East Fork Chulitna

Forums Alaska Rivers Alaska Range Region East Fork Chulitna

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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
      Length: Varies, approx 14 miles
      Gauge: No gauge
      Shuttle: Varies

      Character: A potentially demanding hike (a mix of game and ATV trails, alpine scree, and real bushwhacking) rewards you with epic views and two unique class III canyons that seem to always have enough water. The boating is mostly class II, with two short & thrilling canyon sections. The first canyon has significantly more whitewater, however, the second canyon has the most technical drop.  This is a great class III river for those who enjoy route finding and navigating through mountain terrain. 

      Water Level: The East Fork Chulitna has no gauge, but will have ample water from late May-late August; expect higher flows in June through early July and lower flows late July through August. Keep in mind, the higher elevation hiking approaches will have snow into June; many wait until later in the summer, July or August.

      Put in options: Numerous hiking routes/approaches exist.  See below for Hardage Pass Route & Double Pass Route details

      • Hardage Pass Route: East Fork Chulitna takeout
      • Double Pass Route: From the East Fork takeout, drive North for 9 more miles towards Broad Pass. Shortly before the Middle Fork Chulitna highway bridge, turn right into the ATV/motorized use trailhead area, near mile 194.

      Take Out:  Take out where Parks Highway crosses the East Fork Chulitna (easiest spot is a few hundred feet downstream of bridge on left)  You can also continue downstream & takeout at the Honolulu confluence for “Lower East Fork”

      Hardage Pass Route: 

      Time: 15 miles, 10-14 hours (1-2 days)  This could be done as a long day in the summer; most would enjoy as an overnight. 

      !!GUIDEBOOK AMENDMENT!! There are numerous approach routes in addition to what book includes.  Feedback I’ve gotten (& I agree!): Hardage Pass is pretty bushwhack-ey, much more straightforward options exist.  I did it 1x, but would not do it again.  Here’s this route’s writeup anyways:

      From the East Fork pullout, cross the highway and immediately begin bushwhacking uphill.  When you intersect with the powerline, continue heading north.  We stayed on the right/west side of the bog and followed the path of least resistance through game trails and light bushwhacking before intersecting with an ATV trail that takes you up the Hardage Creek Valley.  When the ATV trail nears Hardage Creek, it crosses it numerous times before arriving at the glacial moraine near 2900 ft; this is where the trail disappears.  Hike up the knoll and follow the valley to the left (north) towards the alpine pass at 4600 ft.  The scree and rock walking can get pretty arduous and unpleasant, especially if there’s no snow.  The final few hundred feet are steep, but there’s usually a social/game trail to the top.  From the pass, descend down, staying on the north/lookers left side of the creek valley for the first 1.5 miles before crossing and following whatever game trails you find on the right side of the valley.  About 1.5 miles after crossing, the brush forces you towards a social trail that takes you down the nose of a rim leading you into a steep ravine.  Immediately after crossing the drainage, you hike/scramble directly up and out of the creek bed (this short section is steep with some exposure- some may feel more comfortable taking off backpacks and handing them up) Climb out of the canyon and continue looking for the path of least resistance and game trails through the brush for another mile before dropping down and crossing the creek again; there is an obvious social trail that crosses the creek and parallels it for a while if you can find it.  However, the trail eventually dissipates and you’re left on your own as the brush becomes thicker & more challenging as you exit the valley.  The next 2 miles are INCREDIBLY THICK and probably the crux of the hike; follow the path of least resistance, keeping eyes peeled for some sort of game trail.  Generally, the brush is less thick the higher you are…I would NOT want to be lower in the creek valley for this section on the hike- the brush looks heinous down there!  As you traverse/side hill out of the valley towards the East Fork, consider dropping in when you see a good line down towards the Crooked Creek tributary.  Even if the water in it appears low, floating or scraping your way down Crooked Creek fares much easier than bushwhacking all of the way to the East Fork.  

      Double Pass Route: 13 miles, 7-10 hrs, 1-2 days

      This is arguably the preferred alpine approach, as there is considerably less bushwhacking than the Hardage route.

