Chickaloon River

Forums Alaska Rivers Mat-Su Valley Region Chickaloon River

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    Jule Harle
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      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.

      QUICK RIVER STATS:
      Difficulty: III+ to IV-
      Length: Varies
      Gauge: No gauge, visual at bridge
      Shuttle: Varies
      Put-in: Varies

      Takeout: Chickaloon bridge, MP 77 Glenn Hwy

      Character: Set in the Talkeetna Mountains, the river twists and turns through a series of boulder gardens, mini canyons and big water wave trains.  The upper Chickaloon begins in the alpine, but gradually works into a low, forested valley. The difficulty and character of the Chickaloon depends entirely on the time of year as it’s a glacial run; water’s color offers a pretty good indicator of what you’re getting on this one.  

      There are numerous different styles of approaches & options to put-in: from a casual day hike up the river valley, a challenging multi-day route, or fly-in options.

      Note: Since anyone has been running the Chickaloon, area locals & tribe members have NOT been kind to paddlers, even aggressive at times.  I’ve heard many horror stories with vehicle fuckery & actual verbal & physical harassment. 

      Water Level: The Chickaloon has no gauge, but levels can be checked visually at the take out bridge; watercolor and time of year are the best indicators.  Difficulty & character depend on the time of year, as it’s a glacial run. When the Chickaloon is chocolate milk/glacial brown in color, expect a very fast, higher volume, BIG water class III+/IV- ride- many people have felt “sandbagged” with Embick’s Class III description in Fast and Cold.  At high flows, there’s minimal recovery time within the rapids.  Thoroughly land scouting Hotel Rocks for problem wood is advised.  Highest flows are common in June & August.  

      By late August, the water can still be glacial and murky in color, but usually has a less bossy, “medium” level.  When it’s running clear or blue, the waves and holes lose some of their punch and turn into rocky boulder gardens with more recovery time.  Lower, clear water flows stay in the class II-III range- low flows are common in September.

      Some Access Options: 

      Fly-in: There are very small gravel airstrips, near 14 mile, 22 mile and 30 mile.  Sheep Mountain Lodge can also land helicopters in the river valley.

      King-Chick Route: 2-3 day challenging backcountry route with great “packraft symmetry” = epic hiking followed by engaging whitewater.  Starts from King’s River valley with a mix of ATV trails, challenging river crossings, a high alpine pass & some bushwhacking into the Chickaloon.  Highly recommended, great packraft symmetry between the hiking & – contact Alaska Packraft School if ISO a guide or instructor to accompany you.  Refer to guidebook for description, maps & photos.

      Boulder Creek Route?: I haven’t done this approach yet, but Dmitry Surnin raves about it.

      Hike Upstream from Takeout: From Palmer, drive 30 miles Northeast on the Glenn Highway.  Before crossing the Chickaloon River bridge shortly after mile 77, turn left on Chickaloon Branch Rd.  This road is paved for the first few miles, it eventually turns to gravel and forks; the left fork is a private drive, keep heading right, passing the red roofed house on your left.  (This guy does NOT like people on this road FYI, move quickly, you’re not trespassing.)  This road takes you to a dirt turnaround laden with intimidating “No Trespassing” and “Private Property” signs.  The dirt road is public access; please respect private property and DO NOT leave your car at this turnaround. (There are numerous reports of locals tampering and vandalizing vehicles).  Many parties drop gear at the turnaround, and immediately return vehicles back to Glenn Highway bridge- I wouldn’t leave my car @ the turnaround…

      Alpine navigation on the King Chick route

      From gravel turnaround, begin heading upstream on the ATV trail, initially paralleling the river.  After 1.2 miles, stay left when the trail forks; the right takes you to a cabin on private property.  Shortly after, go right at the next fork, working downhill towards the river.  You’ll walk for a little over a mile before coming to an open gravel bar; sometimes there’s a tee-pee structure here & if you look across the river you’ll see a cabin.  This is an excellent put-in option that forgoes the class III+/IV- rapids upstream if the water is running high or if you’re looking for a shorter day trip, giving you almost 4 miles of class II-III whitewater.

      To continue upstream, stay on the ATV trail.  In less than a mile, the trail turns away from the river and steeply climbs up a few hundred feet, avoiding a canyon/ravine area along the river that is impassable for upstream travel.  The trail puts you on somewhat of an alpine bench for the next 1.5 miles before it forks again.  The wider ATV trail heads left, while a smaller but well-established foot path takes off towards the right, heading back down towards the river.  Take the right footpath, as the ATV trail disappears eventually.

