Mount Katmai Caldera

We found ourselves hanging over the brink of an abyss of such immensity that, as the event proved, we were powerless even to guess its size. Down, down, down, we looked until the cliff shelved off and we could follow it no further.

–Robert Griggs in The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes describing the moment he first peered into Mount Katmai’s caldera

Standing on the rim of the Mount Katmai caldera, staring at the gaping hole where a mountain once stood, elicits a profound awe. At the caldera and across the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, the Earth’s power and ability to foment change is laid bare.

About a year ago, I disappeared into one of the most unique landscapes on Earth, the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes in Katmai National Park, a trip I partly chronicled in a blog post for explore.org. I hadn’t specifically planned on ascending to the caldera rim on that trip, knowing that the weather along the crest of the Aleutian Range is fickle at best and an inviting window of opportunity may never materialize. When I woke at daybreak on June 10, 2019 to see a cloudless sky though, I left my base camp eager to reach one of Katmai National Park’s most spectacular features.

I slept the previous night at Novarupta, the lava dome that marks the eruptive center of the 1912 Novarupta-Katmai eruption, the largest eruption of the twentieth century and one of the five largest volcanic eruptions in recorded history. The lava dome represents the eruption’s last gasp, forming anywhere from days to months after the 60 hour eruption waned on June 9, 1912.

view of pumice-covered flats and snow fields dark-colored lava dome at center

Novarupta lava dome

I began walking not long after the first light of dawn cast a pink alpenglow on the surrounding volcanoes. The rivulets of snowmelt where I gathered drinking water the prior evening had run dry as overnight temperatures dropped below freezing. Thankful for the firm footing, however, I traveled quickly across frozen snowfields to the base of the Knife Creek Glaciers, a badlands of pumice-covered ice attached to the north faces on Trident and Katmai volcanoes.

view of snowfields and mountain peaks

Early morning light on Trident Volcano

Not one, but many meltwater streams pour from the snout of these glaciers, and the permanent channels have eroded deeply into the pyroclastic deposits that form the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes proper. Finding places to hop over or ford these streams is straightforward, although tedious work as you climb in and out of their past and present floodplains. They can be crossed most safely within a few hundred yards or less of the base of the ice. Farther downstream, they create impassible gorges, akin to southern Utah’s famed slot canyons only filled with a torrent of glacially cold water.

view of pumice flat and small stream with ash and pumice covered glaciers in background

Lower sections of the Knife Creek Glaciers are a badlands of ice covered with as much as six feet of ash and pumice.

Compared to the scale of geologic time, Katmai’s volcanoes forced their way to the surface relatively recently. Over the last several hundred thousand years, upwelling magma buckled and fractured its way through thousands of feet of Jurassic-aged rocks, although these sedimentary layers have deformed little since they were deposited. The rock of “Whiskey Cleaver” a wedge of 150 million year-old marine sediments buttressing the north flank of Mount Katmai, are nearly as level as when they accumulated on the bottom of the seafloor.

The first time I reached the caldera in 2011, I stuck to the base of the cleaver, following the margin of the glacier to the west while hugging the exposed rock and glacial till until I needed to step onto the glacier leading to the caldera rim. This time while looking to avoid glacial travel as much as possible—dying alone, trapped in a crevasse seems like a horrible way to go—I chose a slightly more direct route up a steep ash and snow-covered slope slightly east of the main glacier. The sun had yet to soften the frozen snow as I ascended. I couldn’t kick sufficient steps into the crust, which forced me to avoid the steepest snowfields where I felt the risk of falling was too great. This turned into the diciest part of the route and was the one place that I wished I carried an ice axe.

View of hummocky landscape created by ash and pumice covered glaciers at the foot of mountains hidden in clouds. Blue line near center represents route.

I explored the termini of the Knife Creek Glaciers the day before my ascent to the caldera, partly to scout a way through the badlands. My approximate route through a corner of the Knife Creek Glaciers is shown in blue. The view looks east toward the caldera.

