Sheep Creek

Forums Alaska Rivers Talkeetna Region Sheep 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/III+
      Length: 22+ miles
      Gauge: No gauge, use USGS Willow Creek at Willow for reference:
      Shuttle: Fly in access, takeout is 30 miles from Talkeetna
      Put-in: Approx: 62.11916, -149.499

      Takeout: Near Caswell ATV trails: 62.06585, -149.92480

      Character: Sheep Creek has been referred to as “Class III gold” and has reliable water levels throughout the year.  Higher flows serve up more continuous whitewater & adrenaline, while lower water still demands your attention, especially for a newer class III paddler.

      Although class III in difficulty, the wood hazard on Sheep Creek is significant and can change quickly.  The creek runs through thick forest- it’s banks are littered with fallen spruce & cotton wood trees.  Predictable logjams exist on the outside of most bends, but the creek bed has plenty of rocks to house and hold logs that float downstream.  Swims in many spots could get dangerous quickly.  This area also has a reputation for brown bears fishing for salmon- be bear aware.

      Sheep is most commonly done as a fly-in day trip.  Multiple options exist for those who would rather create a longer route and do a multi-day hike before they are rewarded with one of Alaska’s best class III runs.

      Water Level: Sheep Creek has no gauge, but Willow Creek is often used as a reference.  Check with pilots to make sure Crossover or Sheep Back Lakes are thawed & okay for landing.  Generally, the more water the better on Sheep Creek, if you’re a confident class III boater.  Between 500-800 cfs on Willow is still class III, but with more time to make moves & recover between rapids.  Once Willow reaches 1400 cfs, Sheep becomes faster and pushier, possibly pushing class III+, as the rapids are more continuous.

      Takeout Directions: From Talkeetna Spur Rd, drive North on the Parks Highway for 12 miles.  Now, get ready to navigate a maze of random roads!  Turn right on Hidden Hills Rd,  immediately before Sheep Creek Lodge.  !!GUIDEBOOK AMENDMENT: in the guidebook, I referred to this as “Hidden Valley  Rd” that is incorrect!!  Continue past railroad tracks; in another 1/2 mile turn left, following signs for the Gigglewood Lakeside Inn.  After 2 more miles, veer right at the mailboxes. In another 1.6 miles, turn left at stop sign onto Bendapole road.  After another 1.2 miles turn left onto Record Avenue, before turning right in 1/4 mile onto Shaman Road.  Drive to the end and park at large turnaround.  It’s a 3.5 mile hike from the creek takeout to this parking area.

      Hike Descriptions:

      From Crossover Lake: If you have the time and the weather is good, this area would be a great place to spend the night and hike around, exploring nearby ridges.  To access the creek, head north towards creek through alpine tussocks.  As you drop over the ridge descending into the creek valley, look for a giant boulder.  There is a brush & grown over social trail beginning downhill of this boulder that dramatically reduces bushwhacking.  Take the time to find this trail!  Waypoint 62.11037, -149.50320 is a good spot to pick it up.  Many parties miss it and end up bashing through alder and thick brush- it’s not super obvious, but worth taking time to find.

      From Sheep Back Lake: This is a fun and scenic alternative to the standard put in that adds more hiking in the alpine and 4 more miles of class II-III water.  Great as a multi-day trip, as the upper valley from the lake is well worth exploring up to the glacier. 

      (contribution from Butchy Fuego in Talkeetna) Get dropped off by floats at Sheep Back Lake: There is an established camp site right above the drop off on a saddle. To hike out, follow the outlet to a series of lakes; 1st lake has a small island.  Cross the outlet of 3rd (big pancake) lake and head west by southwest up to a small pass.  From the pass, trend left as you contour your way over to a rounded ridge, taking care to avoid the canyon and chossy cliffs to the right. Take the ridge down to a meadow and begin looking for an opportunity to cross “Sheep Back Creek” on your right. We crossed about 50 yards upstream of the confluence it was pushing us towards with minimal alder bashing; this is probably the crux of the hike. Next, gain a small plateau that parallels the creek. Look for a well worn game trail on the right of the plateau as you make your way down and away from the creek. Stick to this trail to avoid bushwhacking until fairly close to Sheep Creek.