      This footpath descends towards Doone Creek; before crossing, you’ll likely negotiate some muddy sections.  After crossing, the trail becomes more difficult to follow and much less obvious in sections and has many downed trees.  The trail immediately ascends before descending steeply towards the river again.  Keep your eyes open for game trails and the path of least resistance- ie: do NOT expect an always obvious or established trail; the best path is sometimes a game trail; when you’re on it, you’ll know and if you’re not or feel like your bushwhacking, it’s probably worth taking some time to get back on track and find the path of least resistance.

      Luckily, during this section there are various put-in options as you are near the river if you get off the trail or decide you’re “over it.”  However, if you can hold on to a game trail for a little over a mile past where 9 mile cabin is on USGS maps, you’re in for a large gravel bar/beach area with a small clear water stream flowing nearby.  Refer to River Description section from 10 Mile.

      River Descriptions: Note: The section between 30 mile airstrip & Moss Creek is not described here.

      Typical boogie water below Moss Creek. August, medium flows

      From Moss Creek: The run begins with swift water and class II gravel bars.  After 1.5 miles, the rapids begin after an obvious right bend.  This section feels “busy” as it’s fairly continuous read and run whitewater for almost 2 miles.  Higher flows would render it pushy class IV-, while medium and lower flows, class III.

      After the rapid sets, the river maintains a class II feel until Hotel Rocks (III-IV), about 4 miles into the run.  The beginning of this interesting section is marked by giant, house sized boulders; when you see them, get out & scout for wood on the right- this area is notorious for logjams.  The scout allows you to see the entry rapid, however, keep in mind there are numerous giant boulders ahead.  You cannot see the entire Hotel Rocks from the initial scout vantage point, unless you continue walking downstream.   

      At higher flows, Hotel Rocks is swirly, boily and intimidating as the water pushes up, around and even under some of the constricting rock formations.  Expect strong & awkward eddy lines, boils and water pushing into rocks; strong ferry maneuvers are essential.  Some of the rocks are undercut- a swim in this section could be very dangerous. At lower and medium flows, this section is much less difficult, allowing more time to maneuver through the rocks.  It’s possible to portage this entire section on the right, but expect some faint game trails and brush bashing.  

      There’s another rapid set downstream of Hotel Rocks; typical of other rapids upstream.  The Chickaloon then continues with its busy character, but a break from rapid sets for a few miles until the sharp right turn near Ninemile cabin; you cannot see the cabin from river.

      From 10 mile: This put-in gives you time to warm up as you negotiate a few braids and class II-III features.  After a mile, (shortly after Ninemile cabin on USGS maps) the river makes a sharp right turn and gradient increases; this marks the beginning of the one of the more difficult and demanding sections of the river.  At medium-higher flows, the rocks create large holes and waves that require you to either maneuver quickly around or powerfully punch through. These rapids can range from class III+ to class IV if the water is high.  The intensity and the big water features continue for the next mile.  Note, if the water is turquoise/clear this section will be studded with large rocks, creating a class III boulder garden- not large holes & is less pushy.

      Be sure to get out & scout when you arrive at Eightmile Canyon. You can’t miss it: a deep undercut gorge whose opposing rock walls come within almost 10 feet of each other at the top.  Scout from the right before entering this impressive feature -there’s a decent social trail and great bird’s eye view photo opportunities up high as well. 

      There aren’t any significantly challenging rapids in this short gorge, however the large Pyramid Rocks at the end have a reputation for creating problem log jams- worth getting out and having a look. 

      After the gorge, the river maintains a class II character with some class III features for another mile; the technicality and gradient are less intense than the upper stretches. 

      About a mile downstream from the Eightmile Gorge, the Chickaloon canyons in temporarily again- not a true canyon however, as you can get out on either side of the river.  At medium-higher flows, when you see the canyon walls begin, the river makes a choke, creating large waves to maneuver through or around.  Sneak lines exist on the left side.

      After this feature, the river returns back to its continuous class II interspersed with occasional class III features to keep you on your toes.  As the river begins nearing the road, you’ll see power lines in view.  When you see a large rock, (often a nasty logjam will pile here- steer clear and drive right!) the river veers around it, as California Creek comes in, before turning a hard left.  

      Ledge Drop is the last significant rapid, can see from road

      Shortly after this left turn, you’ll encounter The Ledge (III+/IV).  This drop is often scouted from the road. At lower flows, more options exist, however at medium-higher flows this ledge can create a problem boiling & often recirculating hole in the center and right sides- best to aim for the left side tongue.  If you’re going to scout or portage, get out on the right after California Creek comes in.

      Once past the Ledge, you’ve got less than a mile of class II before the Glenn Highway bridge takeout. 

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