Julie United States 2 Comments

The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes is the site of one of the world’s largest volcanic eruptions. Located in Katmai National Park, a visit to this area makes a great day trip from Brooks Lodge.

I know that it can be hard to pull yourself away from the awesome bear viewing of the Brooks Falls viewing platforms, but if you want to journey farther into the wilderness and see the dramatic changes that a volcanic eruption can render to the landscape, then this is absolutely worth it.

On a Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes tour, you will get to see panoramic vistas of Katmai National Park, view the pumice covered landscape, and hike out to massive walls of volcanic ash.

What is the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes?

On June 6, 1912, Novarupta began to erupt. Over three days, it sent 15 cubic kilometers of magma into the sky, making it the largest volcanic eruption in the 20th century, as well as one of the five largest in recorded history.

According to the US Geological Survey, “This volume [of magma] is equivalent to 230 years of eruption at Kilauea (Hawaii) or about 30 times the volume erupted by Mount St. Helens (Washington) in 1980!” 

Ash filled the sky around Katmai National Park and then drifted east to Kodiak Island. Kodiak Island was in total darkness for three days. The ash spread across the planet, acid rain fell in Canada, and earthquakes rocked the ground for several months following the eruption.

Since this eruption occurred in such a remote area, and since earthquakes leading up the eruption prompted people to leave nearby villages, the death toll was zero.

The ash that filled the valley covers an area that is 40 square miles wide and it is as high as 700 feet in some places.

In 1916, Robert Griggs and a team of explorers with the National Geographic Society were exploring the region that was devastated by the eruption. The smoking, steaming, ash covered landscape made an unforgettable impression on him, and he referred to it as The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes.

The land is no longer smoking or steaming but the name remains.

This is one of the most studied volcanic eruptions in the world and this region was also used by NASA to train the Apollo astronauts on how to recognize volcanic features.

Largest Volcanic Eruptions in the World

The power of volcanic eruptions is measured by the Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI). This scale ranges from 1 to 8, with 8 being the most powerful.

According to Live Science, here is the list of the top ten biggest volcanic eruptions in the world: 

1. Yellowstone: VEI 8, 640,000 years ago
2. Huaynaputina, VEI 6, 1600
3. Krakatoa, VEI 6, 1883
4. Santa Maria Volcano, VEI 6, 1902
5. Novarupta, VEI 6, 1912
6. Mount Pinatubo, VEI 6, 1991
7. Ambrym Island, VEI 6, 50 AD
8. Ilopango Volcano, VEI 6, 450 AD
9. Mount Thera, VEI 7, 1610 BC
10. Changbaishan Volcano, VEI 7, 1000 AD

How Do You Get to the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes?

The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes is located in Katmai National Park, 23 miles away from Brooks Lodge.

The easiest way to get here is to take the Katmailand bus from Brooks Lodge to the Valley. This can either be done as part of a day tour offered by Brooks Lodge, or you can use the bus as transportation and then spend several days exploring the backcountry on your own or with a guide.

Brooks Lodge offers daily tours to the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. In 2022, this tour is offered from June 5th to September 17th. 

Alaska’s Gold Creek Lodge also offers tours of The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. 

If you want to explore the backcountry, you can venture deeper into the Valley, getting up close with Mount Katmai, Mount Griggs, and Novarupta. Learn more on the National Park Service website. 

Road to Ten Thousand Smokes Map

Map of the driving route from Brooks Lodge to The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes.

The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes Day Tour

We visited The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes on the day tour offered by Brooks Lodge. This section covers our experience and what you can expect on this tour.

Overview: This tour runs from 9 am to 4 pm. It includes a 1.5 to 2 hour drive each way to get to and from The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. Once at the Valley, you have the option to hike down into the valley for an up-close look at the ash-covered landscape.

On the Drive to The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes

At 8:45 am, we met our driver and National Park Service guide and boarded the bus. This meeting point is located next to the Brooks Lodge Lower River Platform.

On the day we did this, two vans filled with approximately 16 guests made the journey out to The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. There is also a much larger school bus that is used for this day tour, but it was undergoing maintenance the day that we took this tour.

10000 Smokes Bus

The bus and the meeting point

 

Road to Ten Thousand Smokes

This is the van we took on our day trip and a view of the road that connects Brooks Lodge and The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes.

To get to The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, it takes an hour and a half to 2 hours to drive the 23-mile road. Along the way, there are several creek crossings as well as two great viewpoints of Katmai National Park.