At the top of this slope, I reached a bench where the gradient lessened in steepness, kept me temporarily off the glacier, and away from areas prone to rock fall. From here, it was a simple task of avoiding the steep sidewalls prone to sodden late spring avalanches and the center of the glacier where crevasses are more likely to open in June. Not a single cloud hung in the sky, the air was dead calm, and the caldera was only two miles away.

view of mountains with vast snowfields with some small pumice-covered areas in fore and middle ground

The final two miles leading to the caldera

When the 1912 eruption began, Mount Katmai was a triple-peaked and glacially clad 7,600-foot tall volcano. Around midnight on June 7, 1912—in the midst of eruption’s most violent outbursts—Mount Katmai began to collapse. Over the next twenty-four hours, the summit fell inward, generating fourteen earthquakes between magnitudes 6 and 7.

No one witnessed the collapse. Thick ash replaced daylight with an inky blackness across the region. Not until the eruption ceased and skies cleared on June 9 could anyone see that the mountain had lost its top. Because Mount Katmai collapsed, for decades people considered it to be the source of the eruption. In a sense it is, but not from the perspective of explosiveness. Careful study of the eruption’s fallout and pyroclastic flow deposits in the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes revealed relatively little originated from Mount Katmai. Instead, the vent that opened at Novarupta siphoned away its magma. Perhaps not coincidentally, the elevation of the caldera floor and Novarupta are nearly the same.

Human eyes would not look into the caldera until Robert Griggs and his expedition team slogged their way to the rim from the Pacific coast in 1916. While I enjoyed the advantage of ascending on clear snow with stable footing along with the fore-knowledge of how to get to the rim, Griggs clawed up the volcano’s still muddied and pumice-covered southern slopes, all-the-while pioneering his route, not quite knowing what he’d see or what challenges he’d face until he got there.

When Griggs reached the unstable and knife-edge caldera rim caldera, he found glaciers cleaved flush with the precipitous walls where several thousand feet of mountain once stood. Peering into the gaping earth, Griggs had difficulty comprehending the caldera’s scale, and he stared amazed at a horseshoe-shaped island of lava in a milky, robin-egg-blue lake deep within the bowels of the volcano.

panoramic black and white photo of volcanic caldera.

Jasper Sayer took this remarkable photograph of the Mount Katmai caldera in 1919. It had been seen for the first time only three years prior. I reached the caldera on the opposite side from this photo, near the low point in the rim at left.

From the sight lines along my route, the terrain provides no hint the caldera exists. Although the route’s gradient lessened the closer I got to the rim, the caldera appeared in sudden and spectacular fashion.

panorama view of Mount Katmai caldera on clear sunny day

During a 2011 ascent here, I was forced to retreat within 15 minutes by howling winds, a cloud ceiling which allowed on the scantest of peeks into the bowl, and the threat of snow. On this day though, I sat on the rim for more than two hours, attempting to embed the scene into memory. I couldn’t help but consider how ephemeral it was. The shallow lake first witnessed by Griggs has grown more than 800 feet deep and continues to rise. New glaciers hug the interior walls and calve small icebergs into the water. I watched avalanches of rock and snow tumble more than a thousand feet from the rim to the lake. Water discharged from hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the lake creates greenish-brown swirls with the deep blue of the lake’s surface.

Like the dozen-plus other volcanoes in Katmai, the mountain will churn with unrest again. Its next eruption is unlikely to be as large and landscape changing as the 1912 event, but Mount Katmai’s potential to unleash the power of the Earth remains ever-present. As I sat on the rim, looking at the hole where a several thousand feet of rock once stood, I enjoyed the long moments of calm, wonderfully alone with a mountain only temporarily at rest.

view of mount katmai caldera with steep snow covered cliffs at right and center
view of mount katmai caldera with steep snow covered cliffs at left and center

To learn more about the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, read Robert Grigg’s 1922 book about its discovery and exploration. Volcanologists Wes Hildreth and Judy Fierstein authored the authoritative text on the eruption’s geology in The Novarupta-Katmai Eruption of 1912—Largest Eruption Eruption of the 20th Century Centennial Perspectives. Lastly, I devote two chapters in my forthcoming book, The Bears of Brooks Falls: Life and Survival on Alaska’s Brooks River, on the 1912 Novarupta-Katmai eruption’s significance to the region and the creation of Katmai National Park. Look for The Bears of Brooks Falls late this year via Countryman Press.

A (Sometimes) Overlooked Significance

Recently, I stumbled upon this question.

Honestly, it’s something that I think about regularly when I’m planning a trip to a national park. While people frequently visit parks and other protected areas to experience unique and special landscapes, sometimes we fail to see their forests for the trees, or even see their forests at all.

