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.