Unequivocally one of the most scenic and unique destinations in all of Alaska, Katmai National Park’s Valley of 10,000 Smokes is a backpacker’s dream. The firm pumice, product of the 20th century’s largest volcanic eruption, makes for incredible walking, the mandatory elevation gain is minimal and the views cannot be beat. As you hike, you might feel like you are in the United States’ desert southwest, until you realize you are surrounded by the glacier-covered volcanoes of the Ring of Fire.
Getting to the Valley of 10,000 Smokes
Getting to the Valley of 10,000 Smokes is complicated, but accessing this destination is less expensive than other areas in remote Alaska.
Fly from Anchorage to King Salmon, the Alaska Air jet has a reputation of being far more reliable than flights with Ravn Air.
From King Salmon fly with Katmai Air to Brooks Camp on the shore of Naknek Lake.
The Katmailand bus is the primary way to access the Valley of 10,000 Smokes. It only leaves once a day, in the morning. Some private operators like Trygg Air can fly you in directly.
Since your flight to Brooks Camp likely will not get in before the bus departs, camp at the Brooks Camp Campground and spend a day bear viewing. In early summer, hang out by the Lower River Platform and on the beach, sows and cubs frequent these areas. In late summer, head up to the Falls Platform and watch the big males catch salmon as they struggle up Brooks Falls to access their natal streams.
The next morning, the bus leaves at 9am – make sure to leave plenty of time to hike down from the campground (.6 miles) and get across the floating bridge (sometimes bear traffic jams keep visitors stuck on one side or the other). Then board the bus and enjoy the 23 mile drive to the Three Forks Visitor Center.
Ask your bus driver to point out the trail to Windy Creek (it is before the Visitor’s Center by a quarter mile) the entrance to which can be obscured by vegetation. Follow the obvious trail down to the creek. There is great camping at the creek, but don’t stop there. Using caution, cross the creek and head east, then south, around the Buttress Range on a clearly visible social trail
Following the trail, hug the edge of the Buttress Range and camp at the one of the small streams coming off the slope to the west.
From here, your options are endless
Check out East and West Mageik Lakes – they change color depending on the runoff and time of year, but both are spectacular. The better camping is at East Mageik Lake.
Hike to Katmai Pass and look out towards the Shelikof Strait and Kodiak Island or descend south from the pass and search for the elusive hot springs in the southwest lava flows of Trident volcano.
Take a day to tag all the lesser summits of the valley: Baked and Broken Mountains, Mt. Cerebus and Falling Mountain.
You’ll definitely want to see Novarupta, the epicenter of the 1912 eruption. It is actually a smaller feature on the valley floor, but the multicolored pumice stones are incredible.
If you are feeling more ambitious and have the time, climb Mount Griggs. To get there, hike east between Baked and Falling Mountains, passing Novarupta. Descend into the Knife Creek valley and cross the creek as near as possible to its source at the Knife Creek Glaciers. Head towards Yuhle Creek, the water source flowing west from the valley between Mt. Yuhle and Mount Griggs. Make camp here and get up early to climb the obvious western shoulder of Griggs. Take plenty of water to make the nearly 6000’ climb. Be aware that accessing the true summit involves crossing snow, glacier and traversing an icy ridge.
When you’ve had your fill of this incredible landscape, head back out the Windy Creek trail, but be sure to make it back to the Visitor Center in time to catch your bus back to Brooks Camp.
Tips for Success and Safety
Despite what the National Park service website advertises, the Baked Mountain huts are a terrible place to camp. They are 12 miles from the road, tilting, dirty and, unless there is remnant snow nearby, there is no water. They make for an interesting pit stop on your way up Baked Mountain, but camp near water instead.
The Valley of 10000 Smokes is one of the only places in Alaska where access to water can be difficult. When you encounter water, drink up and fill up, and plan to camp near rivers, streams or lakes.
Bring safety goggles or ski goggles. Hopefully you won’t need them, but when the wind blows through Katmai Pass, it rages hard enough to rip the contact lenses right out of a person’s eyes.
The River Lethe, Knife Creek and the Ukak River can legitimately kill you. These rivers can only be crossed in a few locations. Educate yourself on proper river crossings if you are inexperienced. If you plan to cross these rivers, do so as high as possible and never at a location where the creek is set into a deep canyon. Be prepared to wait for water levels to drop, or to change plans if a river is uncrossable.
Don’t forget to book your flight from King Salmon to Brooks Camp, your campsite at Brooks Camp Campground and your seat on the bus (both there and back) well in advance. Spots fill up fast, especially during peak bear viewing season. The flight and bus are booked through the concessionaire Katmailand and the campground is booked directly through Katmai National Park.