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. 

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 National Journal
Westeros on Earth is in America.  National Journal
Caldera of Aniakchak Volcano, Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve, Alaska, USA. This image shows Surprise Lake inside the caldera from the crater rim. National Journal
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.  National Journal
Aerial view of snow-covered, 6-mile-wide, Aniakchak Caldera on the Alaska Peninsula. View is towards the northeast.  National Journal
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 National Journal

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.