Bird Creek (Middle Section & Lower Sanctum)

Forums Alaska Rivers Girdwood and Hope Region Bird Creek (Middle Section & Lower Sanctum)

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    Jule Harle

      SOURCE: The Alaska Packraft Guidebook: Premier Rivers & Creeks in the 49th State (1st ed) Copyright: 2022 by Jule Harle.  Refer to the guidebook for additional info, photos, waypoints or detailed river maps. Author permission required to reproduce, duplicate or transfer following content.

      Difficulty: IV
      Length: 0.5 mile Lower Sanctum only, add 2.5 miles w/ Middle Bird (III+)
      Gauge: None, use Ship Creek gauge for estimate:
      Shuttle: Varies, less than 1 mile
      Put-in: Numerous options, Above Mushroom rapid (V) most common

      Takeout: Bridge on Seward Highway OR above Bird Falls to hike out to car

      Character: Steep creek style rapids set in a deep canyon.  Bird Creek has 2 sanctums, the Upper & Lower, however only the lower one is described below, as it is more commonly done.  The Middle Section is also described- it’s a familiar put-in for kayakers utilizing ATV’s for access.  The Middle is between the Upper & Lower Sanctums and includes 2.5 additional miles of class II-III.

      Water Level: Bird Creek has no gauge, but the Ship Creek gauge can be used to get a rough estimate of Bird’s flow.  The headwaters of both creeks are very close to each other, so water levels are often similar in fluctuation.  Bird is generally a low water packraft run, often done in late season (September/October). It can be packrafted lower or higher than the following guidelines, but popular packraft levels are when the Ship Creek gauge is  reading around 4.9-5.1 ft. (140-200 cfs).  

      Hike Descriptions: From Anchorage, drive south about 20 miles to Bird.  Once past the Bird gas station, take the second left onto Konikson Road.  Drive ½ mile to the end & park at Bird Creek ATV access area. (Note: there are numerous approaches to the creek, as ATV trails are plenty and numerous put ins exist)  

      Middle Bird Put-in: From Konikson Trailhead, walk on the main trail for a few minutes before going left at the first fork; you’ll see a trail sign/kiosk.  Another ½ mile in, you’ll cross a very established bridge over Penguin Creek.  Immediately after this bridge, go right at the next junction.  In another ⅓ mile you’ll approach another fork; you can go either right or left here, as the labyrinth of ATV trails eventually meets up with one another…..ask me how I know, ha!  However, the right option offers the most direct route. 

      From this junction walk almost 2 more miles before reaching waypoint: 61.00294, -149.42065; here you’ll see a less traveled ATV track through thick alder that veers left towards the creek.  Walk down this path to the put-in.

      Lower Sanctum Put-in: From Konikson Trailhead, walk on the main trail for a few minutes before going left at the first fork; you’ll see a trail sign/kiosk.  When you’re about ½ mile in, you’ll cross a very established vehicle bridge over Penguin Creek.  Immediately after this bridge, go right at the next junction.  At the 2nd junction after Penguin, go left up the steep hill.  Once at the top of an ATV track, go left again.  A few hundred feet later you’ll take another left, followed by a right turn shortly after.  Congratulations, you’ve navigated the Bird Creek ATV labyrinth!  Stay on this trail.  You’ll know you’re on the right track when you pass an old broken down vehicle.  When you get to an ATV turnaround, look for a hiking trail leading upstream.  Follow this for ½ mile until arriving at Bird Falls.  

      From Bird falls, follow a faint social trail upstream for just under ½ mile before heading downhill towards the creek on an even more established social trail.  There’s a great put-in spot in a large eddy, upstream of Mushroom Rapid (V): 60.98731, -149.44009.

      River Description: 

      UPPER SANCTUM (V): The Upper Sanctum is seldomly run, as it is pretty burly; when packrafters do go in there, most of the major rapids are portaged with the exception of Caveman & the Walls of Jericho.  If you’re looking to huck (or portage) some steep drops, walk another hour upstream from the middle bird put in.

      MIDDLE BIRD (III+) : This used to be the standard put in for kayakers (ATV access goes right down to the creek), but as of 2021 the wood situation makes this section arguably not worth doing.  During the time of writing you had to get out ½ dozen times to portage around problem wood spots- most of the wood was in the handful of class III+ rapids that would be fun under other circumstances. However, the run still goes if you’re up for straightforward portages or care to check out current conditions.  


