This isn’t complete, but I don’t want to sit on it for another season. Contact me if you want info on a specific run and I’ll beef up that section.This is intended to serve more as a progression guide than a river guide. Embick’s Fast and Cold, and Timmy Johnson’s Alaska Whitewater are proper river guides with directions and detailed river descriptions. This is for folks that say, “I’ve done Guard Rail, what should I try next.”
Rivers change dramatically at different water levels. These runs have fairly well established ‘packraft levels,’ which often can’t be linked directly to a river gauge. The fall is a particularly good time to packraft because rivers have less water and the water has less glacial silt. Of course, boating in the fall is cold. The water level that corresponds to the given category is listed, as well as my guess for [lower limit, upper limit] in brackets. Low water will likely drop the river into the lower category, higher to higher.
The links keep changing on the forum… search there for up-to-date info on these rivers/creeks.
Rivers are not ordered by difficulty within each category.
Upper Upper Willow Creek
Willow Creek, Guard Rail
Lower Chickaloon River
Eagle River, Campground Rapid
E. Fk. Chulitna River
Lowe River Canyon
These are good first river options or to take your parents. There might be some swift corners, and maybe even a few bumpy rapids, but with low consequences.
Park at the visitor center, paddle around on the lake (there are often icebergs), then take Placer River toward the highway. It works well to leave a bike at the camping pullout here, for a pleasant shuttle.
If you are feeling more ambitious, catch a ride through to Whittier, hike the original Portage Pass trail to the lake, paddle across the lake and down the river.
Spencer Glacier, Placer River
[The higher the better]
The Placer in a novel run that involves catching a train to the Spencer Glacier Stop. Catch the train at Portage, $32 for residents. It is a one mile hike to the lake, and maybe another mile on the trail along the lakes edge. The highlight of this trip is paddling near the terminus of the Spencer Glacier. Cross the lake to paddle the river back to the highway. The river is Class I with two class II rapids near the bridges as you first exit the lake. If you aren’t paying attention you could take a harmless swim.
Do the Placer when water is as high as possible, the lower limits of the river begin to braid and shallow. There are two main channels that reach the highway, if you can find your way to the right one you will save 1/4 mile of walking. Either way, you have a ~30 minute walk back to the train depot unless you stashed bikes.
This is a fun bike/raft option. Fat bikes would be ideal, but mountain bikes work too. Park somewhere along the Knik road, bike the ATV trail to the river, inflate the boats to cross the river, then bike the ATV trails on the north side of the river toward the glacier. Put in at the lake to paddle around the ice bergs. The icebergs usually (always?) damn the river exit, so you might need to bike a little bit more to put in downriver of the icebergs. Float back the the ATV trail where you crossed the river and bike back to your vehicle, or to Old Glenn or New Glenn Highway Bridge. From the lake to Old Glenn is ~6 or so hours of floating.
These rivers have swifter current and some splashy rapids. The primary hazard is wood. Beginners often get pushed to the outside bend of the swift corners, then tip laterally. Generally, swims don’t have much consequence, but make sure you know how to deal with strainers and sweepers.
The 20-mile is a classic first ‘pack’ packrafting trip. Leave a car at the 20-mile bridge on the Seward Highway. Hike up the Winner Creek trail from Alyeska (Girdwood). I haven’t been there in years, but at that time there was the beginning of a trail cut from Berry Pass (? the high point on the trail) down to a tributary that quickly joins 20-mile. Make some noise for bears. The tributary has several swift corners and potential for wood hazards, then mellows out when it joins the 20-mile. Progress at the bottom of the 20-mile can be painfully slow due to tide and headwind. Try to time your exit for a low tide. Maybe expect the trip to take ~8 hours?
Eagle River, Crow Pass
[anything but flood stage]
Eagle River from Crow Pass is very similar to 20-mile. Hike the Crow Pass trail from Girdwood, float to just above Echo Bend on the Eagle River. A lot of new paddlers have trouble putting in where the Crow Pass trail fords the river. If it looks to juicy, walk down the river banks for 1/4 mile to where the river braids and mellows. Wood can be a hazard, and high water completely changes the dynamic of the river.
It is really important to take out before Echo Bend. You can hear it coming… if in doubt, get out and check! The trail to the Eagle River visitor center is on river right and will be refreshing for your legs after the 4(?) hour float.
