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. 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]
Eagle River Bridge to Bridge
Gage: 1000 cfs [any level but flood]
[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.
Willow Gage: 500 cfs
Eagle River Campground Rapid
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
Gage: 3000 cfs [800?, ? cfs]
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 loop. There are a few boily sections, canyon walls to avoid, and some standing waves.
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, 1st Canyon, 9.8 ft
Gage: 9.8 ft. (1100 cfs) [snow bridges, 10.2 ft]
Sixmile, 2nd Canyon
Gage: 9.8 [snow bridges, 10.2 ft]
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.
Canyon Creek is best when Sixmile feels too big. The run is fantastic, several continuous technical sections and excellent boogy water at high levels. Make sure to go with someone that knows where the mandatory portage is.
King’s River, Magic Mile [Willow Creek gauge at 300 cfs]
Sixmile, 3rd Canyon
Gage: 9.8 [snow bridges, 10.2 ft]
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.