The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes


The sight that flashed into view…was one of the most amazing visions ever beheld by mortal eye. 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.

Our feeling of admiration [for the Valley] soon gave way to one of stupefaction. We were overawed. For a while we could neither think nor act in a normal fashion.

— Robert F. Griggs


About 290 miles southwest of Anchorage on the Alaskan Peninsula resides Mount Katmai. This stratovolcano is the namesake of what is now Katmai National Park and Preserve, designated by the Congress of the United States in 1980.

This tract demonstrates the vastness of Alaska. The area of the National Park is larger than the state of Connecticut and nearly the size of New Jersey. Yet this area comprises just a fraction of Alaska:

Katmai National Park is huge, but just a speck of Alaska's total area - graphic by USGS

On 5 June 1912, Mount Katmai reached an approximate elevation of 7,500 feet, the jewel of a range of volcanoes that overlooks the Ukak River Valley. For centuries, the Alutiiq people traversed the region, fishing the waters of the Shelikof Strait. 

The mountains and valley are situated on the Ring of Fire, the world’s most active tectonic strip, so the residents of the region were used to earthquakes. Still, the tremors emanating from the peninsula in May and June seemed frequent and strong. Katmai Village, on the coast to the southeast of the range, had evacuated in the first days of the month because something big seemed to brew.

Mount Katmai - photo by National Park Service

“Big” quickly became the understatement of understatements.

On 6 June, the 20th century’s largest volcanic eruption began on the Alaskan Peninsula.

For 60 straight hours, the system raged. Over 100 earthquakes that measured more than 5 on the Richter Scale transpired, while at least 14 between 6 and 7 occurred. More than 13 cubic kilometers (3.1 cubic miles) of magma exited the underground tubing in the region. This figure is hard to visualize; based on some quick calculations, more than 5,200 duplicates of the Great Pyramid of Giza would fit into the space evacuated of molten rock. That figure is 30 times the amount of magma in the famous Mount St. Helens eruption.

This discharge was so large that it didn’t even really happen in one volcano. Mount Katmai’s peak sits 6.59 miles from the epicenter of the event. Still, the eruption was immense enough that a 2.5-mile-wide, 2,000-feet-deep caldera formed atop Mount Katmai, as the magma drained from the system. Measuring a 6 on the Volcanic Explosivity Index, the event propelled ash around the globe.

When the blast finally ended, Mount Katmai – more than six miles away – had lost 1,000 feet in elevation. A lava dome rose to the surface, plugging the hole. Above the surface, the dome rises 295 feet high and stretches 1,180 feet in width. The point where the outburst originated is now called Novarupta, Latin for “newly erupted.”

The Novarupta lava dome - photographer unknown
The newly formed crater atop Mount Katmai - photo by Captain Budd Christman

The section of the Ukak River Valley near the eruption became something altogether alien.

Ash covered a 40-square-mile area. Impressive on its own, but the depth of the ash reached 700 feet! Local villages were obliterated Vesuvius-style. 

Katmai Village, covered in ash - photo from National Geographic

Flash forward to 1916.

The remoteness of the region, coupled with a titanic disaster, left no human eyes to see the aftermath of Novarupta’s spewage. Four years later, botanist Robert F. Griggs led a National Geographic expedition to investigate the landscape.

Instead of the typical Alaskan panorama, Griggs beheld something closer to a moonscape. As the team entered the valley, they noticed smoke rising from the floor. Four years after the explosion, the region still smoldered. Awed by the sheer number of smoke pillars, Griggs christened the zone “the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes.”

Exploring the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes - photo from National Geographic

What they saw in a multitude is called a fumarole, a vent at the surface of the planet where gasses escape.

Following the eruption, glacial snow and river water had instantaneously been covered by ash and pumice. The heat of the event turned the cold water into steam. Over time, this steam forced its way to the surface, forming fumaroles. When the National Geographic team arrived in the valley, they glimpsed the world’s largest steam bath.

The system was so hot that it continued to vaporize precipitation and any other water that funneled into the valley for years. Griggs believed these steam vents might be permanent fixtures, but, by the 1930s, most of the heat had dissipated. In 1929, about 100 vents still spat water vapor into the air; just 10 remained in 1940.

Imagine the heat required to produce fumaroles for nearly three decades.

The Griggs expedition at the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes in 1916 - photo from National Geographic

Though the metaphorical fires are now out, this area was transformed into a unique region of beauty.

According to the National Park Service, some of the fumaroles were so hot that they cooked ash into clay, staining them with gorgeous colors in the process. This process juxtaposes the stark, glacial whites of Alaska with a palette suited more for hot deserts.

Springtime in the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes - photo by Peter Hamel
The remnants of a funnel fumarole - photo by USGS
Valley of the Ten Thousand Smokes - photo by NPS

Now that the valley has cooled, its ash is also a wonderful vessel to display erosion.

The middle branch of the Ukak, the River Lethe, slowly made its way through the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, chiseling canyons with water.

The result is fantastic art:

The river erodes volcanic ash - photo by NOAA
The River Lethe carving canyons - photo by TMillerCA
Knife Creek Gorge in the Valley - photo by AlaskaTrekker

The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes is so bizarre that NASA decided to use it for astronaut training during the Apollo years. Geologists taught future spacefarers to identify volcanic landforms during moon landing simulations in the valley. Among the astronauts to drill there was Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin; teaching the science was Gene Shoemaker, who later discovered the comet named partially for him, Shoemaker-Levy, which hit Jupiter in 1994.

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