      Connor in the Lower Sanctum, Ship gauge: 150 cfs. Photo: Tim Kelly

      You can run the Lower Sanctum after Middle Bird, or hike in just for this section if you aren’t up for dealing with all of the wood.  There are numerous ways to access the lower sanctum (the first time I went in there, I was given a waypoint for Mushroom Rapid; I walked on the main ATV trail before bushwhacking through the woods for 20 minutes when my Gaia App suggested I was parallel enough….then voila!  I was there!)  However, the most straightforward way would be to hike into Bird Falls, then follow social/game trails upstream, putting on above Mushroom.  As the Inner Sanctum is only ½ mile long, it’s worth hiking your boats back upstream for a second lap if you have the time!

      The lower sanctum consists of 5 class IV named drops.  They are packed tightly together in less than 0.5 mile.  The rapids occur pretty much back to back, but with low flows there are eddies to swim into & opportunities for self rescue if you’re quick.  Eddies are ideal for smaller groups.

      Connor in the Lower Sanctum, 150 cfs. Photo: Tim Kelly

      All drops are scoutable-you can scout from the rim for wood, but you’ll get a better idea of your line if you look at water level. 

      Hot Tip: The most straightforward put on spot is in the large eddy upstream of Mushroom Rapid.  It’s possible to put in downstream of Mushroom, but the left sides are pretty steep & cliffy- the portage trail around Mushroom on the right is much more manageable.

      Immediately below Mushroom you’ll enter the Commitment Cauldron at the first horizon line.  This is a series of moves threading between rocks and tight chutes.  After this, the river makes a few abrupt “right, left, right” bends into Elbow Hole that require a strong ferry and punching holes.    There’s some quick class III ending with a steep boof ledge before Whirly Bird.  Whirly Bird is a chute that begins on the right, works left, & then right again.   After this, you’ll want to eddy out on the right to scout or portage the next steep horizon line, Center Falls. 

      Center Falls is a 10 ft waterfall drop that can auto boof packrafts at low flows.  There’s a brief moment to pause before the final boulder garden move after the falls (go left) that ends in a hole named Bronco, as it’s infamous for trying to backender boats, and can be retentive at many levels. 

      Cam Brailey stomping Center Falls. Photo: Tim Kelly

      Shortly after, the creek straightens out for a few hundred feet before making a dramatic sharp right turn.  Ferry left upstream, and get into the eddy on the left before the right turn.  GET OUT HERE, as Bird Falls (V) lies shortly downstream.  There is a class IV+ entrance rapid before the falls.  In 2021 a few packrafters missed the large portage eddy- there are a few small eddies downstream immediately before these rapids at low water, however they are hard to catch, not fit for groups, and make for a more challenging portage- if you miss the main eddy, still try to get out on the left for a less dramatic portage.

      Hike up the hill & look for the trail that leads you down to Bird Falls to put back on the creek.  There’s a nice fire pit here- this part of the creek is a cool place to hang out if you have some time to kill- the view downstream of the falls is worth hiking in for itself!  (maybe you have some non-paddling friends that would be into bringing in some pizza and beer?  Great party spot, but please LNT & clean up after yourself!)

      From here, you can either hike back to the car or get back on the creek for final 1.5 miles of class II until the highway bridge.   There’s lots of wood, but as the water is so low, there’s plenty of time to get out or sometimes even duck under. Keep in mind, this section can feel incredibly low & boney, as the gradient lessens when the canyon opens up.  If it looks too low to float, it probably is.  FYI: The Seward Highway takeout can be slippery & sloppy boot sucking tidal muck during lower tides.  Higher tides make for an easier exit.

      HIKE OUT of lower sanctum: Follow the hiking trail that parallels Bird creek. (you’ll see a trail that goes down to Bird Falls or the lower put in option; turnaround and look behind you-this is the trail that leads you back to the ATV access area)  The trail is in excellent shape and follows the rim along Bird Creek for ½ mile (great views of Turnagain Arm if the weather is nice- bring your camera!) before arriving at an ATV turnaround area.  Do not continue down the rim, but get on the ATV trail and walk northeast, away from the creek, for another mile.  (you’ll pass some “No ATV Access” signs as well as an ancient broken down vehicle).  

      After a mile, when the trail forks, the ATV labyrinth begins again- numerous routes back exist.  You can go either direction, but the most straightforward way involves taking the next 2 rights before merging back onto the main trail.  Once on the main trail, you’ll backtrack just over a mile before arriving at the parking lot. 


      • This topic was modified 4 months ago by Jule Harle.
      • This topic was modified 4 months ago by Jule Harle.
      • This topic was modified 4 months ago by Jule Harle.
      • This topic was modified 4 months ago by Jule Harle.
      • This topic was modified 4 months ago by Jule Harle.
      • This topic was modified 4 months ago by Jule Harle.
      • This topic was modified 2 months ago by Jule Harle.
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    Forums Alaska Rivers Girdwood and Hope Region Bird Creek (Middle Section & Lower Sanctum)