[the more the better]
The Sanctuary River in Denali State Park is the classic overnight, off-trail, packrafting destination. Starting in Cantwell, find your way over Windy Pass to the Sanctuary. Most folks spend the night near Windy Pass. The Sanctuary is often shallow in the upper reaches, so you will likely have to walk your boat down the river a ways. Wood is the primary hazard.
You can catch one of the Denali busses where the Sanctuary reaches the park road. Prepare to be overwhelmed by how nice everyone else smells.
Willow Creek, Red Gate
Gage: 650 cfs [400, 1000 cfs]
Take out, Shirley Towne Bridge
Willow is the go-to for skills development. There are two easy-to-access put-ins, and the difficulty changes dramatically with each 100 cfs. Red Gate is in this class up to ~800 cfs, it might bump up to class III above that.
The Red Gate put in is at the red gate, left side of road, up the Hatchers Pass road, within a mile or so after James’ Susitna Sled and Kayak shop (marked by some kayaks perched on the roadside, right side of road). The gat is faux-locked; the land owners are ok with paddlers driving in. But it is a short walk.
Take out: Leave a vehicle or bike at the Shirley Town Bridge.
[not too low, can judge based on flow at the bridge in Girdwood]
The Glacier Creek put in as under the handtram at Alyeska. The handtram can be reached from trailheads on Crow Pass road or under the tram at the resort.
Glacier Creek catches a lot of new boaters off guard. In particular, the first few corners can be fast, forcing boats up against the outside wall. Leaning away from the wall, an intuitive reaction, pushes the raft tube under the current, flipping the boat. Advise new paddlers to paddle away from the wall in advance, and lean into the wall if they find themselves there.
The rest of the fun is a mix of channel selection and avoiding wood. For a Class II section of water, Glacier Creek might have the record for accidents and lost boats.
Eagle River Bridge to Bridge
Gage: 1000 cfs [any level but flood]
Put in: Briggs Bridge Day Parking area
Take out: Eagle River Campground day use area
Bridge to Bridge is an ideal learning section. The river is typically at Class II, with a handful of rocks and ripples that can help you develop boat-handling skills. The most likely hazard is wood.
A large sign on river left indicates the upcoming Campground Rapid, a Class III/IV section featuring a particularly nasty log jam. Take out at the sign, or soon after the sign, river left, to scout/portage Campground Rapid. Campground Rapid traditionally has two lines, far right and left, but the log jam changes conditions monthly. The log jam is a very high risk hazard, this is a good one to portage.
In my swiftwater safety courses we swim from below Campground Rapid to the day use (picnic) area. This is an excellent section to practice intentional swimming, wet re-entry, etc. The thing to do wrong here would be to put a foot down while trying to re-enter your boat.
[June/July, otherwise pretty bony]
The coolest aspect of Clear Creek is using the train from Talkeetna to start your loop. The hike has some pretty brushy parts are requires one-night. There are tons of bears in the brush and along the water. The clear water has some fun small drops at blind corners, but nothing too spicy. The bigger drops are probably class III at higher water. The water is much higher volume once you join the Talkeetna River.
Upper Upper Willow Creek
Gage: 1100 cfs [1000+ cfs]
Driving Map: Drive up the Willow side of Hatcher Pass Road and drop a car or bike at the old bridge where the creek crosses the highway past the North Star Bible Camp (61.7615, -149.6748). Continue up the road to put in at or near Grubstake Road (61.7618, -149.4477).
This is a beautiful stretch of long and splashy water that’s good for early season paddling when the water is too high to comfortably do Guard Rail. The stream works its way down the valley paralleling the road, so it’s easy to check out water levels as you drive in. The section starts with a curvy but brisk class III- followed by a mellow but pretty class II. The last section heats back up to class III- with river-wide rapids. In terms of character, it’s long stretches of shallow boulders that make for a bumpy but fun ride, punctuated by large obstacles to huddle behind or avoid. The rapids themselves would probably be a class II+, but there are not a lot of places to recover, so the consequences are slightly higher than pool-drop streams.
