Matanuska River: East & South Fork

Forums Alaska Rivers Mat-Su Valley Region Matanuska River: East & South Fork

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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: II
      Length: East Fork: 1.5 miles, South Fork: 7 miles
      Gauge: No gauge
      Shuttle: 8 miles
      Put-in: Majestic Valley lodge, hike 1.5 miles down to East Fork

      Takeout: Hike out Caribou Creek confluence or run Lion’s Head

      Character: A relatively accessible day trip on a section of the Matanuska most people don’t ever see.  A short downhill hike to the East Fork rewards you with a visually stunning section of river- mountain & glacier views whilst floating through a mini gorge make for a spectacular ½ day paddle..  A trip worth doing for the scenery alone, even if you aren’t interested in paddling the rapids of the Lion’s Head section afterwards.

      Water Level: This section can be run at almost any water level; however the East Fork will likely be very low & bony later in the season, August-September, as it relies primarily on snowmelt for flow.  Significant rain can raise water levels.  However, lower water allows for an easier hike up the Caribou drainage if you aren’t running Lion’s Head afterwards.  The South Fork is glacial, so will be higher in mid summer months, but remains class II anytime of year.


      Hike Description: 1.5 miles, 30- 45 min. From Palmer, head north on the Glenn Highway towards Glenallen for about 1 hour.   Follow signs towards Majestic Valley Lodge on the right side of highway.  Park at the lodge.  Look for a wooden sign about 25 yards downhill, across the lawn, denoting “ski & hiking trails.”Look for a wooden sign 25 yards downhill from the parking lot that denotes ski/hiking trails.  

      Follow the grassy double track downhill, veering right after ⅓ mile at the first significant fork. The double track soon turns into a more narrow hiking trail, before switch-backing down the steepest part of the hill.  The trail has the potential to be slippery and muddy in steep sections if there has been recent rain. You’ll emerge from the woods & land on a gravel bar on the East Fork.

      River Description: At the put-in, the East Fork of the Matanuska is a tiny & narrow stream, with just barely enough water to float a boat. You’ll bump and grind through Class II shoals for 1.5 miles until reaching the South Fork.  The biggest hazards in navigating this narrow stretch are paddling away from brush along the sides while staying on guard for strainers & river wide wood- especially if the water is high & you’re not hitting bottom.  

      It’s very possible for the East Fork section to be too low in late summer or during a dry year; one may opt to walk or line boats downstream until South Fork confluence.  The East Fork stretch could potentially feel like a downside to the run if this were the case. #packraftproblems

      Less than a mile downstream from East Fork confluence

      Thirty or so minutes of scraping downstream will reward you substantially more water when you reach the South Fork of the Matanuska. The murky, glacial water of the South Fork is fairly straightforward paddling through Class II gravel bars and small waves. After 4 miles of navigating glacial braids, the river begins to constrict near a tan colored pinnacle on the left side of the river, after Jackass Creek comes in from the right.  This short gorge feels quite magical, as few people get to see these rock formations, despite the proximity of Glenn Highway.  The infamous Lion’s Head soon comes into view a few miles upstream of the Caribou Creek confluence.

      The South Fork canyon is a short & incredibly scenic section of this run

      If you aren’t up for the class III-IV commercially rafted Lion’s Head, take out at the Caribou Creek confluence & hike 1.5 miles upstream along the gravel bars to the road. Depending on the water level, you may have to ferry across a few times as the creek may push you into the banks.  See Lion’s Head description.

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    Forums Alaska Rivers Mat-Su Valley Region Matanuska River: East & South Fork