Matanuska River: Lions Head

Forums Alaska Rivers Mat-Su Valley Region Matanuska River: Lions Head

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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: 5.5 miles
      Gauge: NWS Matanuska at Glacier Park gauge
      Shuttle: 7.5 miles
      Put-in: Caribou Creek bridge, MP 107 Glenn Hwy

      Takeout: Keiths Rd, MP 101.9 Glenn Hwy

      Character: This is a popular stretch for commercial raft trips throughout the summer.  However, when the rafting season is at its peak, you won’t see many packrafts at the same time.  Lion’s Head is a glacial run that boasts massive holes, giant standing wave trains and river features that would eat a small packraft during mid-summer.  This run is often done before or after peak mid-summer flows.  Both early & late seasons seem to have friendlier water levels, while still offering quality whitewater.

      Water Level: Refer to Matanuska River at Glacier Park gauge.  The “Mat” is a higher volume glacial river runnable from mid May-October, with low water at the beginning and end of the season.  Higher flows in June & July are class IV and make Lion’s Head too demanding for many packrafters.

      River Description:

      Gerard getting lost in the waves, gauge: 3.6 ft

      The hard to read “thick” glacial water will have you constantly wondering, “Is that a wave or a hole?”  At low- medium flows, Lion’s Head is class III+, although it may appear more intimidating due to the murky water & speed of the water.  The difficulty increases to class IV in June-early July during peak glacial melt.

      The run begins on Caribou Creek, with almost 2 miles of class II floating until the confluence of the brown colored creek and the glacial gray of the Matanuska.  About ½ mile along, the features begin to increase in size & frequency as you go around the actual “Lion’s Head,” but it’s almost another mile- with the first sharp left bend, until the continuous whitewater begins.   You can get out and scout along the left side for a good taste of what lies downstream.

      For the next mile, class III+ rapids are fairly continuous.  A swim at medium-high flows could be long; definitely a run for boaters practiced & confident with self-rescue.  

      After the initial engaging mile, the rapids mellow out, with more recovery time between sets.  When you see a house sized boulder in the center of the river, followed by another of similar size on the left, that signifies you’re through the biggest of the meat.  Don’t let your guard down however, as there are still plenty of holes & waves to stay alert for.  From here, you have another 2.5 miles until the take out. Don’t make the common mistake of taking out after the first vehicle bridge, instead wait a few hundred feet before the second bridge.

      View of Lion’s Head in the fall 

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    Forums Alaska Rivers Mat-Su Valley Region Matanuska River: Lions Head