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America's Least-Visited National Park Is a Sublime 'Pit of Hades' America's Least-Visited National Park Is a Sublime 'Pit of Hades'

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Economy

America's Least-Visited National Park Is a Sublime 'Pit of Hades'

It's a 7,000-foot volcano collapsed into a 6-mile caldera—and you've probably never heard of it.

In the year 1645 B.C., when the largest cities in the world were in Egypt, a 1.3-mile tall volcano in the Alaskan Peninsula blew its top. The explosion was immense, comparable to or even larger than the violent eruption of Mount St. Helens in the 1980s. The top of the volcano sank, forming a caldera 2,700 feet deep, the bottom of which still sees volcanic activity. A lake formed where the top was, but sometime between 750 to 1,000 years ago, most of that lake drained out, forming a canyon, and leaving behind the emptied-out insides of a volcano.

Today it's called the Aniakchak [Annie-uk-chak] National Monument and Preserve. While the landscape is sublime, the park is the least visited in the national park system, according to recently released data from the Park Service.

Just 134 travelers went in 2013, up from 19 in 2012. And unlike the $25 it costs to enter Yellowstone, which had 3.2 million visitors last year, Aniakchak is free—that is, if you can make it there. The park is inaccessible by road. Visitors need to charter air taxis or boats to cross hundreds of miles of Alaskan wilderness to get there, which can cost thousands of dollars. But keep in mind, "Notoriously bad weather makes access to Aniakchak unpredictable," the park website reads.

Roy Wood, a National Park Service chief of interpretation (i.e., communications director), explains how the area is reached. When the lake drained, a millennium ago, it formed a deep, narrow v-shaped gorge in the side of the caldera. "The plane flies through that," Woods says, "maybe a couple of hundred feet above the river; you're flying through the walls of this volcano, and then it opens up into this amazing, unspoiled interior of the volcano. And you land on what's left of that lake."

Many people who visit will raft out of the caldera to the ocean, Wood explains, where they still have to be picked up by charter plane, because that's "also in the middle of nowhere."

For those who can stomach the adventure, the payoff is sublime. Woods describes how the walls of the caldera can display a phenomenon called a cloud Niagara, where clouds creep up over the walls of the volcano and descend downward like sheets of water. This GIF, adapted from a PBS special on the park, demonstrates the effect.

 

Below, more photos of the park. 

View east through the Gates of Aniakchak. Image taken following the 2010 breakout flood of the large maar crater located along the east wall of the caldera.(AVO/USGS)

The last time the caldera erupted, in 1931, an American expedition flew over there to see the aftermath. They wrote:

We were right over the Pit of Hades, blown out of the crater just a year past almost to the day. Ominous clouds of steam and lethal gases still curled from its black, gaping depths. A glance showed the white cup of Vent Mountain, the rent in the crater walls called the Gate, and the lake tucked under the northern cliffs of the rim.

Aerial view, looking east, of Aniakchak caldera.(National Park Service)

Caldera of Aniakchak Volcano, Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve. This image shows Surprise Lake inside the caldera from the crater rim.(Tahzay Jones, National Park Service)

 

View onto the floor of the caldera from the southeast rim of Aniakchak caldera. Two explosion craters (maar craters) partially filled with seasonal meltwater are visible. (R. McGimsey, U.S. Geological Survey, June 29, 1992)

Aerial view of snow-covered, 6-mile-wide, Aniakchak caldera on the Alaska Peninsula. View is toward the northeast. (Roy Wood / NPS)

Natural-color image of Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve. A caldera dominates the view, and the southern rim casts a blue-gray shadow on nearby snow and ice on the slopes.(NASA Earth Observatory)

 

(National Park Service)

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