The stream hazards include running into rocks, sweepers, mining equipment, and foot entrapment. We’ve observed thin, dark mining ropes crossing the whole stream at face level, and others have seen river wide sweepers in the narrow parts of the fast upper section. The shallow, bouldery nature of the stream bed makes foot entrapment an especially tempting danger (staying in will bruise up your legs), but this run is deceptively pushy at all runnable levels so be patient and/or hold on to your boat! More information might be found on the Packraft Forum Discussion Thread.
Willow Creek, Guard Rail
Once you are comfortable on the Red Gate section, bump up to the Guard Rail for bigger rapids. These are the most accessible class III/IV- skill-builders around, in a beautiful setting with clear water and granite boulders. The first rapid comes without much time to warm up, but can be easily portaged. All of the rapids can be easily portaged.
Sheep Creek is a fairly inexpensive flight, a long day hike, or a comfortable overnight trip. The creek features sustained Class III rapids with a few harder features. Ease of access makes this a common first remote destination.
Willow Gage: 500 cfs
Put in: Hike ATV trails on the north side of Gunsight Mountain (Squaw Creek) to the confluence of Squaw and Caribou
Take out: Caribou Creek bridge on the Glenn Highway
Caribou is a wonderful day trip. The ATV trail is often muddy, but the scenery is excellent and the creek is a clear water canyon. I like going in the Fall when trees show some color and water levels are down. At medium and higher levels Caribou will feel pushy and committing.
At low water Caribou consists of numerous Class III rapids, mostly on the corners. The critical feature is a 20 foot waterfall, fed by a hard Class III move. Portage on river right, but even this can be tricky. The waterfall is best identified by a distinct rock outcrop on river right, the portage saddle is visible, with a steeper slope up to the outcrop and then down to the waterfall lip. I’ve also seen this portaged on river left, by tossing boats into the pool and jumping in after. The 20 foot fall has been run by kayakers, but the boiling landing features an undercut and you can often see small flakes of rock getting blasted off of the river bed.
After the portage, Caribou continues with slightly easier rapids to the highway.
Put in: Hike ATV trails up river to various access points
Take out: Chickaloon River at Glenn Highway
Parking for the Chickaloon is problematic due to ornery property owners. It is best to park further down river and then walk the trails, ideally unnoticed.
The Chickaloon is glacially fed and can have a big water feel, but without major holes or hazards. The water typically moves fast all summer. The real treat are canyon sections, which are more appealing to me in the fall when the water is clearer.
Eagle River Campground Rapid
See Eagle River Bridge-to-Bridge, above.
Put in: Riley Creek is typically accessed by day hikers via the Triple Lakes Trail- there is a short bushwhack around Lake 3 and over to Riley
In recent years, Riley creek jumped its banks. In the middle section of creek, right along this Lake 3 put in, there is a really narrow channel chock-full of nasty strainers. When water levels are pumping, you are pushed really rapidly around bends in this section and it can be tricky to react quickly. NPS would like boaters to walk downstream of the typical Lake 3 put-in, until you are past the cut-bank section of creek. It’s not a bad hike to get below this section of creek, once you reach a rocky/gravelly shore rather than a steep wooded “cut” bank, you’re good to go. It’s probably only a quarter mile of extra walking to avoid the major hazards.Emily
E. Fk. Chulitna River
Happy River is in the Alaska Range near Rainy Pass (where the Iditarod passes through the Alaska Range). The cheapest option ($325/each, 3 passengers, 2014) is to fly to Rainy Pass Lodge, hike ~11 miles over Squaw Peak (and earn views of Denali, Foraker, and the Kichatna spires) and put in on the Puntilla Creek. Puntilla will not be floatable unless water is high. The Hood Lake pilots will have a sense for water level. The other option is to fly directly to the put in at Sheep Lake. I believe this flight is cheapest from Willow or Talkeetna. Book a return flight from Skwentna.The Upper section of the happy is a scenic float through forgiving boulder gardens, Class III. There are a few pitches with steeper gradient that will approach IV- at higher water. The 17-mile canyon is gorgeous and with no technical rapids. The Skwenta could be painfully slow and shallow if water is low, but the scenery is great, nice views and cool canyon walls. We were glad to have Skwentna marked on the GPS, stay left or you might miss the airstrip. The Skwenta Roadhouse is a good (and the only) option for a burger and phone calls. Get there by walking few miles west on the road that passes by the hangar.
