Caribou Creek

Forums Alaska Rivers Mat-Su Valley Region Caribou Creek

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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: III+/IV-
      Length: Varies, 6-10 miles
      Gauge: None
      Shuttle: Varies
      Put-in: Varies, see hike descriptions

      Takeout: Glenn Highway Caribou Creek bridge, MP 107

      Character: A unique volcanic canyon that leaves you in suspense and awe with every 180 degree bend. When caught at lower packrafting flows, 300-500 cfs, Caribou feels similar to Girdwood’s Glacier Creek, but more impressive and with a significant step up in difficulty. Rapids are created from landslides and rockfall, all scoutable (and many portageable) at lower-medium flows.

      Note that the rapids feel very “young” and change often. Keep in mind that landslides or rockfalls have the potential to significantly alter rapids and features in the canyon.  (I witnessed this in 2011, a massive landslide below Skyscraper Falls created a class V rapid- it’s no longer there/can’t see any evidence of that particular landslide happening or the rapid existing) Caribou Creek also has numerous mining claims; it’s common to see claim holders using rafts, dredges and other large equipment in the river bed. I’ve had friendly interactions with them every time…but not their cables or lines crossing the river- stay alert for those!  

      There are multiple ways to access Caribou Creek, depending on how long or what type of hike you’re looking for.  All of the mentioned hike put-in upstream of an impressive 30 foot waterfall- Skyscraper Falls, portaged on the right, but has been run by kayakers.

      Water Level: Caribou Creek has no gauge. The creek relies primarily on snowmelt for flow; expect higher, pushier water during peak melt (June), approx in the 1000-2000 cfs range. Higher water changes the character dramatically; the rapids & bends become much pushier with less recovery time- swims can be dangerous as some of the canyon walls are undercut.

      Ideal packraft levels are found often in mid-late May (the river opens up, but main snow hasn’t melted) and again later in the summer- late July-September. Caribou can come up again with rain; the color is usually murky brown from the volcanic rock, giving it a “flooded” feel, but is sometimes clearer with lower fall flows.

      Hike Descriptions:

      ATV Trail from Highway takeout: Start & end at car, 3.75 miles, 2 hrs. This is the most straightforward option- ie: shortest hike with no shuttle involved, is to begin hiking from the Caribou Creek bridge on the Glenn Highway, where you also takeout.  This hike is the most straightforward & puts you in shortly before Fortress Creek. Look for the ATV trail leaving from the large gravel pullout at the highway bridge. The trail immediately begins going uphill.

      After a mile, take the left fork, staying on the most obvious/main trail until nearing the bluff.  When in doubt, turn left, picking the path of least resistance and dropping towards the creek once you reach the knoll, near:

      Squaw Creek ATV Trail: 10.2 miles, 4-5 hrs. Personally, this option is my least preferred of the three mentioned in this post.  The walking is straightforward, but the ATV trail forces you to wade through numerous waist high mucky motorhead mud pits…you’ve been warned!  To get here from the takeout bridge, drive East on the Glenn Highway for 15 miles.  Shortly after passing Gunsight Mountain & mile marker 122, turn left onto N. Startup Rd.  After 1.3 miles on this gravel road until you see signage for Squaw Creek/Caribou Trail access & parking. 

      Hike begins on the ATV trail paralleling Squaw Creek, with views of Gunsight Mountain to the left & the Syncline Mountains on the right. About 2 miles in, opt for the drier looking trail to the right (NOT the boggy trail on the left). Both forks lead towards Caribou, but the right sides generally have better walking.  At 6.5 miles in, you’ll cross Squaw a few times, near where Inoceramus Creek comes in on the left. The trail gradually opens up as you get close to Caribou Creek.

      Syncline Mountains Alpine Route: 14 miles, 7-10 hrs.  I conjured up this approach one summer & gave it a go in 2020- I highly recommend this route to anyone who likes packing their rafts just as much as the actual river rafting, or ISO a full day outing.  You explore beautiful alpine terrain with great views before a unique canyon paddle.  Begin on the same Caribou/Squaw Creek Trail, but turn right after 1/3 mile, taking an established trail up to Belanger Pass for 2.5 miles. This is a popular area for motorized users; the trail continues from the pass, exploring nearby areas.

      From the pass, get off the trail & head West, climbing abruptly in elevation. You’ll then be route finding & linking together various game trails through open alpine terrain, while staying near an elevation range of 4200-5200 ft for several miles. This route would be a lot of effort with low reward if weather was foul (heavy wind or rain) or if visibility was poor- the scenic terrain with views of surrounding mountains make this hike worth doing.

      After 7 miles of tundra travel, begin looking for a descent route towards the southwest, shortly after “Fred” Peak (as seen on USGS topo maps). Get ready for 2500 ft of downhill! A good option for descending  into the valley can be found on the most westward, south facing nose of the ridge. Expect some careful walking with exposure- there are a few “knifey” steps as you climb down. There’s some brush walking as you work towards the creek.  

      Note: Bring plenty of H20 for Syncline Ridge, water sources are limited after the snow has melted.

      Caribou Creek Put-in (if hiking ATV trail from Highway pullout)

      River Description: If putting in via Squaw Creek or Syncline Mountains hikes, Caribou warms up with 1.5 miles of class II before canyon walls start coming in. Rapids progressively become more difficult, but stay within the class III+ range. The first 2 miles of the canyon are not constricted and “open;” you can find gravel bars and easy spots to get out of your boat. About a ½ mile before Fortress Creek comes in on the right, canyon walls become significantly higher and more narrow. This ½ mile & 3/4 mile downstream of Fortress have significantly steeper drops with more rocks; class III+ to IV- depending on water levels.

      Caribou Creek above Fortress Creek

      The most continuous rapid is a class III+ series of waves and holes to weave your way through that change often, with the final move involving staying on the right along the rock wall.  Note the mandatory waterfall portage is shortly after this. Caribou makes a hard left turn before straightening out a few hundred yards upstream of the portage.

      Dirk Fabian hiking his boat up the rock field portage above Skyscraper Falls

      Stay on the lookout for a giant rock pillar on the right- this signifies Skyscraper Falls; the entire creek cascades over a 30 foot waterfall- one of the most impressive features of this run. There are lead in rapids before the falls; be sure to get out before these to portage on the right. The portage involves scrambling up and over sharp rocky debris; the last 1/3 is pretty steep with poor footing- roping boats or rope assisted scrambling is helpful. Portage waypoint: 61.83279, -147.66188.

      Theres still a few more rapids below Skyscraper Falls

      End of Skyscraper Falls portage on Caribou Creek

      If you miss the eddy on the right for the portage, it’s possible to eddy out on the left immediately above the falls, walk back up stream and “scary ferry” across the creek. Downstream of the falls, there’s still at least 3 rapids in the class III+ range within the next mile, all scoutable. The final 3 miles mellow out, slow down and sustain class II character; gradient lessens & canyon walls widen until the road. Continue downstream if also paddling the Lion’s Head section of the Matanuska River (II-IV).


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    Forums Alaska Rivers Mat-Su Valley Region Caribou Creek