I think this is particularly true of North Cascades National Park and the adjacent recreation areas, Lake Chelan and Ross Lake. The region is most famous for its rugged mountain topography, which I must admit is quite pretty, but visiting here solely to see mountains risks missing some of the best, uncut forests left in the Pacific Northwest. I’m not implying that a visit to a park without admiring trees is somehow less worthy than my slow forest strolls. Far from it; national parks mean different things to different people. But, I find myself drawn to trees, no matter where I go, even among some of the Lower 48’s craggiest mountains.

view of forested valley with tall craggy mountains on horizon

The North Cascades are defined by their ruggedness, and the area’s vertical relief is impressively steep. Ridges and mountain peaks frequently rise above 7,000 feet while deep valleys incise the landscape to near sea level in some places. The Skagit River at Newhalem, for example, flows at 500 feet in elevation while several peaks ascend over 5,000 feet within a few miles. In Stehekin, Lake Chelan sits at a modest 1,100 feet above sea level, but within two and half horizontal miles of the lakeshore, Castle Rock reaches above 8,100 feet.

view of snowy mountains rising above lake

Castle Rock rises 7,000 feet above Lake Chelan.

The rugged topography slowed the march of industrial logging into the mountains, so by the time the North Cascades National Park Service Complex was established in the 1960s and 1970s, much of the forest within the newly protected area had never been logged. In the park today, nearly every low elevation valley holds wonderful examples of wild, unmanaged forests.

Some of the most spectacular and significant trees are found along Big Beaver Creek, which flows southeast into Ross Lake. A section of trail about five miles from Ross Lake passes through a grove of thousand year-old western redcedar.  Preservation of these trees was the catalyst that stopped the expansion of Ross Dam.

bole of large tree with two hiking poles leaning against it

Some western redcedar in the Big Beaver valley are over three meters in diameter at chest height.

hiking trail lined by large redcedar trees

Big Beaver Trail

Along their entire length, both the Big Beaver and Little Beaver valleys harbor incredible forests. The same goes for the Chilliwack River valley and Brush Creek area, so if you hike from Hannegan Pass to Ross Lake, you’re in for a spectacular forest hike.

trail winding through dense forest with large trees

Little Beaver Trail

person standing next to trunk of large Douglas-fir

Yours truly and a large Douglas-fir at Graybeal Camp in the Brush Creek valley.

Those places are remote, however, requiring most of a day’s hike just to get near them and several days of backpacking to traverse the valleys. Many other old-growth forests are more accessible. The Stetattle Creek Trail, which starts in the Seattle City Light company town Diablo, ends in a classic example of a climax forest on the west side of the Cascades. This trail is often overlooked and rarely busy. What it lacks in mountain vistas it makes up for in trees.

view of old growth forest with large coniferous trees

Forest near the end of Stetattle Creek Trail

Hiking south from the Colonial Creek Campground, an easy four-mile round trip along Thunder Creek brings you through stately Douglas-fir and western redcedar. People often march through this section, barely stopping to look, as they have their sights set on up-valley destinations, but if you go plan some extra time to stop and admire these trees.

tall trees with foot bridge at bottom

The forest along Thunder Creek

Disturbance—whether brought by fire, avalanche, landslides, or people—is a hallmark of this ecosystem as well. Many large trees stand as witnesses to past and current change.

person standing in front of large tree

Englemann spruce, McAlester Lake Trail

person standing next to large tree with smaller trees nearby

Western white pine, Old Wagon Road Trail

person standing next to large deciduous tree

Black cottonwood, Upper Stehekin Valley Trail

Those that didn’t survive allow us to explore how the ecosystem may cope with future disturbance. I find myself pausing frequently in burned areas and avalanche tracks to admire how quickly the landscape can change.

lightly burned forest with standing dead trees and some minor green vegetation on ground

A recently burned forest along the Park Creek Trail

broken trees in foreground with forests and mountain in background

Avalanches can sometimes devastate otherwise healthy stands of trees. This example comes from the upper Brush Creek valley.

Often overlooked and visited far less than the Highway 20 corridor, the Stehekin valley is the most diverse place in the park complex, both in terms of cultural and natural history. In Stehekin, you can find everything from a historic orchard to plants adapted to desert-like climates growing alongside old-growth groves.

trail through forest with bright yellow fall colors

Stehekin River Trail

red maple leaves in forest

Vine maple splashes the Stehekin valley with color each fall.

