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.

March 11, 2014, 10:52 a.m.

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.