      The parking area is quite large; you can drive closer to the trailhead than you think. Walk or drive towards the left of the lot; trailhead begins at waypoint: 63.25070, -149.23630. After 1/2 mile, turn left at the intersection.

      Note: The ATV trail towards the right goes up the East Fork Valley. It is possible to use these trails to access the canyons. The trail quality gradually digresses; many hikers encounter beaver ponds and boggy areas on their way to the river. This route will be included with detail in future guidebook editions, it’s omitted simply because I had not done it at the time of writing the guidebook or this post. ATV users access the E.Fork- these trails are likely much more straightforward for those seeking a less demanding alpine route.  Anyone have experience with this trail??

      Shortly after this intersection, water invades the trail- you’ll feel as if you’re walking up a shallow streambed. You can shwack through the willow along the sides, or walk through the water. At the next obvious intersection, you can go either way, but the right option is more direct.

      Stay on the trail only as long as it makes sense. Eventually, you’ll want to veer left and begin ascending into the valley to the north. Initially, the hiking is easier on the lookers right/south side of the drainage, but in less than 1/2 mile the going is much easier on the other side; you may decide to cross a few more times in favor of better walking.

      After 2-3 miles of walking up the valley, you’ll have to climb about 1000 ft of steep rocks towards the ridge; numerous options exist, but climbing up near the southeastern side is the easiest, aiming for waypoint: 63.20427, -149.11131. Consider this pass #1.

      From here, it’s possible to drop down, descending the southern side of the drainage- this shortens the mileage, but expect much more bushwhacking once on the valley floor.

      River Description: Your bushwhacking efforts are rewarded with epic vistas of the surrounding mountains. The upper section of the East Fork is class I and II; giving you plenty of time to soak up the views and warm up before the first canyon.  

      Beginning of 1st Canyon

      After 3 miles on the upper East Fork, you’ll see canyon walls gradually come in; however, rapids don’t begin for another mile.  The rapid section starts when the river makes a sharp left turn; waypoint 63.18595, -149.22089; you can get out and scout on the right.  The canyon continues with ½ dozen class III rapids; they are all “read and run” with a pool drop nature; at lower water there are literally pools after the rapids, but with higher flows, there is less recovery time. You can get out and scout any horizon lines that look too intimidating; although this will prove more challenging with higher flows.  After ½ mile, the canyon walls open back up for 5-10 minutes of class II before the 2nd canyon begins.  

      Kyle Milne in 2nd canyon’s entrance rapid

      When you notice an obvious drop/horizon line, get out and scout the entrance rapid on the left.  This is the most difficult & photogenic 😉 rapid –of the entire run; be sure to have someone stage at the “photo rock” on the left to get some good shots!  (Seriously, this rock is TOO perfectly placed for good pics).  However, you can easily portage this rapid on the left if you’d rather not run it.  

      The rest of the 2nd canyon is class II+; there aren’t any other significant rapids, but the water still pushes into the outside bends for the next ½ mile until the canyon walls open up.  The remaining 6 miles are class II boogie water that gradually slows down and mellows out the closer you get to the highway bridge; stay on the lookout for wood, especially the last few miles.  River time: 2.5-3 hours

      David Apperson

      John Schauer

        There is an alternate approach that avoids a lot of bushwhacking but involves about a 9.5 mile bike-able shuttle on the Parks Highway. There is a gravel pit just south of the Parks Highway bridge over the Middle Fork Chulitna and east of the railroad overpass. A trail starts on the east side of the gravel pit (63.25069, -149.23657) that follows an easement across Ahtna lands. ( This is across the highway from the trail to access the Bull River )This trail is traveled by ATV’s and can be quite wet in the first few miles where it parallels Coal Creek. It goes east towards the mountains for about 2 miles before turning south. It climbs onto the bench on the east side of the valley ( old lateral moraine or kame terrace ) and goes southwest, mostly on tundra, for about 3 miles with a few ups and downs before countouring into the East Fork valley. You can stay pretty high on trail before dropping into the valley and heading towards the river. It is about 9 miles to the gravel bars at the end of a braided section above the upper canyon. This route is pretty easy hiking with a packraft, and has been used to transport hard shell whitewater kayaks via ATV.

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