Trees persist and even thrive despite the forces constantly working against them. They create vertical habitat, greatly increasing the landscape’s capacity to support life. They tell tales survival and struggle, longevity and adaptability. They are living witnesses to history and catalysts for conservation. North Cascades provides a rare opportunity to explore unmanaged, old forests—habitats that are becoming increasingly rare. And, if you can’t get here, just go to your local park or maybe even your back yard where, I bet, there’s a tree worthy of your attention.

The Origin of an Alpine Lake

Despite the area’s formidable topography, the North Cascades are filled with lakes. On a hike late last summer, I glimpsed how many of them formed.

Monogram Lake sits in a small basin perched a few thousand feet above Cascade River. At this elevation, just shy of 5,000 feet above sea level, it’s surrounded by blueberry meadows and scattered woodlands of mountain hemlock and Pacific silver fir. It’s an inviting place to camp for a couple of nights, no matter if you want to lounge by the lakeside or strengthen your quads further by climbing to the surrounding ridges.

small lake surrounded by meadows and mountains

I hiked there late last August hoping to watch black bears feeding on blueberries. The blueberries were reaching peak ripeness when I arrived, but I found no black bears or even any fresh bear sign, so instead of relaxing at the lake I decided to explore the surround terrain and take in some of the iconic alpine views that make the North Cascades so famous.

Not having a specific destination in mind, I was free to wander. These are my most favorite hikes, when I travel more to see what might lie in front of me instead fixating on a pre-determined destination.

Bushwhacking around the lake, I passed through quiet sedge-filled wetlands…

sedge meadow and small pond in mountain basin

…stopped frequently to eat blueberries…

blueberry plants with ripe blueberries

…wandered over a gently sloping boulder field…

meadow and boulder field looking up to a mountain ridge

…to a glacier tucked in a pocket just south of Little Devil Peak.

small, mostly snow free glacier tucked in a basin below a mountain peak

Here, I ate my lunch while contemplating the scene. It was a near perfect analog for the formation of the Monogram Lake basin.

Glaciers form when snow is compressed into mostly air-free ice and attains enough mass to deform and flow. Under the influences of gravity, ice deformation (high pressure within a glacier causes deeply buried ice to behave plastically), and lubrication from water at the its bed, glaciers move along the paths of least resistance. Due to their mass and size, they become powerful agents of erosion. They entrain rock, sand, and anything else as they flow. Forced along by moving ice, rocks at a glacier’s bed are especially erosive. Glacial erosion mills rock so effectively that much is pulverized into a microscopic powder called rock flour. This is the substance that gives glacial runoff it’s milky appearance and can color lakes turquoise.

Where ice had only recently receded at this particular glacier, the bedrock recorded plenty of evidence of the glacier’s past movement.

hiking pole lying on bare rock. Rock shows faint horizontal striations.

Many faint striations were scored into the bedrock near the glacier. The striations run roughly parallel to the hiking pole.

concentric gouges in metamorphic rock

Chatter marks are small, crescentic grooves formed in bedrock by rocks frozen in ice. The rocks chip the glacier’s bed as they are forced forward. The convex face of the marks point in the direction of movement.

Since glacial erosion is most pronounced at a glacier’s base, if topography forces ice through a pinch point then it causes the glacier to carve the underlying land more deeply and quickly than at the glacier’s sides, a process called overdeepening. As ice retreats, overdeepened basins often fill with water. This is the origin of fjords and deep lake basins as well as cirques high on mountainsides.

Monogram Lake occupies a cirque, a half open and steep-sided valley or basin on the side of a mountain. Instead of a clear lake surrounded by meadows, it was once filled with ice just like the basin below Little Devil Peak.

View looking toward a lake in a glacial cirque. Deep valley and snow covered peaks on horizon.

Monogram Lake

view of glacier in mountain basin. Snow covered mountains on horizon.

The glacier south of Little Devil Peak as seen from an unnamed peak above Monogram Lake.

Uniformitarianism is a geologic principle that, in sum, means the key to interpreting the past is to understand processes that occur today. Excluding the three hydroelectric reservoirs in the Skagit Valley, glaciers carved the basins for nearly every lake in North Cascades National Park and Lake Chelan National Recreation area. Even though I wasn’t around to see Monogram Lake emerge in the wake of glacial retreat, all the evidence I needed for this process was right before me.