A National Park Service ranger attended this tour with us and at both of these viewpoints, provided information about Katmai National Park and how the people who lived here could tell that an eruption was imminent.

Katmai National Park View

First viewpoint

 

Second Viewpoint

Second Viewpoint

At The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes

The road ends at a small visitor center. Inside are exhibits with lots of information about the Novarupta eruption. Outside is a deck with great views of The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. 

Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes Visitor Center

Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes Visitor Center building

 

Katmai View

View from the visitor center deck.

The National Park Service ranger gave a speech about the eruption and then we ate lunch. You can bring your own lunch or pay extra for the lunch provided by Brooks Lodge (sandwiches, fruit, chips, and cookies).

After the ranger talk, we had a few hours to hike into the Valley.

Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes Hike

The Ukak Falls Trail leads from the visitor center down to the Ukak Falls and river. This is well worth it if you want to get views of the massive wall of ash. Just be aware that it is a steep downhill descent to the river and slower, uphill walk to get back to the visitor center.

Ukak Falls Trail Hiking Stats

Distance: 3.5 miles out-and-back
Difficulty: Moderate to strenuous
Total Ascent: 1,100 feet
Highest Elevation (visitor center): 1,270 feet
Lowest Elevation (at the beach): 440 feet
Time: 1.5 to 3 hours

The above hiking stats are for the out-and-back hike to Ukak Falls. There is also a spur trail that leads to a different viewpoint of The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. If you are a fast hiker, you can also add this on if you like.

The spur trail adds an additional 1 mile and 150 feet of total ascent. It’s mostly flat and doesn’t add a whole lot of time (about 30 minutes), but our park ranger gave us a cut-off time for starting the hike on the spur trail. On the day we visited The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, we were the only ones who hiked the spur trail.

Ukak Falls Trail Elevation Profile

Elevation profile of the Ukak Falls Trail with the spur trail.

 

Ukak Falls Trail Map

Ukak Falls Trail Map

Hiking to Ukak Falls

From the visitor center, it is an all downhill hike, mostly through shurbs and small trees. When we did this, it rained on and off, and we ended up getting quite wet, not just from the rain, but also from all of the water on the trees and brush. This is a narrow trail so our bodies constantly rubbed up against this wet vegetation. If you do this on a wet day, bring a rain jacket and water resistant pants.

The trail levels out and the views open up just before you reach the 1 mile mark. At this point, you are walking along Margot Creek.

Hiking in Katmai

Ukak Falls Trail Hike

 

At the end of the trail, you can stay to the right for a view of Ukak Falls.

Ukak Falls Trail Waterfall

View of the falls.

If you stay to the left, you will hike down a steep rocky hill, which almost looks like a staircase. At the bottom, it’s a tricky walk along a ledge of rock, then you can step down onto level ground and walk out to a “beach” and an awesome view of this wall of ash. We got very lucky that the skies cleared, at least for a few minutes, for this part of the hike.

Katmai Trail Ukak

This is view up the steep, rocky hill that leads out to the “beach.”

 

On the Ledge

Tim is climbing across the ledge.

 Ukak Falls Trail

The “beach” and a great view of the wall of ash.

 

Ten Thousand Smokes Ash

 

To finish the hike, retrace your steps to the visitor center. On the way back you have the option to add on the spur trail if you are doing well on time.

Margot Creek

As you hike along the creek, you get viewpoints like this one. Just be very careful because the rocks can be wet and slippery.

On the Spur Trail

Just before the trail starts its ascent back uphill to the visitor center, look for a fork in the trail. The spur trail breaks off to the left and heads back out to the river.

For a half of a mile, you will walk through dense brush, grass, and trees, until you emerge for great views of The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. When we did this, the rain started to fall again and it got incredibly windy. It was amazing how much the weather changed during the 2 hours that we spent hiking this trail.

Spur Trail

Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes

Wall of Ash

To get back to the visitor center, it is a moderate uphill walk on the same trail you took to get down into the valley.

This hike can be done on your own or you can hike it with the park ranger. We did it on our own, so that we would have enough time to take the extra detour.

Return to Brooks Lodge

Once everyone returns from the hike, you will all climb back into the van or bus and it’s an hour and a half drive to Brooks Lodge. This goes a little faster since you do not stop at the viewpoints on the way back.

We had the driver drop us off at the Brooks Falls Trail so we could go right out and see the bears from the viewing platforms.

Our tour ended a little bit before 4 pm.