Lowe River, Keystone Canyon
Heading to Valdez? Keystone Canyon is a fun Class III for 3 or 4 miles. An easy bike shuttle, or hike the pack trail ~ 6 miles to make a 3 or 4 hour loop. There are a few boily sections, canyon walls to avoid, and some standing waves.
If blind corners and serious wood hazards are your thing, this is the run for you. Winner Creek is a contender for most serious consequences on Class III rapids. So why do it? Winner Creek is one of the tightest slots around. None of the rapids are very technical, and the feeling of constriction is novel and fun. Clear water, nice rocks on steep, green banks, nice eddies. It would be terrifying at higher water levels.
Gage: 25.5 ft [25.2, 26.5?]
Put in: Park at either the Alyeska Hotel to take the trail that starts near the Tram, or park at the nordic trailhead to save a little hiking. Take a right at the junction with the handtram. Continue on the Winner Creek trail for another ~mile, until the fork where the bikers cut left to avoid a stair climb. The trails merge later, but before they do, watch for a subtle foot path that descends to the creek. At higher levels, you could continue of the Winner Creek trail to a more scenic put in.
Take out: The safest take out is at the Cat bridge, can’t miss it. You can run another ~1000 feet and watch for trail access from the water. Don’t stay in too long or you will run the crazy drops above the hand tram. Most folks will want to putin again at the hand tram to continue down Glacier Creek.
Eagle River, Echo Bend
Gage: I think the gage has changed due to the highway construction. A good level was 700 cfs [min 350, max 900 cfs. I’m told 2.9 and 5.5 ft. are min/max now, but those values don’t match the cfs of old.
This is a great skill-building run, you will need sharp maneuvering to get around large boulders and holes. The hazards are running into the rocks and foot entrapment.
Matanuska River, Lion’s Head
Gage: 2.0 ft [?, ? ft]
Put in: Caribou Creek boat ramp (between the Matanuska Glacier and Sheep Mountain).
Take out: Glacier Park Road, the access point for the glacier (between Wickersham Trading Post and Long Rifle Lodge)
Lion’s head is a very scenic big-water run, most similar to Echo Bend of Eagle River in nature. The first mile is on Caribou Creek, which can be painfully show and shallow at low water levels. Things speed up once you reach the Mat, but the rapids are class II. This section is gorgeous, wrapping along the base of the vertical cliffs that define Lion’s head (this is a nice hike too, with a great view of the river). After flanking Lion’s head, the river veers left for the start of the class IV section. The nature of the run depends on water level, but there aren’t many eddying opportunities, even at low water. There are clean lines to avoid all the hazards, but the hazards are hard to see in the silty water. Expect standing waves, hidden rocks, and sticky holes. River left is forested moraine rather than cliff, so you can always portage on that side. The biggest hazard is losing gear and/or hypothermia.
Gage: 500 cfs [350, 900 cfs]
Put in < 500 cfs: Camping area ~2 miles up from the bridge
Put in > 500 cfs: Mint trail parking lot (after the lodge, at the switchback).
Take out: At the bridge. There is one more nice rapid below the bridge rapid, worth running and then walking back up the road the extra 1500 feet.
This is a real gem, and the perfect river to practice slaloming through boulders and catching eddies. The run alternates between bumpy ‘boogie water’ sections punctuated with class IV steep/fast/rocky drops, all or which end with a nice pool to recover in. The hazards are getting beat up by the rocks as well as foot entrapment. Be smart with your swims. At levels above 800 cfs the section along the Mint trail is fun too.
Sixmile, First Canyon
Gage: 9.8 ft. (1100 cfs) [snow bridges, 10.2 ft]
The first canyon of Sixmile is limited to a few juicy class III rapids (class IV above 10.0 ft.) An ideal time to run this section is during the annual Sixmile Bluegrass and Whitewater Festival, when safety support is provided. Even though first canyon is a smaller sibling to second and third, it should be taken carefully. This was especially evident after the near downing in 2017, see video below.
Ship Creek is located on JBER. Boating the creek is prohibited. The whitewater section can be accessed from the road to Arctic Valley, with a takeout at an artillery range which is actively used. It seems likely that you get a warning your first time caught, but at least one person has been kicked off of all military land for life.
Sixmile, Second Canyon
Gage: 9.8 [snow bridges, 10.2 ft]
The Second canyon of Sixmile is often started at Boston Bar, a paved pullout that fits 10 cars or so, and driveway to camping and parking for another 10. Second canyon starts out how with Pearly Gates and continues with back-to-back rapids of a similar nature. Second canyon is more difficult than First, and not as difficult as Third.
