Katmai National Park
PO Box 7, #1 King Salmon Mall
King Salmon, AK 99613
Katmai National Park, on Alaska's southern coast, features extreme volcanic destruction amid rugged wilderness. The park is also famous for its population of brown bears; visitors can watch the bears plucking salmon from the Brooks River all summer long. There is no road access to the park, so visitors must fly in from Anchorage.
Entrance fees: Admission is free.
Visitor centers: King Salmon Visitor Center is open year-round. Brooks Camp Visitor Center is open from June to mid-September.
Other services: Three lodges, cabins, a wilderness retreat, and a backcountry campground.
Accommodations: Brooks Camp Campground (800-365-CAMP) and Brooks Lodge (800-544-0551) are open from June through mid-September.
Visiting Katmai National Park
On June 6, 1912, following a week of severe earthquakes, the Novarupta Volcano south of Iliamna Lake in southwestern Alaska exploded as if a nuclear missile had struck the area. In what was one of the three most powerful volcanic explosions ever recorded, the entire top of the mountain was violently blown off.
Scientists estimate that the total volume of displaced material was more than seven cubic miles -- two times the amount expelled by the 1883 Krakatoa explosion in Indonesia. A nearby river valley was buried in 700 feet of solid debris. This event is estimated to have had ten times the force of the 1980 eruption of Washington state's Mount St. Helens.
The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes forms the centerpiece of Katmai National Park, which is also famous for the immense congregations of Alaskan brown bears -- up to 60 at one time -- that gather on the Brooks Falls each summer to feed on sea-run salmon. Visitors fly into the Brooks Camp from Anchorage or Homer, via the bush village of King Salmon, and then view the bears from specially constructed bear observation facilities right on the river.
Streams flowing down from encircling mountains have carved the stark Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, filled with ash and pumice to depths of hundreds of feet, into deep and spectacular gorges. One sheer-walled canyon, hewed by the serpentine Ukak River, is crowned by cliffs 400 feet high. Although a few plants have been able to gain a tenuous foothold here and there, the valley is essentially lifeless, a moonscape of desolation that looks as if it had recently suffered a terrible catastrophe.
Visitors to Katmai National Park can enjoy just about every outdoor activity imaginable, from hiking and mountain climbing to kayaking and fishing. Keep reading to learn more about the many ways you can spend your time at Katmai.
Sightseeing at Katmai National Park
Today, the smokes of the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, which were fumaroles that sent jets of steam as high as 1,000 feet in the air, are gone. But the place is nearly as bleak as it was on the day that Robert Griggs first discovered the valley, now the centerpiece of Katmai National Park. The valley is almost totally barren, crossed only by a few streams. One of several hiking trails leads up an icy, ashy slope to the rim of Mount Katmai. When you look down into the caldera from here, you can see a lake the color of a robin's egg.
Another highlight of the park is Novarupta, a 200-foot-high dome of volcanic rock believed to be the extrusion plug of the 1912 eruption. Geologists believe that most of the lava and ash was emitted here and that magma was drawn away from nearby Mount Katmai, which collapsed as a result.
Beyond the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, Katmai is a wilderness wonderland of mountains, rivers, and forested valleys. The park contains 15 active volcanoes, many still emitting steam from open vents and fissures.
The park's other main attraction is what may be the world's largest protected population of brown bears. Approximately 200 to 300 of the animals roam through the park's huge backcountry areas. One of the best places to see these magnificent creatures is from a viewing platform overlooking Brooks Falls, a half-mile from the Brooks Camp Visitor Center. Here, nearly every day in spring and summer, travelers from all over the world witness the marvelous spectacle of the great bears skillfully catching fish.
Katmai National Park Photo Opportunities
Want to snap some photos while visiting Katmai National Park? You'll find diverse settings, such as backcountry wilderness brimming with vegetation, the famous brown bears in the salmon streams, and the blasted-out moonscape around Mount Katmai. Here are a few scenic spots to consider:
- Mount Katmai: After the 1912 volcanic eruption spewed much of the interior of this mountain out in the form of ash and pumice, a large caldera formed where the mountain collapsed in on itself.
- Novarupta Volcano: This volcano, which erupted along with Mount Katmai on that explosive day in 1912, is thought to be the source of most of the lava and ash that buried the surrounding landscape.
- Brooks Falls overlook: At this vantage point, about a half-mile from the Brooks Camp Visitor Center, visitors can watch brown bears pulling salmon from the river. The bears are present nearly every day during the summer months.
- Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes: While the plumes of smoke that gave this valley its name are no longer active, the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes still greets visitors with an up-close look at the devastation left after the major volcanic eruption.
The Brown Bears of Katmai Brown bears, North America's largest land carnivores, have made the Katmai area their home since the most recent Pleistocene ice age. Averaging 1,000 pounds in weight and measuring up to 10 feet long, the bears spend the long Alaskan winter in dens they have excavated in hillsides or under exposed tree roots. Not true hibernators, they sleep fitfully off and on, sometimes waking up enough to wander around outside in the snow.
They wake up for good in early spring (April in Katmai), poke their heads outside, and lumber out to find food. If the bear is a female, there is a good chance that she has birthed a pair of cubs during the winter. Visitors to the park delight in the marvelous and often amusing antics of these clumsy youngsters fishing for the first time.
Bear-watching in the park is best in midsummer, the spawning season of sockeye salmon. Sometimes bears dive completely under the water of a fast-moving river to catch fish, while at other times they dexterously catch jumping fish in midair.
On the next page, learn how the catastrophic eruption dramatically altered the landscape of Katmai National Park.
The History of Katmai National Park
The great cataclysm that altered the Katmai National Park region occurred in 1912, when a volcano erupted on this part of the Alaska Peninsula with a force that geologists believe was 10 times greater than the explosion that took the top off Mount St. Helens in 1980. The eruption was heard hundreds of miles away as a new volcano formed and an older one collapsed.
For hundreds of miles up and down the coast, the daylight sky was darkened by thousands of tons of ash thrown more than 30,000 feet into the sky. Global temperatures cooled for weeks, and as far away as Vancouver, British Columbia, acid rain burned up clothing that was hanging outdoors to dry. It is believed that nobody witnessed the actual eruption, because it occurred in a wild and uninhabited region far from towns or villages. But the great event put Katmai on the front pages of America's newspapers, sparking an interest in the region.
Exploration of Katmai National Park
Four years after the Katmai volcanic eruption, while exploring the still-smoldering area for the National Geographic Society, Robert Griggs discovered the primary scene of destruction, an area now referred to as the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. Said Griggs: "The whole valley...was full of hundreds, no thousands -- literally, tens of thousands -- of smokes curling up from its fissured floor."
Many people have been to Yellowstone National Park and have seen Old Faithful. Well, imagine a valley with hundreds of geysers, some shooting as high as 1,000 feet into the air (ten times the height of Old Faithful). That is the sight that greeted these early explorers. Katmai was designated a national monument in 1918. In 1980, Congress enlarged its area and reclassified it as a national park.
Katmai National Park is remotely located -- it's accessible only by airplane -- but the journey is worthwhile. Visitors see a volcanic wasteland alongside forests brimming with wildlife. It's one of the most unique sights in the national park system.
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