Willow Creek “Guardrail” Section

Forums Alaska Rivers Talkeetna Region Willow Creek “Guardrail” Section

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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: 4 miles
      Gauge: USGS Willow Creek at Willow Gauge
      Shuttle: Guardrail only: 2 miles, 3.5 miles if also paddling Red Gate
      Put-in: 61.78108, -149.81619, refer to “Put-in Directions” below

      Takeout: Shirley Towne bridge, same takeout for “Red Gate” section

      Character: The Guardrail section is perhaps one of the best “roadside” intermediate runs in Alaska.  The small ledges, boulder gardens, large holes and wave trains provide challenging training grounds.  The rapids are well spaced with short recovery pools.  It’s pretty common for intermediate paddlers to go Guardrail, before meeting up with beginner friends at the Red Gate put-in to continue downstream.

      Water Level: Refer to the Willow Creek gauge.  The water comes primarily from snowmelt in the spring, but it often gets bumped back up later in the summer and fall from rain.  How high and long Willow runs depends on the snowpack at Hatcher that season and the rate of melt.  

      Guardrail can be paddled as low as 250 cfs, if you’re looking for a bony & creeky run with plenty of rocks and slots to maneuver through.  The lower it is, the more time you have between features.  Common flows for packrafts are between 400-1200 cfs.  Once in the 1000 cfs range, expect the rapids to become pushy & much more powerful- with plenty of big holes to punch and features to avoid.  Levels above 1500 cfs become very demanding; Guardrail turns into a solid class IV run. 

      Put-in Directions: From Wasilla, drive North on the Parks Highway for about 45 minutes.  After mile marker 71, turn right onto Willow-Fishhook Road, following signs towards Hatcher Pass.  After Shirley Towne Rd (take out), drive 3.1 miles until the steep paved pull out on the right. It is immediately before a sharp right turn with the 40 mph yellow speed limit sign.  Look across the street for a red marking on guard rail; this is where the trail begins.  Hike 1/4 mile down the steep trail, before arriving at the put-in. 

      River Description: The 1/4 mile hike leads you to a shallow canyon.  The first feature is called Warm Up (IV-) rapid; hike upstream to run it or put-in directly underneath it.  You can also hike further upstream on the river side social trail if you’d like to run some bigger drops.  “Warm Up” is considered the most difficult rapid on Guardrail, however there are many more downstream similar in nature.  If you don’t like this rapid, it’s a pretty good indicator you might not like the rest of the run.

      Gerard Ganey in Warm Up Rapid, 1400 cfs. Photo: Jule Harle

      Below waits a deep recovery pool before the next rapid.  The next 2 miles deliver almost a dozen read and run class III+/IV- rapids; all are scoutable from the banks.  There aren’t many formal names for the rapids; although “House” rapid is obvious as there is a large house on the left bluff, followed by “Yellow Brick Road”- a sharp left hand turn with the creek pushing into the outside wall.  These features aren’t necessarily any more notable or harder than what’s upstream- just easier to identify.

      The grand finale, Five Fingers (IV-) is one of the most continuous rapids on Guardrail; it arrives soon after the previous sharp left turn.  Five Fingers consists of five ledge drops with large boulders- these moves are fairly back to back.   The pool at the base of this rapid is the put-in for the Red Gate section. 



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    Forums Alaska Rivers Talkeetna Region Willow Creek “Guardrail” Section