This interesting combination of rivers and lake is a rarely done circuit that would be a great multi-day wilderness float trip for kayaks and rafts. With good fishing opportunities and only Class III at times, it is mostly a Class II trip and for 80 miles it travels through an amazing landscape. The Nelchina River system is a rocky glacial river with daily water level fluctuations amid a forested valley and with spectacular views of the Chugach Mountains and the Wrangell Mountains. With 5 miles of Little Nelchina and 25 miles of the Nelchina added to a 10-mile lake row and then the 45 miles of Tazlina River down to the Copper River, you could plan a nice 3 to 5 day, 84-mile trip through this spectacular country, without having to fly ever. It’s a region that drains thousands of lakes from the north while glacial runoff from the giant peaks to the south contributes fluctuating water.
The put in for this trip involves getting yourself and your gear, most likely, from Anchorage, north, up the Glenn Highway, over Tahneta Pass and Eureka to the Little Nelchina State Recreation Site at mile 138, where the road crosses the river and there is a parking lot. Some have chartered a floatplane to land on Tazlina Lake to start their trip.
The take out is at the Richardson Highway Bridge over the Tazlina River at mile 110, which is just 2 miles before the Copper River and only 8 miles from the Glenn and Richardson Highway intersection.
Little Nelchina to Tazlina Lake: 30 miles
Where the highway crosses the river, is the Little Nelchina State Recreation Site and is where you can find access to the river and parking. The river is small: twisting, winding and braiding through forest and lake country as it parallels the Glenn Highway from west to east before turning south and after 4 miles joins the Nelchina River. If the water level is low there could be some dragging of rafts in some shallow sections and watch out for logjams. The Nelchina is a bigger river in a much larger river valley. Rocky, laden with silt and freezing cold, the Nelchina River continues to wind along as a mostly single channel, past Twin Lakes and Bottley Creek inflows in a northeasterly direction. To the north are the great flats and lakes left behind when giant ice sheets melted. The river then quickly turns south and enters a braided delta with channels to choose as you approach Tazlina Lake.
Tazlina Lake to Tazlina River: 10 miles
Tazlina Lake is large and beautiful body of water sitting on the edge of giant mountains and the huge expanse of lakes that includes Lake Louise. Just to the north of the Nelchina mouth is the Mendeltna River mouth entering the lake and there are 10 miles of shoreline to row to the outlet of the lake. Across the 3-mile wide lake, the peak Taz looms as the last and northernmost finger of the Chugach Mountains, as they disappear beneath quaternary deposits of sediments. To the north rising above the same sediments are the Wrangell Mountains. Be wary of high, midday and afternoon winds that roar down the valley onto the lake. The lake slowly narrows down past a large island and out as a single channel of fast strong current.
Tazlina River to Take Out: 45 miles
Where the river exits the lake it has cut down, exposing some interesting low bedrock walls and has some boulder garden, Class III rapids, to run. It is hemmed in by an aspen and spruce forest as it meanders. After 10 or 12 miles you will see where Tolsona Creek enters on the left. The river is still winding along west to east past Durham Creek on the right and then Nickle Creek on river right 29 miles below the lake outlet. Here the river continues winding to the east as it approaches the mighty Copper River. There is a Class III rapid called Oxbow Drop just upstream of the take out and upstream of the Trans Alaska Pipeline crossing. It is here that the river has cut through the bend of an oxbow and makes a fast plunging descent to the old channel. Fishing should be excellent at stream mouths. And remember, bears are everywhere!!!!
Be very watchful for high winds on the lake that can pin a raft to the wrong shore for hours.
Valdez D-7, D-8
Gulkana A-3, A-4, A-5, A-6