      You can put-in just below the confluence of Sheep Back and Sheep Creeks. From here, expect fun read and run boating down to the standard put-in.  A different character to the rapids downstream, as there’s less volume, but still with plenty of class III+ drops and boulder gardens- stay alert for strainers.  

      Hike-in From Takeout Parking Area: A route referred to as “Cheap Sheep” by Brad Meikeljohn & Roman Dial, is perhaps the most straightforward, but strenuous way to access the Sheep Creek rapids without flying in.  It’s possible to link up the ATV trails that begin in Caswell- you actually continue hiking upstream from the takeout description.  This route combines about 14 miles of ATV trails and 8 miles of route finding in the alpine, after leaving the trail and ascending Montana peak, working your way to Crossover Lake.  The only caveat is that the ATV trail goes through private property; you should secure permission from the property owner or divert your route accordingly when you see “No Trespassing” signs for that 1 mile stretch.  Expect 1-2 full days of hiking.

      River Description:

      Upper Sheep & Doldrums: 10.2 miles, 3-4 hours

      Rapids & Lower Sheep to ATV trail takeout: 11.3 miles, 3-4 hours 

      There isn’t always an excellent put-in spot, so don’t spend too much time looking for one.  You’ll warm up with some class II for about a mile before a few class III- features show up.  At lower water they may be rocks to negotiate around & at higher water waves & holes.  Right when you think, “Okay, this is going to get fun…” -it slows down and the doldrums then begin!  After the initial rapid warm up, you’ll go another 2 miles before this slower section. 

      These 9 miles are referred to as the “Doldrums.” It goes by without any noteworthy rapids & is mostly class I-II, this still demands attention as wood is scattered throughout the banks & on the outside of most turns.  Expect to get out of your boat a few times to portage problem river wide wood.  Not all wood spots are completely riverwide, as narrow sneak channels exist; some paddlers may still choose to walk around.

      After 2 miles into the Doldrums, where the main water channel goes left, there was a river wide strainer: 62.15054, -149.59194.  The wood is secured with a rock in the middle- it has been there since 2020 and may likely create a future log jam.  It’s easily portaged by a gravel bar on the right.

      Another few miles of class II continues until the “Wood Gauntlet.”  Here the current slows down a bit, although the blind meandering “S” bends may entice you to get out of your boat & look for wood.

      The current picks up gradually as you get closer to the rapids section.  The first rapid is obvious- you’ll see a distinct gray rock wall on the right as the creek makes a hard left turn.  This marks where the fun begins.  Less than a mile into the rapids stretch, there is an island that divides the river in half.  There’s usually more water in the left channel, but both sides have lines, with the most technical part being where the currents converge at the bottom.

      Expect about ½ dozen island features like this one- sometimes both sides go, with one side having either more water, better rapids or less wood hazard.  The next few miles have fairly continuous class III whitewater. 

      Takeout Notes: When you see a red dirt cut bank on the left, followed by one on the right; then you’ll know you have another 3 miles and a few more class III rapids remaining.  As you near the take out, you’ll see a tan & gray colored cut bank on the right.  When you see this, keep your eyes on river left for ATV trails leading down to the creek within another ¼ mile.   You can use the first 2 take outs you- they have better staging areas for transitioning back into hiking mode, however, the most direct one is immediately after. It looks like a steep gravel driveway.   It’s possible to float all the way to the highway bridge, but this is rarely done, as the creek slows down, meanders and has countless logjams with annoying portages. (I’ve never done it, been have been warned)

      Hike Out: ATV trail, 3.4 miles, 1.5-2 hrs.  From the ATV cul-de-sac, DO NOT go up the steep trail, head right (west) or downstream on the well established trail.  The trail goes through mud pits and wet stretches, but is easy enough to follow.  After 2.2 miles, and the first distinct junction, turn left.  Continue straight for another mile, before taking a sharp left & walking the few final hundred feet back to the parking lot.


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    Forums Alaska Rivers Talkeetna Region Sheep Creek