Desolate Beauty

Katmai’s Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes

[text and images by Steven Miley]


STEPPING OUT OF THE BUSH PLANE INTO THE VALLEY OF TEN THOUSAND SMOKES, my shoes sink into the ash and pumice. A cold breeze carrying the vague smell of sulfur stings my face as I scan the valley for signs of life, finding none. The waterfalls and piercingly blue ice spilling down Mount Mageik in the distance capture my gaze, until my eyes are drawn to the ominous clouds guarding Katmai Pass. The pilot takes off in a cloud of ash, leaving me alone with this intriguing desolation.

After a night in the rustic Baked Mountain Huts, I venture toward the lava dome of Novarupta, the volcano that buried this valley under a pyroclastic flow during its massive 1912 eruption. Steam still wafts from the lava dome in places, though the thousands of steam vents, which once dotted the valley after the eruption, have since disappeared.


After the volcano Novarupta (above) erupted in 1912, a lava dome over 200 feet tall formed over the vent. The eruption—the largest of the 20th century—buried the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes in a pyroclastic flow of ash and pumice and dropped ash as far away as Seattle, Washington.


I continue over barren hills toward the serrated skyline formed by Mount Katmai and Trident Volcano. Mount Katmai’s caldera contains a magnificent crater lake I hope to see, but after I ascend one of the rugged, ash-covered Knife Creek Glaciers to a pass between Mount Katmai and Trident Volcano, an unrelenting mist shrouds the mountains and ruins my caldera plans. Instead, I leave the valley and circle Trident Volcano with the landscape cloaked in mist, blindly traversing steep ash slopes and meandering around hardened lava flows. I cross Katmai Pass and find sunshine again in the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, where I dry out and recuperate at the Baked Mountain Huts after three nights away.

My pilot returns, the first person I’ve seen since my drop-off. As we fly along the formidable River Lethe gorge, the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes sits empty below, quietly awaiting its next visitor.


Steven Miley is an Alaska-based professional photographer who prefers to capture unique images of the state from rarely visited and remote locales. His images of the backcountry often come from hiking up ridges or crawling under glaciers to achieve a new angle or vantage point of unexplored territory.