US National Parks List

Weather at The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes

As far as what to expect with the weather, it can be all over the place.

When we did this, in early July, it was mostly rainy and the high temperature was in the low 50’s. This was an unusually chilly summer day.

I have also read that temperatures can be unusually hot, getting well up into the 90’s. So, be prepared for all sorts of weather out here. Check the weather forecast the day before you fly to Katmai (since there is no cellular service here) so you know what to expect. The weather was cooler at The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes than it was at Brooks Lodge.

Is The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes Worth It?

This is a big question we had before visiting Katmai…is taking a day of our precious Katmai NP time worth it to venture out to The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes? Seeing the bear from the Brooks Falls viewing platforms was the experience I was anticipating the most in Alaska, so I questioned if this tour would be worth it.

Well, it was.

How often do you get to see a landscape that was dramatically altered by one of the world’s largest volcanic eruptions?

To hike out to the valley and see the ash and pumice covered landscape was awesome. And even with the rainy, chilly weather, the three of us had a great time.

We still had plenty of time to see the bears at Brooks Falls, since we visited the viewing platforms in the morning before the tour started and as soon as we got back to Brooks Lodge. The timing worked out great, since we weren’t at Brooks Falls midday when it’s at its busiest, during the influx of day trippers.

If you have two full days at Brooks Lodge and want to see something truly unique, The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes tour is worth it.

Practical Information

Tours are offered by Katmailand through Brooks Lodge. Click here for pricing and more information. Make your reservation in advance because the tours can sell out.

It is possible to do this tour on your last day at Brooks Lodge. Flights depart in the late afternoon and evening so you could schedule a flight out at 6 pm.

Bring rain gear, waterproof hiking shoes, water, snacks, a camera and extra batteries, and warm clothing.

The Ukak Falls Trail goes through bear country, so hike in groups and make lots of noise to warn bears of your presence.

There have been several deaths near Ukak Falls, as hikers attempt to cross the river. Stay away from the edge of the river, particularly around overlooks of the falls.

Please practice the seven principles of Leave No Trace: plan ahead, stay on the trail, pack out what you bring to the hiking trail, properly dispose of waste, leave areas as you found them, minimize campfire impacts, be considerate of other hikers, and do not approach or feed wildlife.


If you have any questions about The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes tour, or if you want to share your experience, you can do so in the comment section below.

More Information for Your Trip to Alaska

KATMAI NATIONAL PARK: In our article Best Things to Do in Katmai, we cover the top experiences in the park.

BEST OF DENALI: Eielson is one of the most spectacular areas in Denali to visit since it offers some of the best views of Denali. Taking a Denali flight seeing trip is also a great thing to do, as are hiking one of the many trails in the park. Get the full list in our article Best Things to Do in Denali.

KENAI FJORDS NATIONAL PARK: Check out our Kenai Fjords National Park Travel Guide for  important travel planning tips, sample itineraries, advice on when to go, where to stay, and more.

WRANGELL-ST. ELIAS FLIGHTSEEING: Taking a flightseeing tour of Wrangell-St. Elias is one of the best ways to see the park. Two popular tours include the Thirteen Glacier Tour and the Bagley Icefield Tour.

NATIONAL PARKS: In our Guide to the US National Parks, get the full list of national parks with important travel planning information, such as things to do in the parks and sample itineraries.

 

Read all of our articles about Alaska in our Alaska Travel Guide and the United States in our USA Travel Guide.

 

Katmai Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes

 

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Comments 2

  1. Avatar for Tammy
    Tammy

    Hi, I am an Alaska resident going to Brooks next September for 3 nights. I am pondering doing the Valley of the Smokes tour, but not really into strenuous hikes. What would you do for the several hours if you are not up for the hiking portion? Is there an easier way to see the wall of ash?
    TIA!

    1. Avatar for Julie Post
      Author
      Julie

      Hello Tammy. The only way to get close to the wall of ash is to hike to it. You will be able to see it from a distance at the visitor center. But it is a downhill walk through the forest to get to a decent viewpoint, so you will have to do some walking. If you don’t want to do the hike, you will have to wait several hours in the visitor center, which is boring. We got back early from the hike and sat there for about an hour and a half. It was rainy and chilly and not all that pleasant. So, if you don’t think you would do the hike (that was the highlight of day for us) you might want to skip the tour. A day fishing on the river with a guide might be a fun thing to do instead, or some kind of boat tour or flightseeing tour. Cheers, Julie

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