Gravel Creek

Forums Alaska Rivers Mat-Su Valley Region Gravel 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: Up to 5.8 miles
      Gauge: None
      Shuttle: None
      Put-in: Varies, see hike description

      Takeout: Matanuska riverside, near Victory Bible Camp Rd.

      Character: Gravel Creek is a fast, continuous glacial stream that empties into the Matanuska. Expect some blind corners, wave trains and hit or miss holes as you dodge around rocks through swiftly moving water with limited eddies- especially in the upper section. When the whitewater isn’t demanding your attention, then the surrounding views will.

      If hiking to the glacier, prepare for a long day- especially with the drive from Anchorage & extra time it can take to transition to ferry across the Matanuska as well as Gravel Creek. Better as an overnight trip if the weather is good. It’s worth spending extra time at the put-in as the day hiking opportunities & glacier views are phenomenal.

      Water Level: Gravel Creek has no gauge and is influenced by both snow & glacial melt. It is usually running high in June-July; this makes for a class IV run- not because of how technical the rapids are themselves, but how fast and continuous the features become. The mini-canyon is class IV- at higher flows, & class III+ with lower water. Lower flows are usually found in late May or August-September. If the water is clear, the creek will be much slower moving class III.

      Fly-in: Contact Sheep Mountain Lodge or another heli flight service to get dropped off near the glacier terminus to forgo the long hike.

      Hike Description: 14.5 miles (17 if parking at highway), 7-10 hrs. From Palmer, drive East on the Glenn Highway for 47 miles. Look for the paved pullout on the right just before Victory Bible Camp Rd, drive 1.2 miles downhill on a dirt & gravel 4WD track towards Matanuska River or leave your car up high. If the road is dry, you may not need a 4WD vehicle, but the second half can get pretty muddy or rutty if it’s been raining; consider leaving the vehicle up high and walking down.

      From the dirt road, beeline it towards the river; inflate boats to ferry across Matanuska towards Gravel Creek drainage. Aim for just downstream of the creek. There is an established ATV trail on the downstream side, beginning in the dryas just past the cut bank on the right. When the trail forks, bear left, heading upstream. Trail is easy to walk for 3 miles before you get to the crossing.  At most flows, you’ll have to blow up boats to ferry across it. It’s tempting to keep hiking up the west (river left) side of creek, but the game trails eventually give way to arduous bushwhacking; it’s MUCH better walking on the other side and worth the time it takes to blow up boats to get across. The approach is a mix of ATV & game trails, but you’ll need some route finding skills as you hike upstream.

      Once you’re on the other side, the trail oscillates between an obvious ATV track, game trails, social trails put in by hunters and occasionally walking upstream along the gravel bar or even river rocks hugging the bank. Your feet WILL get wet on this hike sooner or later.  If they don’t, you win- I’ll give you a cookie.

      Expect some trial and error when working your way upstream- if you appear to bushwhack for longer than a few minutes, STOP and look for a trail. (ie: there is some route finding and persistence involved- don’t expect an obvious well-marked trail the entire way…)

      After 1.75 miles from this crossing, near waypoint 61.72868, -147.92070, veer left, away from the creek into a meadow for easier travel. If you wanted a shorter day, or an easier run, you could put in here, making it a class II+/III- run, the “Lower Put-in.”

      The trail soon returns closer to the creek and leaves you hunting for the path of least resistance through brush. Occasionally the trail heads away from the river for easier hiking; if a path ever appears “well-traveled” it’s best to take it. 

      You won’t be able to see the whole run from the trail, but you’ll get a good look for the feel of the character of the more challenging rapids. If you find a way that does NOT go through a beaver pond mansion/palace, let me know! 🙂 After 13 miles, your efforts are rewarded as you emerge onto the open glacial rock beds and gravel bars that bring you to the headwaters of Gravel Creek and the impressive glacier toe. This is a great place to spend the night and explore if you have the time.

      River Description: 2-3 hrs. Gravel Creek warms up with brief class I-II braids before the pace picks up. The first 3 miles are continuous class III+ rapids that grab your attention the entire time. Upper Gravel Creek is steep, narrow and demands constant on the fly decision making; lost gear would be difficult to recover as the water moves quickly and eddies are infrequent.

      Paddlers should have excellent self-rescue skills in the event of a swim. Some may arguably rate this section as class IV-, due to its continuity and lack of recovery time. (This rapid can become class IV if water is high…likely in the heat of June with both snow and glacial melt.)

      Walls from the left and a cut bank on the right constrict the creek, the canyon begins with a small horizon line at the entry. This is the most technical rapid on the river, but it is short lived and similar in character to rapids upstream of it. These “Mini Canyon” rapids vary depending on flow, but entering in the center with speed to avoid holes on right or left is a common line before negotiating the waves and holes below it. When terrain begins to close in, you can scout from the right if you’d rather not read and run this approximately 300 ft stretch.

      After this, the canyon opens up, with a break from the action for the next 3 miles of class II+ and occasional class III wave train or hole. At waypoint 61.71445, -147.92503, you’ll notice bigger rocks- holes at higher flows, as the action picks up again for the next ½ mile. This section feels tight and fast, but is considerably easier than the upper section. Enjoy a class II break before the creek becomes narrow and pushy one final time, through a class III+ “Sluice box” rapid with large rocks, holes and waves to maneuver through.

      Downstream, there’s still more class II/III- boogie water until the river lessens in gradient and valley opens up. The final 5 miles are class II with impressive views of the Matanuska valley and neighboring sand spires as you float to the end.

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    Forums Alaska Rivers Mat-Su Valley Region Gravel Creek