Gage: 7 kcfs [?, 9 kcfs might be the highest a packraft has run]
The Talkeetna River is a stunning big-water class III/IV river. The easiest logistics are to fly to Stephan Lake (Murder Lake) with Alaska Bush Floatplane. It is a comfortable pace with one night on the river, or could be sprinted in a day with an early morning flight.
Bird Creek is hard to gauge. It was almost too low when Twentymile was at 870 cfs. 1160 cfs was fine, you could go higher. The “Flipping the Bird” section (Roman) consists of wonderful drops and tight rapids that can take about 15 minutes to lap.
Access to the fun steep section is pretty confusing and involves crossing some private land. After having missed it for a few seasons I’m not sure I could find it again on my own.
Canyon Creek is best when Sixmile feels too big. The rapids in Canyon creek are similar in nature to Sixmile 1st and 2nd canyons, but without the pool recovery zones.
The run is challenging and rewarding, with many continuous technical sections (class III at low levels, IV at high) and excellent boogy water at high levels. At ~10.4 and above, eddies are tiny and swim consequences are serious (long and with holes/rocks/waves).
Make sure to go with someone that knows where the portage trail is. The portage trail is on river right, along a small stream. Down river from the trail you can get a first glimpse of cliff faces on both sides of the creek. If you miss the trail, you can eddy out on river right above Portage Rapid. Either skirt along the bank back up river to the trail, or climb straight up the steep river bank. The trail follows a plateau briefly, then takes a steep fall line back down to the Creek.
Wood and cables from miners’ crossings may be present.
King’s River, Magic Mile
[Willow Creek gauge at 300 cfs]
I consider the Magic Mile of King’s River one of South Central’s Gems. This section runs through large boulders that were deposited in a landslide. There is legitimate sieve hazard at all water levels.
There is a lower canyon below Magic Mile that is worth running on its own account. The entrance rapid is a river-wide ledge hole that can catch you off guard. The canyon is beautiful, nice deep pools and rock outcrops.
Drive up Permanenti Rd (Chickaloon) as far as your are willing. We generally part around here. Then hike the creek-parallel atv roads, just keep heading north, eventually you will earn a lovely view of Castle Mtn to the east. After 9 or 10 miles you will reach a clearing and ~dry gravel tributary that leads down to the top of the Magic Mile section. At low water, the lower section can be cold and boney. You can take out after the lower canyon (here, ish) and hike back to the car. Done this way, the hike and float comes to 19 miles total.
Put in: Hike from the Hurricane Gulch pull-out to various river access points
Take out: Honolulu Creek bridge at Parks Highway
Honolulu Creek is a highly sought-after prize. One of the challenges is guessing the water level. At low flows, the upper section (from the lake to the ‘Waikiki’ putin will feel bony, but from Waikiki down, you might be wishing for less water.
Honolulu features multiple sections of sustained Class IV rapids with steep drops. Scouting is challenging, eddies are small, and the water moves quickly. This run is best done with someone that is familiar with the lines, and with a small enough group that everyone can catch the limited eddies.
Sixmile, 3rd Canyon
Gage: 9.8 [snow bridges, 10.2 ft]
The third canyon of Sixmile is a step above second canyon. The first rapid, Staircase, gives me the most trouble. An entrance rapid is followed by a narrow slot between rocks into a boily pool. If I’m upright in the pool I generally feel okay, the rest of the rapid will flush me out. I like to paddle right so that I’m driving left through the meat of the final drop. A long (but boily) pool waits at the bottom and is helpful for recovering boats and swimmers. This rapid is easily portaged on river left.
After Staircase you can look forward to Suck Hole, Zig Zag, Merry-Go-Round, Jaws, and Junkyard dog. Of these, Jaws is the one I’m most worried about, huge nasty rocks a sprinkled throughout the rapid. Jaws can be snuck on river right, a Class III option.
Upper Upper Bird Creek
Upper Willow Creek [200, 235, 300 cfs]
Gage: 235 cfs [200, 300 cfs]
You’ve pretty much got to go in with someone that knows the run, preferably a kayaker! There are some serious hazards, even at very low water.