Katmai National Park in Alaska is best-known for its famous annual gathering of brown bears at Brooks Falls, where visitors can watch them from viewing platforms just feet away.
But Katmai has another cool attraction that is often overlooked: The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes.
This valley was created in 1912 by the world’s largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century, which deposited massive amounts of hot ash and pumice across the valley and wiped the land clean of any life.
Today, this valley is mostly dry and brown, as the hardened pumice is still unable to sustain much plant life more than a century later. Visitors can join a guided tour to see this fascinating place up close.
The entire reason Katmai was first designated as a national monument was not because of the Brooks Falls bears, but rather to protect the land in the Valley of 10,000 Smokes.
Curious about visiting this incredibly unique valley? Let’s talk about how you can visit in person and what you’ll see in this part of Katmai National Park.
This article is full of helpful info for your trip. The highlights include:
-The history of how the valley was formed
-How you can visit the valley today
-A review and photos from the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes Tour
-Information about wildlife, tour prices, and more
All photos taken by Quirky Travel Guy, except where noted.
How Was the Valley of 10,000 Smokes Formed?
This area of Alaska is part of the Ring of Fire, the band of active volcanoes running from the U.S. Pacific coast over to Asia. Katmai sits at the northern end of the Alaska peninsula that runs from the mainland to the Aleutian Islands.
On June 6, 1912, a previously-unknown volcano erupted here. It was dubbed Novarupta (“new eruption.”)
This was a massive eruption, darkening the skies for days and dropping ash hundreds of miles away. The valley floor was covered as a pyroclastic flow raced through the area. Acid rain poured down hundreds of miles away from the eruption site.
The Richter scale hadn’t yet been invented, so this eruption doesn’t have a Richter rating. But scientists say this eruption was the most powerful of the 1900s anywhere on the planet.
A different scale called the Volcanic Explosivity Index rates the Novarupta eruption as a 6, making it one of the most powerful in record history.
The Alaska Historical Society notes that the eruption smothered an area of 40 square miles (103 square kilometers), with some of the pumice and ash deposits sitting up to 700 feet deep.
According to National Park Service documentation, the eruption of Novarupta ejected 3 cubic miles of ash and pumice. That’s 50% more than both the Krakatoa eruption in Indonesia and Mount Vesuvius in Italy, and 30 times more than Mount St. Helens in Washington in 1980!
Why is it called the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes?
Before being covered in ash and pumice, the valley had snow fields, rushing glacial streams, and the Ukak River.
When they were buried, steam from the heated water began escaping through vents. That led to smoky fumaroles across the Ukak River Valley, which persisted for years.
In 1916, four years after the eruption, an expedition of explorers from the National Geographic Society came to see the area. Robert F. Griggs led the group.
Griggs would write, “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.”
In 1922, Griggs published a book about his experience called The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, which gave the area its name. You can still find this book on Amazon today!
The visitor center in the Valley is named after Griggs. So is Mount Griggs, one of the stratovolcanoes in this immediate area.
The steaming fumaroles eventually “cooked” the volcanic ash and pumice into clay and cement. That’s why the area mostly looks like a giant pile of brown clay today.
Katmai National Monument was created in 1918 to protect the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes and much of the surrounding area.
Katmai was officially upgraded to a national park and preserve on December 2, 1980, on the same day as six other Alaska National Parks: Glacier Bay, Gates of the Arctic, Kenai Fjords, Kobuk Valley, Lake Clark, and Wrangell-St. Elias.
How to Visit the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes
To visit this valley, first you’ll have to get yourself to Katmai NP. That can be a bit of a logistical challenge.
For most tourists, that involves flying from Anchorage to the tiny King Salmon Airport (Alaska Airlines has daily flights), and then taking a ferry or bush plane over to Brooks Camp.
From there, join the daily Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes Tour, led by rangers from the National Park Service. This tour includes a bus journey over a 23-mile gravel road from Brooks Camp to the valley itself.
To book the tour, you have to send an inquiry via this Brooks Lodge website form. Check the box for “Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes Tour” and include the date you are interested in booking. They will email you back with confirmation and a payment invoice.
The tour runs daily during the summer. In 2024, it’s June 5 through September 17. The tour starts at 9 am with a bus ride from camp, and it ends around 4 pm when the bus returns back to camp.
The tour currently costs $110 per person with sack lunch included (or $96 without lunch.) Most everyone buys the optional lunch, but you could bring your own food if you prefer.
Here’s a map of where the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes is within Katmai National Park. The valley is right at the Robert F. Griggs Visitor Center in the middle of the park.
The guided tour is by far the easiest way to get to the Valley of 10,000 Smokes. Your only other options would be to hire a private bush plane, or to hike all 23 miles on foot, bringing your tent so you can camp along the way.
There is a visitor center in the Valley, but there is no lodging here, nor is there any food for purchase (except for lunches included as part of the guided tour.)
There used to be cabins here called the Baked Mountain huts, but those were damaged and can no longer support guests.
If you’re fascinated by lava flows, ash flows, and natural geologic forces like eruptions, check out the Alaska Volcano Observatory page for more.
Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes Tour Review + Photos
The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes Natural History Tour begins from the lower viewing platform across the bridge from Brooks Lodge, at the start of the Brooks River.
