The allure of lonesome.
[by Christopher Solomon]
What’s the least-popular place in the entire National Parks System? If you’d guessed the Martin Van Buren National Historic Site you wouldn’t even be close. More than 18,000 people pushed through the turnstiles at the home of our eighth president last year. By contrast, just 153 folks stopped by Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve, which sits 350 miles southwest of Anchorage. Almost every year Aniakchak anchors the bottom of the list as the nation’s least-visited national-park property. By comparison, the runner-up, Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial in California (visitors: 963), is a Yosemiteesque logjam of humanity.
Aniakchak remains terra incognita even to Alaskans who’ve tramped all over the state. If you are one of them, you need to remedy this. One of the nation’s least-known treasures is also one of its most spectacular—and surreal.
Around the time the Egyptians ruled the western world, a 7,000-foot volcano on the Alaska Peninsula blew its top. A deep lake pooled within the ruins, much like Oregon’s Crater Lake. It drained catastrophically, leaving a crater big enough to fit Manhattan. White men didn’t visit until an adventurous Jesuit named Rev. Bernard Hubbard, aka “the Glacier Priest,” explored the area soon after its 1920 “discovery.” Inside the caldera was “paradise found—a world within a mountain,” Hubbard wrote, where orchids bloomed in the heated soil and tame rabbits hopped right up to his expedition crew, who felt bad eating them (but did, anyway). One year later the caldera exploded again. His verdant Jurassic Park was obliterated, transformed into an ashen land of vents, cones, craters, and sulfurous hot springs. The holy man returned and likened himself to Dante: “the valley of death,” he wrote, “the abomination of desolation, it was the prelude of hell.”
If you’ve made it this far, expect no broad-brimmed park ranger with a helpful smile to greet you.
Today some life has returned to Aniakchak, which sits quiescent on the Alaska Peninsula, a place that’s green, nearly roadless, and warted with old volcanoes. Come summer Siberian asters bloom in the once sterile volcanic ash inside the crater. In August salmon return to spawn in Surprise Lake, a remnant lake within the caldera, and are pursued by some of the largest bears on earth. There are hot springs the color of psychedelic mind trips surrounded by electric-green lichen, and landscapes so barren and unearthly that NASA could’ve faked the moon landing here. Simply put, there is no place quite like it.
When it’s time to leave the crater, the preferred escape is via inflatable raft on the bucking Aniakchak River, a Wild and Scenic River that starts at Surprise Lake and charges through Class III rapids at “the Gates,” where the river long ago chewed a gap in the caldera wall. From there it’s a splash-and-giggle, 40-ish-mile float to the Gulf of Alaska. The fishing for arctic char and salmon can be excellent—as long as your Dolly Lama fly doesn’t snag on any of the 20 brownies that are common to see on your drift to the Pacific. Both outfitters and selfguided groups usually arrange a floatplane to pick them up at salt chuck.
If Aniakchak is so great, why has no one heard of it? Two words: Access and wildness. To get here you must first fly to King Salmon, then board a smaller plane and fly farther still, touching down at a WWII gravel airstrip at Port Heiden. From there, outfitted trips such as those offered by Alaska Alpine Adventures (alaskaalpineadventures.com) often bump clients directly to Surprise Lake in a floatplane; on my trip with the company a few years ago, we chose the sweaty, scenic route instead, backpacking the 18 miles to the crater’s lip while bent under anvil packs that were laden with packrafts for use on our exit.
The place’s rawness is the other barrier—and its allure. If you’ve made it this far, expect no broad-brimmed park ranger with a helpful smile to greet you. No trail signs. No trails at all, in fact. (Know how to use a map and compass.) Then there’s the weather: Pinched between the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska, Aniakchak can welcome visitors with T-shirt weather in mid-July, as it did for us, or pinion them with hurricane winds that can shred $600 tents. If you go sans guide, you should be very experienced, very self-sufficient, and very bear-savvy. These bruins may live at the biggest buffet table on earth and not be interested in you, but don’t give them reason for their eye to wander.
As for those 100-odd visitors to Aniakchak each year? People who know the place laugh at that number. Those who visit the crater each year is maybe 20. So prepare to be blissfully alone. But if you’ve come all this way and left everything behind, that’s just what you’ve come for: the allure of lonesome.
Christopher Solomon is a contributing editor at Outside magazine. His work has appeared twice in the anthology The Best American Travel Writing and can be found at www.chrissolomon.net.