Matanuska River

Overview

With the Talkeetna Mountains to the north and the Chugach Mountains to the south, the Matanuska River pours forth from the large Matanuska Glacier in a swift, freezing cold, torrent of Class II to Class IV whitewater for nearly 70 miles before it meets the sea where the Knik Arm of Cook Inlet reaches into the interior. The river runs down the trench formed where the Border Ranges Fault line separates the two mighty mountain ranges, with the ancient rock of the Talkeetna Mountains on the right and the younger Chugach Mountains on the left. In its upper reaches is the 5 mile long, Class IV+ Lion's Head stretch, a fast thrilling ride, while the lower 60 miles of Class II and III river flow swiftly through the big holes and waves that are created with the high summer flows. Above the Matanuska Glacier is what is known as the East Fork, followed by the Lion's Head Run, where the glacier pinches the river between rock walls, then the Matanuska proper. Day trips or overnight trips can be done along its length.

Put In

The Glenn Highway runs above and alongside the Matanuska for most of its length and provides several locations to start or end a trip. From Anchorage, it is only an hour drive to where the river can be accessed. To get on the East Fork, which is mainly a kayak trip, take the Glenn Highway to the Tahneta Pass area to the west of Eureka. At mile 118.6 take a dirt road to the south and travel towards the radio tower facility for 2.8 miles, park at the small turnout and hike down hill to the river.
To get to the Lion's Head run, drive the Glenn to mile 107 where the highway crosses Caribou Creek and where there are roads down to the creek and float two miles of Caribou Creek.
To start the primary Class II and III run, drive the Glenn to mile 102 and head south on the steep road to the Glacier Park Bridge over the Matanuska. From here it is a 5-mile section of Class II+ river to the confluence with Hick's Creek where the river picks up steam and becomes Class III+ with some giant flip holes to miss and wave trains to be straight for. There is access at Hick's Creek, mile 96.4, off the Glenn Highway, the Chickaloon Bridge at mile 77.7 or at King Mountain Wayside at mile 76.1.

Take Out

The take out is commonly at the Old Glenn Highway Bridge 1.5 miles east of Palmer just upstream of the bridge on river right. Or at the Glenn Highway Bridge at mile 31.5 unless you choose to do a shorter trip by taking out at Chickaloon or King Mountain Wayside.

The Trip

East Fork to Lion’s Head: 17 miles

The East Fork is a tiny babbling brook deep in a pristine canyon and is not suitable for rafts. Difficulties are only dodging logjams or brushy creek banks for about 5 miles. The river then joins the Matanuska's South Fork and for 12 miles the river is a glacial braided stream, flowing through a spectacular canyon of vertical walls.

Lion’s Head to Glacier Park Bridge: 4 miles

The standard put in for the Lion’s Head run on the Matanuska River is on a tributary stream from the north, Caribou Creek. This is reached by driving east from Palmer along the Glenn Highway to the Caribou Creek bridge at mile 107. In the past, the river access was just past the bridge on the left (north) where a dirt road led down to a small parking area and beach. The Caribou Creek Bridge has just undergone a major rehaul, and the access is questionable. You can also access Lion’s Head by running the East Fork of the Matanuska and hooking up with Lion’s Head. The first 3 rapids are called Greg's Hole, Sandwich Rock and Double Trouble. The water is fairly continuous through all this with the brushy vegetated moraine on river right and ice and rock on river left. The coldness of the water is the comment most often heard from boaters having done this stretch. And to quote Dr. Andrew Embick, "freezing cold, grey, and heavy with silt, the character of the rapids, (and difficulty of the run), depends quite a bit on what flow is encountered". The eddies are few along the left bank and non-existent or very turbulent along the right. And the grey glacial water makes the drops hard to see on approach, so kayakers be alert and rafters have fun but watch out for the boat flippin' holes out there.

Glacier Park Bridge to Old Glenn Highway: 50 miles

This is the section of river that offers a nice one or two night experience with Class II and III+ rapids and "Big Water" power. The river is hemmed by colorful rock walls at times and wide with open vistas at others. One of the strong splashy sections is called Nova Bend and is around mile 74 of the Glenn. As you proceed downriver from Glacier Park Hicks Creek comes in on the right after 5 miles, and Gravel Creek from river left after 8 miles. The confluence with the Chickaloon River on river right is met after 25 miles, and the King River Wayside after 27 miles and the section known as Nova Bend is between the two. The King River doesn't join the river until 10 miles after. Between the King River and Granite Creek, a distance of 4 miles, is a section with some huge powerful holes and the hydraulics associated with holes. A take out is at the Old Glenn Highway near Palmer after about 54 miles, and is just upstream of the bridge on river right.

Old Glenn Highway to Glenn Highway Bridge: 12 miles

This section is more Class II as the river braids even more and the occasional log jam may need to be dodged. Take out at the main bridge of the Glenn Highway where it crosses.

More Advice

  • High winds have been known to blow upriver delaying some raft trips.
  • Be sure to check one of the internet sites for water levels, or ask the good people at NOVA rafting whose headquarters are near the Chickaloon River along the Glenn.

USGS Maps

Anchorage C-5, C-6, D-3, D-4, D-5

Distance

70 miles

Days

1-5

Difficulty

Moderate

Class

II, III, IV

Craft

Canoe
Kayak
Raft

Cost

$

Getting There

Coordinates
Latitude: 61.788545
Longitude: -148.316145