Participants board the bus and settle in for the 23-mile ride, which takes an hour or so, since the road is gravel and it includes a couple of scenic stops along the way to the Valley.
The stops provide a chance to take cool photos of the mountains in this more remote section of Katmai.
One of the best parts of the bus ride is the chance to see wildlife. There are often critters running across the road or in the open fields next to the road.
We saw a moose in a pond not far from the road.
Finally, the bus arrived at Robert F. Griggs Visitor Center, housed in the Three Forks Shelter. The evidence of the century-old eruption was immediately visible with the field of brown rock in the distance.
Nature tends to regenerate itself quickly. But more than 100 years after the eruption here, very little is growing in the pumice. Just a few scattered shrubs, mostly.
After a few minutes to take a few pictures at the visitor center, the park ranger led a group hike to Ukak Falls.
The hike covers 3.4 miles round-trip, and gains about 1000 feet of elevation. It’s not strenuous, but it would be classified as “moderate,” since there’s still a decent amount of elevation gain on the walk back out of the valley.
This hike passed through wooded areas before descending into the valley, where volcanic debris towered over me.
The falls were powerful as they rushed through the chasm between the volcanic rock.
The ranger said that if there’s time after the hike to the falls, they do the side trek down into the valley to Windy Creek Overlook. On the day of my visit, fortunately, there was time.
At this overlook, we could see the cracks in the pumice and the confluence where the rushing glacier water meets the muddy ash water.
This confluence was the spot with the best views. We could see where the River Lethe had carved deep canyons into the rock.
When you arrive in the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, you can hike with the group, or go off on your own. It’s totally fine to wander and do your own thing.
But be warned that if you do hike alone, it’s your responsibility to make it back to the bus before it leaves.
On the bus ride back to Brooks, we saw two bears running ahead of the bus on the gravel, plus a lynx scampering across the road!
I was super excited, as this was my first-ever lynx sighting. Seeing a lynx was one of my favorite wildlife sightings ever in the United States.
Sadly, I could not snap a photo of the lynx quickly enough, and it moved into the forest. Still a great moment!
Additional Questions About the Valley
Is the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes worth it?
Yes, definitely! I was on the fence about taking this tour, because I came to Katmai for the Brooks Falls bears, and I wasn’t sure if giving up an entire day away from the bears would be worth it. But it absolutely was.
The tour gives you a chance to experience a remote part of the park that most visitors never see. You get to witness history – the evidence of a massive volcano eruption that remains impactful more than a century later.
You’ll get a chance to potentially see wildlife on the drive out there. And you’ll still have plenty of time to walk to Brooks Falls in the evening when the tour ends at 4 pm.
Are there bears in the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes?
Yes, but not many. The barren land of the Valley isn’t very hospitable for wildlife. It doesn’t make sense for bears to live here when you consider the abundance of salmon just 20 miles away at Brooks Falls.
That said, some bears do hang out in the forested parts of the Valley, and rangers urge hikers to make noise while walking through the area to avoid surprising any bears on the trails.
I didn’t see any bears on the hike in the Valley, but I saw plenty of bear scat on the hiking trails. And as noted, our group did see two bears on the bus ride out to the Valley.
What other wildlife might you see on this tour?
Besides bears, moose are commonly seen on the bus ride and at the overlooks. Our group also saw a snowshoe hare and a grouse on the road while driving.
As noted, we saw a lynx as well. Lynx are not seen often, but our driver said he’d encountered a handful over the previous month. Even more rarely, wolves may be seen.
In the distance, you may also spot large white things in some of the ponds. Those are trumpet swans.
How early do I have to book the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes Tour?
Book as early as you can, but generally, a month or two in advance should be enough. This tour doesn’t sell out right away like some other Alaska national park attractions.
It’s much more important to book your Katmai lodging first. The lodge and campground sell out months in advance. Ideally, you should book lodging in January (or even sooner) for a summer visit.
Do you have to stay at Brooks Lodge in order to book the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes Tour?
Nope! Some people may think that is the case, since tickets for the tour must be booked on the Brooks Lodge website, and that website confusingly refers to the Valley Tour as an “optional add-on” for lodge visitors.
But anyone can take the Valley tour, including folks camping at Katmai or even those visiting for the day.
What should I bring on the Valley tour?
Bring a rain jacket, as precipitation is common here. A mosquito net is also a good idea in summer. Hiking boots are ideal. Expect that they could get a little muddy.
It does get sunny here as well, so have a hat or sunscreen for protection. Cash may be worth bringing as well — park rangers cannot accept tips, but the bus driver does accept them.
Can you pick up pieces of the hardened lava or pumice?
Yes, at the Windy Creek Overlook, you’ll see a lot of small chunks of rock. These pieces of hardened lava and pumice are shockingly lightweight!
Will Novarupta erupt again?
It’s possible. This entire region of Alaska has numerous active volcanoes, one of which is all but certain to erupt at some point.
This trip to the Valley of 10,000 Smokes was the latest cool place in my quest to visit all 63 national parks. For mroe Alaska content, see my guides to Downtown Anchorage activities, guided tours in Alaska, the best Alaska road trip itinerary, and how to budget for an Alaska trip.
Got any more questions about visiting the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes? Fire away in the comments!