife Creek Glacier is seen in the lower right.
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The next day dawned bright and sunny, a nice sight as we off and went! A social trail starts out by cutting down through the brush to the Windy Creek drainage. The Windy is not glacial, relying on snowmelt and groundwater. It being unseasonably warm, the creek was running scarily high. Luckily we were a good group capable of teaming up to face the swift and high water. From there we followed the base of the Buttress Range. The Valley is surreal, unlike anywhere else. Man and beast alike is totally exposed in this landscape. Harsh, beautiful, astonishing.
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Our Windy Crossing. Cloudy water steals its intimidation factor. The sucker was nearly crotch deep, swift, and cold.
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Desolate country
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The River Lethe, a major obstacle because of its gorge. Travel in the VTTS is determined by where you can cross its waterways.
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No place in Katmai seems to not have bears.
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Eventually our path diverted from the Buttress Range and we truly set out into the Valley. Our goal was Baked Mountain, a mountain set in the center of the valley and a set of USGS huts out there that offer any semblance of shelter in this devastated landscape.

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Baked and Broken Mountains. We're going for the one on the right: Baked.
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The River Lethe... was somehow dry now. We reckoned it was dammed up by ice/snow and seeping under the flow. Sure made crossing it a non issue.
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Fumerole altered rock.
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Mt Magiek and Martin to the south.
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The Baked Mountain Huts. 5 star accommodations out here.

Reaching the huts, we settled into each other's company and marveled at a spectacular sunset.
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The next day dawned with some clouds moving out. It looked like it would be another pleasant day. Our goal, the cause of it all: Novarupta. We headed to Pea Soup Pass between Baked and Broken Mountains through slushy snow. Making the pass the power of the Earth became evident, a small blackhead on the valley floor below the towering peaks of Trident Volcano. Again, surreal is the only way to describe it. All the destruction, it poured out of the ground, right there... WOW. A group split down the slope for a direct attack while the rest of us followed the ridges around to come at it from the other side.

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There it is. Novarupta. The original vent was actually much larger, we're on the rim and it included Falling Mountain, the slope on the right, but it backfilled with its own eruptive material.
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Some fumeroles can be seen on the plug. The Valley used to be full of steam vents, now Novarupta and a couple isolated spots are the only places warm enough to still steam.
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View towards Mt Katmai with the Knife Creek Glaciers extending down.
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Scale is so hard out here.
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The plug is impressive. Despite it seeming so small, it still towers above its base. It is ferocious and harsh in its makeup. Steam issues from it. It is also a sanctuary of life. Bear tracks, snow buntings, snowshoe hares, and various plants teemed here.

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From there we headed back to the huts for another sunset and a night that saw a shift in the weather.
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We woke up to gloomy skies and occasional drizzles. We really lucked out on the weather this trip. The change made us glad that today was our day to leave though.
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It is easy to see why Griggs, Nat Geo, and somewhat our country was inspired enough by this space to protect the area. Even with this "New Yellowstone" now inactive, it is still the epitome of wilderness. We left excited for the summer and determined to return for more. The stories of that more... well they'll come soon.

Thanks for enjoying y'all!


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I ❤️ GYE
May 31, 2015
What an incredible-looking place. I can't imagine seeing it in person.

Did you ever make it up to the crater lake on Mt. Katmai? I looked up pictures and maps of it. Looks awesome. Probably a pretty good trek to get to it.

Scott Chandler

Wildness is a necessity- John Muir
Jan 4, 2014
Did you ever make it up to the crater lake on Mt. Katmai? I looked up pictures and maps of it. Looks awesome. Probably a pretty good trek to get to it.

I sadly did not. I could only manage to get one more "for fun" trip out in the Valley, and we chose to go for something else. I wish I could have though, it does look awesome.


Feb 7, 2015
This was a picture posted on the Katmai website of the inside of the hut they stayed at for two night. That is Scott in the top bunk. It was funny when
Scott was showing us his pictures. Every time he would point out Mt. Katmai he would trance with his finger "where" it would be if it hadn't collapsed.
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I walk
Jun 25, 2012
This TR is dedicated to @Artemus ! He tried to get across how cool this place is before I left for AK, an impossible task.
Thanks, that is an honor, my friend.

Yes, another Chandler instant-classic BCP trip report!
I reached out to Scott to give him some clues since I had visited Katmai and The Valley in the 80's on a backpacking trip I invented because of learning of the place in NatGeo magazine. Back then NatGeo was my go-to trip design trigger. Now, you guys are :)

I will post a few more impressions in separate comments. This inspires me to get out my silver oxide photos and "scan sum".

Love your photography and prose, as always, Mister.


I walk
Jun 25, 2012
Fast Fact: they dragged the lunar rover out onto the pumice of The Valley to practice moon-driving and technology.
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