Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve is a seldom-visited gem on the Alaska Peninsula, 450 miles southwest of Anchorage. The preserve saw as few as 10 visitors annually in the 2000s, making it the least-visited of the 401 National Park Service properties. The number of visitors surged to 134 last year, largely due to the growing popularity of lightweight, durable packrafts, because, really, who doesn't want to raft from a volcanic crater to the Pacific Ocean?
Not long ago, Anchorage adventurer Luc Mehl and 14 friends traveled 120 miles from Port Heiden to Chignik Lagoon, climbing up and over Aniakchak Crater and paddling out. They used frequent flier miles for the flights to nearby King Salmon to help make the trip more affordable.
Dynamic weather blowing in off the Bering Sea kept them guessing. "If you don't like the weather, wait 30 minutes," noted Anchorage's Brad Meiklejohn, one of the paddlers. During the climb up to Aniakchak Crater, visibility dropped to less than 100 yards in some places. At times, the fog and clouds were so thick, a GPS was needed to navigate. On its website, the National Park Service warns, "The weather on Aniakchak is severe; life-threatening conditions can develop rapidly. Extremely violent winds in the caldera . . . can shred tents and prevent air rescue."
But Mehl's group was fortunate. When the group dropped into the crater, the wall of clouds lifted and the visitors giddily witnessed the birth of the sun-lit landscape.
Aniakchak's geology was a real treat. The volcano was last active in 1931; the crater has several vents and fresh a'a flows. The Gates, where Surprise Lake drains to form the Aniakchak River, were formed during a catastrophic lake-draining event sometime after the crater formed some 3,500 years ago. Today, the Gates are choked with large boulders, creating beautiful Class III rapids that offer a gradient of 75 feet per mile.
Traveling the coast was spectacular. When the water was calm, the group paddled. At low tide, they hiked the coast, and bushwhacked or used the numerous bear trails for land crossings – not necessarily a good idea. Two grizzlies were spooked in the woods, probably too close for comfort. All together, Mehl's group saw about 20 grizzlies.
The cliffs along the beaches were beautiful. The rock included volcanic debris flows and shallow marine deposits, including fossil-rich sandstones, conglomerates, and shales. The beaches were superb for hiking, with plenty of campsite options near fresh water and piles of driftwood.
Anchorage freelance writer Luc Mehl is a two-time winner of the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic.