South-Central Alaska Packrafting Guide

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. Jule Harle’s Alaska Packraft Guidebook, 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.

Class I/II
Portage Lake/River
Spencer Glacier/Placer River
Knik River

Class II
Eagle River, Crow Pass
Granite Creek

Class II+
Clear Creek
Eagle River Bridge-to-Bridge
Glacier Creek
S. Fork Matanuska River
Willow Creek, Red Gate

Class III
Bull River
Caribou Creek
Chickaloon River (II+ in the fall, IV- at peak flow))
E. Fk. Chulitna River
Eagle River, Campground Rapid
Happy River
Middle Kings River
Lowe River Canyon
Riley Creek
Sheep Creek
Snow River (portaging the Class V/VI sections)
Willow Creek, Guard Rail
Upper Upper Willow Creek
Winner Creek

Class IV-
Eagle River, Echo Bend
Matanuska River, Lion’s Head
Little Susitna
Sixmile, 1st Canyon
Ship Creek

Class IV
Sixmile, 2nd Canyon
Bird Creek
Canyon Creek
King’s River, Magic Mile
Montana Creek
Honolulu Creek
Kuskulana River

Class IV+
Sixmile, 3rd Canyon
Upper Upper Bird Creek
Upper Willow Creek

Class I/II

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.

Portage Lake/River

Gauge: Any level
Put in: Park at the visitor center, paddle around on the lake (there are often icebergs), then take Portage River toward the highway.
Take out: 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.

Despite being Class I/II, there has been at least one fatality on this section of water.

Spencer Glacier, Placer River

Gauge: The higher the better! But … flooded willow banks can be dangerous.
Put in: Catch the train to the Spencer Glacier Stop
Take out: Seward Highway

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 swim.

Do the Placer when water is high; the lower limits of the river begin to braid and shallow. That said, high water can consume the banks and leave you with few exit points. Partially submerged brush can be dangerous.

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.

Knik River

Gauge: any level
Put in: Find your way to the Knik Glacier
Take out: Where you parked, or the bridge at Old/New Glenn Highway

This is a fun bike/raft option. Fat bikes would be ideal, but mountain bikes work too. Park at the Knik River Lodge (? the one that is friendly to winter bikers), 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.

Class II

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.

Eagle River, Crow Pass

Gauge: anything but flood stage
Put in: Hike the Crow Pass trail from Girdwood. Put in where the trail crosses the river, or hike downstream on river left a quarter mile for an easier put in.
Take out: Just above Echo Bend. Don’t run Echo Bend unless you know what you are doing!

Eagle River from Crow Pass is very similar to 20-mile. 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.

Granite Creek

Gauge: any level. When Sixmile is at 10 feet, Granite is a nice Class II run.
Put in
Take out

Put in at the Bertha Creek Campground at Turnagain Pass. There are several highway takeout options… I’ve used the one at the highway bridge.


Gauge: the more the better
Put in: Starting in Cantwell, find your way over Windy Pass to the Sanctuary.
Take out: At the Denali Park road

The Sanctuary River in Denali State Park is the classic overnight, off-trail, packrafting destination. 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.

Ed’s writeup


Gauge: any level
Put in: Leave a car at the Twenty-mile bridge on the Seward Highway. Hike up the Winner Creek trail from Alyeska (Girdwood)
Take out: Bridge at Seward Highway

The Twenty-mile is a classic first ‘pack’ packrafting trip. I haven’t been there in years, but at that time there was the beginning of a trail cut from Berry Pass down to a tributary that quickly joins Twenty-mile. Make some noise for bears. The tributary has several swift corners and potential for wood hazards, then mellows out when it joins the Twenty-mile. Progress at the bottom of the Twenty-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?

For a Class II river, Twenty-mile (and the tributary leading into it) has caused a lot of trouble for packrafters. Swift corners with wood hazards are the most common culprit, as well as high water or an unexpectedly long day. You should be comfortable navigating swift corners and avoiding wood before attempting Twenty-mile.

Class II+

Clear Creek

Gauge: June/July, otherwise pretty bony
Put in: Take the train from Talkeetna to the Curry whistle stop. Hike to Clear Creek, near the junction with Bacon Creek
Take out: Talkeetna

The most novel 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.

Joe’s writeup

Eagle River Bridge to Bridge

Gauge: 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. This section of water has had one fatality and many close calls.

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.

Glacier Creek

Gauge: not too low, the water under the bridge in Girdwood should be shallow, but boatable
Put in: The handtram at Alyeska. The handtram can be reached from trailheads on Crow Pass road or under the tram at the resort.
Take out: The bridge in Girdwood

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 first rapid is the hardest, a large boulder and sticky hole behind it. A second, ledge drop, follows soon after.

After the first rapids, the rest of the run 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.

South Fork Matanuska

Gauge: Anything below action stage? Rain will make the Spoon Valley approach harder and the E. Fork approach easier.
Put in: Caribou Creek Recreational Area for the glacier and Spoon Valley hike OR as a day trip via Majestic Lodge –> E. Fork Matanuska River
Take out: Caribou Creek Recreational Area. Note that river-left of Caribou is private property. Be sure to cross the river-right and use the ATV trail to access the parking area.

The South Fork of the Matanuska is a Class II+ gem, especially during fall colors in early September.

The loop: For the full effect, plan three days to complete a loop from the Caribou Creek Recreational Area. Follow the major ATV trail down to Caribou Creek and expect to need boats to get across the Matanuska. Follow the rocky drainage across the Mat as it climbs to the flank of the glacier. This is a good zone to wear a helmet. There is good hiking on the lateral moraine, and some folks like to hike on the glacier as well.

Wrapping the corner into Spoon Valley can be difficult … we ended up hiking much higher than we expected. After dropping back into the valley, continue up the drainage. There are some structures—private property—up the valley on the left.

Hike over the pass and begin your descent to the S. Fork Mat. You can find the remnants of horse trails up to the saddle to the right of the mountain knob. We wrapped left from there and found pretty good travel down to the river.

The river might be shallow and braided, or swift in a primary channel, depending on water levels. The East fork comes in on the right after 10 miles, but without significant water. Enjoy the final six miles and scenic canyon walls during your return to Caribou Creek.

Be sure to cross Caribou Creek and use the ATV trail back up to the recreation area. There are trails on river-left of Caribou, but that is private land.

The day trip: Park at Majestic Lodge and follow the sign for the ski trails. After about half a mile you will see a fork to the right and a faded yellow sign on a tree. Go right. The trail will narrow and eventually switchback down to the river. It is a good trail.

Unless it has been raining, the E. Fork is likely to be shallow and scrapey. Watch out for wood hazards, especially overhanging alders on the corners. Mentally prepare for this part to be a chore. It doesn’t last long and the S. Fork is worth it.

Take out at the Caribou Creek Recreational Area, as described above.

Willow Creek, Red Gate

Gauge: 650 cfs [400, 1000 cfs]
Put in: Davidson cabin, private property
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 first rapid is the hardest, and can be portaged via an earlier path down from the dirt road.

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 dirt road is private property, and there is a poorly advertised policy to pay $10 for access (walking or driving) at the Susitna Sled and Kayak shop.

Class III

Caribou Creek

Gauge: Willow gauge at 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 (map location, and photo on Zack Fields’ site), fed by a hard Class III move. The waterfall is not on one of the many hairpin corners, but rather on a quick zig-zag in an otherwise mostly linear section. The waterfall is best identified by a distinct rock tower on river right, with the portage saddle visible to the right of the tower. The saddle can be difficult to climb due to the loose and rotten rock. I’ve also seen the falls portaged on river left, but that requires running one more Class III rapid, then 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.

Bull River

Another ~clear water gem, Bull is accessed via ATV trails working west from the Summit Lake area.

Chickaloon River

Gauge: Can be run at all levels, will have a big water Class III and a few Class IV rapids at high (mid-summer) flows, Class 2+ in September. If King’s River at the highway has just enough water to get a boat through, Chickaloon will be Class II+/III-.
Put in: Hike the ATV trail up river to various access points. The most common access point is at Eight Mile.
Take out: Chickaloon River at Glenn Highway
Hiking options: The ATV trail parallels the river, alternately close to the water or high up on a bluff to avoid cut banks. A short day trip could be done by going in ~4 miles or so, to a building site with private property but visitors are welcome sign. From here you can either go up hill to a trail that degrades into a footpath, or cut to the river and continue on an active ATV trail. Take this trail another ~3 miles to where it makes a clear drop off the bluff toward the river. You can either cut to the river here, or stay on the trail for another mile to reach Doone Creek. After crossing Doone Creek, the trail is best heading downstream. Climb above the scarp, scout Pyramid Rock for wood, and put in above this awesome mini-canyon. I haven’t continued up the river to Twelve mile, but that would be my next choice, to catch Hotel Rocks. Alternatively, fly to 30-mile or hike King’s River to Moss Creek for a 25 mile hike/25 mile float.

Parking for the Chickaloon is problematic. It is best to park at the highway and then walk the mile back up the the ATV trail. The trail starts right next to a house, a little uncomfortable, largely due to what might be Alaska’s densest ‘Private Property’ and ‘No Parking’ signage.

The Chickaloon is glacially fed and can have a big water feel, but without major holes or hazards. The narrow canyon sections are a real treat, but cold, fast, water and steep gradient makes this feel like a hard Class III.

E. Fk. Chulitna River

This is an overnight classic, or can be done as a day trip. Most groups put in near the confluence of Crooked Creek.

Eagle River Campground Rapid

See Eagle River Bridge-to-Bridge.

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.

Happy River

Gauge: nope
Put in: Happy River near Puntilla Creek
Take out: Skwenta

Happy River, Alaska Range
Happy River, Alaska Range

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.

Middle Kings River

Gauge: Willow Creek gauge at 300 cfs, Little Su at less than 400?
Put in: Drive up Permanente Rd (Chickaloon) as far as your are willing. We generally park around here. Then hike the creek-parallel ATV trails, just keep heading north, eventually you will earn a lovely view of Castle Mtn to the east. After ~7 miles the trail crosses a washed out creek. Take the creek bed down to the river.
Take out: Either hike back to the car after running/portaging Gotta Give’r (here, ish), or continue down river to the bridge at Glenn Highway.

“Middle Kings,” so-called because it avoids the Class IV+ Magic Mile and the Class II cold/bony exit to the highway, includes a stunning canyon section with several high quality Class III rapids. The canyon is beautiful, nice deep pools and rock outcrops. This is a go-to in the fall, when the birch colors pop and Castle Mountain has termination dust on it. At higher levels, the exit to the highway would be more appealing, but the canyon would be more intimidating.

The final rapid in the canyon, Gotta Give’r, is the crux. It has a small eddy on river right for scouting, but the portage is better done on river left. The drop has two tiers, ends in a pileup on river left, and then has several hundred feet of boily water as a recovery zone.

Lowe River, Keystone Canyon

Gauge: 3000 cfs [800?, ? cfs]
Put in: in the braided section of the river above the canyon
Take out: at the bridge below the 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.

This has got to be one of the coldest sections of water in Alaska. Be alert under each bridge, there was a fatality a few years ago due to a raft getting wrapped on a pylon.

Riley Creek

Gauge: ?
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
Take out: ?

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.


Sheep Creek

Gauge: ?
Put in: North of the saddle between Kash and Sheep, see map
Take out: Caswell neighborhoods

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.

Snow River

Access: Hike in from Ptarmigan Lake, Grant Lake, or try to find the portage trail up from the railroad trestle on Snow River. None of these are easy options. The packrafting forum has some information. Flying in to Upper Paradise Lake is the only easy option.
Take out: Right after the South Fork Snow River tributary comes in on river left, take out at the grass bench (road accessible) below the Seward Hwy guardrail, or continue another 0.25 miles to the railroad trestle.

The Snow River is hard to classify. Assuming you portage all of the Class V and VI sections, the rest of the river is Class II, III, and IV.

From the glacier put-in, anticipate a few Class III rapids and a Class V canyon (portage left). When the Snow River approaches Upper Paradise Lake, it makes a large S-turn. A new channel cuts through the S in a Class V canyon. Stay left to float the low-water S-turn. After the S-turn, the river continues southwest. Look for a faint trail at the narrowest crossing to access Upper Paradise Lake and the public cabin 0.25 miles up the lake.

The river enters a ~1000 ft canyon two miles below the cabin trail. The entrance rapid is Class III at low/medium flows. The next rapid is a Class IV river wide 4-foot drop with a tongue on the left.

Snow River passes through a few benign canyon sections during the remaining 9 miles to the portage.

Snow River takes a left-hand turn at the base of Sheep Mountain and constricts into two miles of a canyon with Class VI rapids. Supposedly there is a trail along most of the portage, but we didn’t find it until half-way through. The portage took us 4 or 5 hours. In retrospect, I’d stay right rather than paralleling the river, initially. We caught the trail at 60.28967, -149.27300, and pulled off the trail to put in below the last big rapid at 60.27474, -149.29181. The remaining 2.5 miles are Class II, enjoyable and scenic. Watch out for wood hazards.

Willow Creek, Guard Rail

Gauge: 700 cfs [400, 1000 cfs]
Put in: look for the red painted patch on the guard rail.
Take out: Shirley Towne Bridge

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 portaged.

The nature of Willow River changes significantly with each 50 cfs of water. Keep track of what level you run it, then work up in small increments.

Upper Upper Willow Creek

Gauge: 1100 cfs [1000+ cfs]
Put in: Hatcher’s Pass Road at or near Grubstake Road (61.7618, -149.4477).
Take out: 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)
Driving Map

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.

Winner Creek

Gauge: 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 put in again at the hand tram to continue down Glacier Creek.

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.

Class IV-

Eagle River, Echo Bend

Gauge: I think the gauge 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.
Put in: After a ~3 mile hike from the Eagle River Nature Center.
Take out: Either right after the Echo Bend section, at the yurts, or at the easy-to-miss trail marker closest to the visitor center.

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

Gauge: 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.

Little Susitna

Gauge: 650 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)
You can also put in at the Fishhook Creek tunnel. This gains one very long, hard, rapid from the campground put in.
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. This is one of the few runs that reminds you that it is worth training to be a boater.

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.

From Mint TH to the campground, boogie water provides a nice warm up, featuring a few distinct drops, most notably Lizard’s Mouth (?), an intimidating rapid best run middle, then left. Soon after Fishhook Creek comes in the river provides a very long, continuous section of Class III/IV water.

From the campground the rapids get more serious. Lizard’s Mouth is not as hard as the hardest rapids in this section.

At levels above 800 cfs the section along the Mint trail is fun too.

Sixmile, First Canyon

Gauge: 9.8 ft. (1100 cfs) [snow bridges, 10.2 ft]
Put in: Use the commercial boat launch a mile upstream, or park at the footbridge and hike the trail upstream to put in directly above 17-ender
Take out: Right after the final drop (Waterfall), or somewhere downstream in the mellows.

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

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.

Class IV

Sixmile, Second Canyon

Gauge: 9.8 [snow bridges, 10.2 ft]
Put in: Boston Bar (pull out on right side of road, room for ~10 cars, and muddy road to informal camping areas behind the wall of trees
Take out: After the final drop there is a huge eddy with trails on river left. Another huge eddy is further downstream, another trail to the road.

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.


Gauge: 7 kcfs [?, 9 kcfs might be the highest a packraft has run]
Put in: Stephan Lake (aka Murder Lake)
Take out: Talkeetna

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 – “Flipping the Bird” Section

Gauge: Bird Creek is hard to gauge. Glacier Creek might be the nearest gauge, but Glacier has more glacial input. 250 cfs at Glacier was too low on Bird.
Put in: Descend to the creek below “Mushroom,” a rock and wood choked drop that is never runnable.
Take out: Take out at the eddy where the river takes a hard right. You can portage Bird Falls (20 feet) on river left, then put back in for a descent back to Penguin Creek confluence.
Trailhead: Take Steller’s Jay Lane into Bird. Turn left under the power line and stay left until it the road opens into a parking area with a few abandoned vehicles. Park here.

The “Flipping the Bird” section (a la Roman Dial) consists of wonderful drops and tight rapids that can take about 15 minutes to lap. The approach is just over a mile, takes 30 minutes if you know where to go.

Approach: Walk down the road with private property signs, stay right at the bottom, on ATV trails, so that you don’t go into the private property. The right fork of the ATV trail goes up Penguin Creek, you want the left fork, which heads toward a house. ~100 feet in, take a foot path to the right. The foot path brings you to Penguin Creek at the confluence with Bird Creek. Cross Penguin, hike in the open trees along Bird until it becomes inefficient, then cross Bird. There is a trail along the ridge on river left, but hiking to it involves either a low-brush crossing of some beaver ponds (down river option), or a Devil’s Club shwack (up river option). From the excellent ridge trail you will hear Bird Falls and then see the Flipping the Bird series of rapids.

When there is enough water, “Upper Bird” adds a few miles of sustained Class III rapids. Hike the ATV trail (follow signs from Steller’s Jay Lane) until… some nondescript trail that heads toward the creek. This is not the same as “Upper Upper Bird” which has a few big Class IV drops. I can’t remember how to get to either of these.

Canyon Creek

Gauge: Sixmile at 10.0 ft [8.8 (bony), 11.0? (terrifying)]
Put in: At the Manitoba Hut bridge.
Take out: Under the Seward highway, or continue down Sixmile.

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

Gauge: Willow Creek gauge at 300 cfs, Little Su at less than 400?
Put in: Drive up Permanente Rd (Chickaloon) as far as your are willing. We generally park around here. Then hike the creek-parallel ATV trails, just keep heading north, eventually you will earn a lovely view of Castle Mtn to the east. After ~7 miles the trail crosses a washed out creek. This creek leads to a put in below Magic Mile (see Middle Kings). Continue on the ATV track for another ~2 miles, to a clearing and ~dry gravel tributary (or ATV trail just short of the clearing) that leads down to the top of the Magic Mile section.
Take out: Either hike back to the car after running/portaging Gotta Give’r (here, ish), or continue down river to the bridge at Glenn Highway.

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. I place this as similar in nature to the hard parts of Little Su at 750 cfs. There is a lower canyon below Magic Mile that is worth running on its own account (see Middle Kings).

The first rapid, Bubblegum, is often worth portaging due to wood hazard. The river cleans up after that, with a series of pour-overs, steep boogie water, and a few distinct Class IV+ rapids. I scout much of the run, at a minimum, Bubblegum and the two rapids that have huge boulders on the banks.

Montana Creek

Honolulu Creek

Gauge: When the water under the highway bridge looks boney, but enough to sneak through
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.


Gauge: This has only been run by packrafts at very low water levels (October)
Put in: Hike up the Nugget Creek Cabin trail to above the canyon.
Take out: Underneath the bridge on the road to McCarthy.

Kuskulana is a committing canyon featuring many Class III rapids and a few distinct Class IV drops. The natures is largely pool-drop. The hardest part is taking a guess at water level, which is why I’ve only been there at the absolute end of the season… trying to catch it as low as possible.

Class IV+

Sixmile, 3rd Canyon

Gauge: 9.8 [snow bridges, 10.2 ft]
Put in: see 2nd canyon put in
Take out: Near mile 7, after a sign on the right that says something like “watch out for hidden driveways,” take the hidden driveway down to the right. You have missed the turn if you see a driveway with a mailbox. 4WD/AWD vehicles can go to the bottom of the road, otherwise, park in the big clearing.

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

I can’t remember where these rapids are, other than that you go up the Bird Creek ATV trail (follow signs from where Steller’s Jay Lane meets the powerline) and then take a footpath down to the creek. At low water this section consists of several barely-runnable drops. With more water, I’d be pretty scared of these.

Upper Willow Creek

Gauge: 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.

1 Comment

  1. This was super helpful! Thanks. I do find it interesting at the rating of Glacier creek. I never considered this run hard in a canoe except for one corner near the railroad tracks that always seems to have a gnarly log jam in it.

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