Surprise Lake from Rim of crater.

Overlooked Escape: Aniakchak National Monument

Photo: NPS

Few people visit this remote Alaska national monument and preserve every year, but those who make the effort are rewarded with an unavoidably rugged bucket-list adventure.

Because a park is less visited doesn’t make it less worthy of a visit. It just means you’ll need to try a little harder to experience it. Fortunately, that extra effort is guaranteed to yield extra doses of wide-open natural wonder. And you know you’re due for once-in-a-lifetime levels of wonder and adventure when you’re out on the reaches of the truly wild, roadless, and storm-prone Alaska Peninsula. In this far corner of the country is the overlooked, awe-inspiring Aniakchak National Monument & Preserve.

The center of this stunningly beautiful, 586,000-acre National Park Service site is the Aniakchak Caldera, a 2,000-foot-deep and 6-mile-wide crater that formed after a 7,000-foot volcano erupted and collapsed thousands of years ago. The Aniakchak, a  nationally designated Wild & Scenic River, runs through the preserve to the Pacific Ocean. The crater is a popular destination for hiking and the river occasionally draws boaters, but the real draw to Aniakchak is just how challenging it is to visit. Once you’re there, no amenities await you: no trails, no bathrooms, no campsites, and no humans. You’re very likely to see many animals, however.

Due to the tricky access and lack of amenities, the idea of Aniakchak will remain just that—an idea—but the experienced, eager, and patient traveler will be rewarded with a largely untrammeled swath of remote wilderness. Visitors are tasked with creating their own adventure, from backpacking to rafting to wildlife viewing (bears, moose, wolves, and caribou abound). But the very first adventure? Getting there. 


Between 1989 and 2020, only 10,826 people visited Aniakchak (in 2020 that number was 36, and in a non-COVID year only 100 people visited). You won’t just happen to pass by the park at random, you have to really want to go there. The homepage for the park on the NPS website has a large headline that reads, “No Lines, No Waiting!” 

Located about 450 miles southwest of Anchorage on the Alaska Peninsula, Aniakchak is not only far from the lower 48, it’s also far from the population centers of Alaska itself. You can’t get there by car because the park is inaccessible by road. Your best bet is to take an air taxi from King Salmon, Alaska (where the park has its headquarters), which in turn requires an hour-long flight from Anchorage. Keep in mind that frequent foul weather means delays of multiple days should be expected.

Every trip should start at the King Salmon Visitor Center, which is located right next door to the airport (the park’s main departure point). Visiting the park is free and there are no operating hours or restrictions, but weather often dictates those things. And upon park arrival, don’t forget: You are on your own. This is serious and wild terrain and should be approached as such—be prepared for intense weather capable of shredding a tent, cold temperatures, wet conditions, and the potential to encounter bears. The Alaska Peninsula has a high concentration of brown bears, and bear-resistant canisters are mandatory (you can borrow one from the visitor center).

Caribou running in Aniakchak Caldera.


Anyone visiting Aniakchak should prepare for the unexpected and either be extremely experienced in backcountry travel and/or go with a guide or commercial outfitter. Either way, your trip will be more fun (and safe) if you're personally prepared. From hiking and fishing to hunting and paddling, there are a number of ways to explore Aniakchak.

Paddle the Aniakchak

Congress designated the Aniakchak a Wild and Scenic River in 1980. Today, experienced paddlers can float through the tundra from the turquoise-colored Surprise Lake in the Aniakchak Caldera, navigate Class IV rapids between 1,500-foot canyon walls, and arrive at Aniakchak Bay in the Pacific Ocean after 32 miles. The trip (typically launched in July via whitewater rafts) takes a few days, with nights spent on sandy gravel bars. Look out for seals, sea otters, bald eagles, and seabirds when you get to the coast. 

Backpack the Caldera

This is perhaps the most popular activity for visitors: backpacking around the Caldera and then on to the Bering Sea. Hikers can explore the crater rim, the caldera’s lake, climb Vent Mountain, and visit the site of the eruption in 1930. Alaska Alpine Adventures, an NPS concessionaire, runs a 12-day backpacking trip that starts in Anchorage.  

Sportfishing and Hunting

These activities are best done through a wilderness lodge or outfitter. (A list of NPS concessionaires can be found at Hunting is allowed in the preserve, but not in the monument, and hunters most frequently target moose and brown bears.

Where To Stay

With no designated campsites, trails, or facilities, all lodging is backcountry camping. The ash and cinder fields on the floor of the caldera make a nice spot to set up camp. 

When To Go

All types of weather can happen at any time of the year, and it’s often overcast (300 cloudy days a year), wet, and windy. Summer is the best time to go, when temperatures rise to around 40-50 degrees F and it’s still cloudy and wet (but typically less so than during the other seasons). 


Visitors need to be completely self-sufficient, and beyond a fully equipped backpacking kit, should be prepared with extra food, a hearty repair kit, mapping tools, plus a first-aid kit (and the knowledge of how to use it). Rescues will likely take a very long time given the weather, so anyone setting foot on the peninsula should be well-versed in wilderness medicine and survival skills. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.