Gee Point

While browsing a map of the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, I spotted what appeared to be a little used trail in a tract of the forest south of Skagit River. I quickly assessed whether it was worthy of my short list for exploration: Is it interesting and is it within cycling distance? With an affirmative yes to both criteria, I set off with my bike, Rocinante, to Gee Point.

I pedaled about eight miles south on the usually quiet Concrete-Sauk Valley Road. Only slightly rolling, this road was a good warm up for the rest of the day, which I knew would require a lot of climbing. Upon reaching the Finney Creek Road, I began a slow ascent through a mosaic of forested land—fields of stumps in recent clear cuts, thick second and third-growth stands, and occasionally a pocket of old growth forest.

view of forest area with maturing trees and recently clear cut areas

In contrast to younger forest, old-growth stands are characterized not only by large and tall living trees, but also by a complex, uneven canopy and a relatively high amount of dead standing snags and down trees. Even from a distance, the old-growth can be easy to spot once you learn to look for these signs.

view of forest with tall trees on horizon

Large trees with an uneven canopy reveal a stand of old-growth trees on the edge of a former clear cut.

Most of these old-growth trees were inaccessible from the road (perhaps the only reason they remain standing), but a few other giants were spared the chainsaw. Perhaps too dangerous to cut, or perched precariously on the edge of a cliff, or already dead, these trees stood as the last remnants of the forest that used to be.

bicycle leaning against bole of large dead tree

A few miles up the Finney Creek Road stands a giant dead Douglas-fir tree. These trees remind me that, with the exception of fire-maintained prairies and frequently flooded areas, nearly all of the Sauk and Skagit river valleys were covered with old growth trees.

Specific trees, like Sitka spruce, along Finney Creek also indicated this was often a wet place. Sitka spruce is typically found in areas with cool summers and high rainfall.

silhouette of Sitka spruce

The North Cascades, however, experience a bi-modal climate. Its cool, wet winters stand in start contrast to hot and droughty summers, and I was soon reminded of the region’s aridity even as I cycled underneath a thick canopy of needles. As the road transitioned between gravel and broken pavement, the dirt was so dry I kicked up a rooster tail of dust anytime I gained appreciable speed and each pickup truck left a cloud in their wake. (I saw about a dozen motor vehicles in this stretch of national forest. With the exception of one ATV, all were pickup trucks.)

By the time I reached FS Road 1720, I was within a few miles of Gee Point, but I still had most of the climbing ahead of me.

view of dirt road lined with thick forest

It’s a lot steeper than it looks.

The road, now completely dust and gravel but pleasantly lacking washboards, switch-backed through young, even-aged trees as it gained elevation. The terrain was changing as I climbed and signs of winter’s harshness began to appear. I crossed through an avalanche chute at least three times, which gave me an excuse to stop and catch my breath as I admired the power of snow to snap trees in half.

view of short trees caused by avalanche

Winter and springtime avalanches are a frequent occurrence in the North Cascades area, pruning any plant too tall or any too stiff to flex under their tremendous force. In summer, the brushy chutes are prime habitat for bears and I caught a glimpse of a black bear in this one.

The bright, hot sunshine and steepness of the road slowed my speed dramatically and I accumulated a sizeable escort of biting flies, but the views kept getting better, even with a slight haze from wildfire smoke.

dirt road leading toward mountain peak

To reach Gee Point though, I had to hike, so I locked Rocinante to a convenient fir tree at the end of the road and started walking. About a half mile in, I entered a beautiful, uncut forest dominated by large western hemlock and Pacific silver fir. At over 4,000 feet in elevation, which is not particularly high for the Cascades and in stark contrast to the tired burned out green of lower elevations, the forest floor had a noticeably fresh appearance.

The trail soon gained a ridge line and swung to the top of Gee Point where I was rewarded with a panoramic view.

 

The air, so calm and comfortably warm, easily could’ve induced a nap, but then I remembered that I was running low on water and time, so I reluctantly retraced my steps to the trailhead. After taking one final break to filter drinking water from Little Gee Lake, I bombed down the mountainside.

view of alpine lake and basin

On the rapid descent, I was glad to have wide 700x38cc tires to handle the rough surface and working brakes to check my speed. The ride home was quick, taking me half the time to ride back compared to riding there. When I reached home, my lower legs were caked in a fine powder. They felt worked too, but it was a good kind of tired.