Kings River Canyon

Lower gorge: This rapid has an undercut on river left.
Considering how many rivers are near Anchorage, there are precious few whitewater runs that locals paddle with any frequency. Six Mile. Willow. Six Mile. Six Mile again. Class V boaters have many more choices, but for intermediate paddlers the options are much more limited. The Kings River, which is no farther than Willow, should be on everyone’s list as a top-tier intermediate whitewater day trip.

The Kings River flows off some of the Talkeetna’s higher peaks, but only has small remnant glaciers. Its water typically runs a stunning teal hue all summer. From the headwaters, it drops through a harrowing incised canyon, then flows over about ten miles of mellow gravel bars. In the “Magic Mile,” it cascades through old moraine, forming Class V rapids even at low flows. Then the river mellows again for about three miles before entering a twin set of canyons.

Entering the canyon
This brief, riffly section of the Kings is where you put in to run the Class III+-IV+ canyons (difficulty is highly dependent on water level). To get there, drive out the Glenn Highway, passing the bridge over the Kings River. While you could attempt to start here and navigate a thicket of ATV trails, it is easier not to. Instead, drive a few more miles to the Permanente Road, a well-used dirt road that turns into an ATV trail. The Permanente Road can be hard to find, but if you get to Fish Lake Road or Chickaloon you’ve gone too far. High clearance vehicles will be able to ascend the Permanente Road for several miles before it narrows to ATV width. Park at one of the small dirt pullouts and begin walking north. Note, but do not follow, a large, well-used ATV trail that comes in from the left. This is a large east-west route marked as “Chickaloon Trail” on the Delorme Atlas and Gazetteer. It also is the way you’ll hike out of the Kings after paddling. To access the put-in, continue north on the Permanente Road, which climbs steadily as it approaches Castle Mountain. When Castle Mountain is directly on your right side, and an enticing meadow descends to your left toward the river, take off down toward the water. It shouldn’t take much more than an hour of walking on the Permanente Road to get from your car to alongside Castle Mountain (assuming you have high clearance and can drive the first couple miles), and another twenty minutes or so to descend to the water.

You might want to bring microspikes for the hike in.
If you find yourself on a large cliff above the water, you didn’t go far enough upstream to put in: There should be nice gravel and cottongrass beaches for inflating packrafts, and the river should look fairly placid. If the water is high and turbulent here, it will downright terrifying in the constrictions downstream. Ideal water levels for the canyon are just enough water to paddle comfortably through the gravel bars near the put in.

The canyon’s approach is obvious, though incremental: Bedrock starts to emerge from the river banks. Valley walls draw closer. The Kings begins dropping through tighter slots, with steepening and more technical rapids. Again, if this section is very difficult, be aware that the rapids will be much harder downstream.

Soon, the river is contained in a narrow, bedrock canyon. It descends a series of pool-and-drop teacup rapids, some of which have small ledges and others of which have technical slots. These are easy at bare minimum runnable water levels, and would be quite challenging during higher water. Then the canyon walls open up briefly, and you may wonder if the trip is over.

It isn’t. The river drops back into a bedrock gorge, which at first has low walls. Then the canyon walls rise, and you can see a horizon line ahead, followed by a very narrow canyon. Definitely get out and scout, because this is the most challenging and dangerous section of river. The first large drop of the lower canyon is steep and complex: It pours into a powerful hole, gets shunted into a cliff wall by bedrock, then corkscrews against and under an undercut wall after descending a second steep ledge. It is unclear how deep the undercut is, but at very low levels it appears difficult to avoid. Higher water may reduce the likelihood of getting shoved in an undercut, but the twin holes become more powerful. Downstream, a long, confined series of bedrock pools and drops continue to the end of the canyon.

After descending this lowest canyon, paddle for a couple hundred more yards and look for an easy place to ascend the left bank. You should find the Chickaloon Trail ATV route fairly easily, which leads eastward back toward the Permanente Road and the car. Don’t be misled into following a different trail upstream, paralleling the Kings River.

There is something magical about paddling down a wide-open river valley and then descending into a steep, dark, bedrock canyon. Few rivers offer such features with moderate whitewater. The Kings does, at the right water levels. Typically, these would occur in early fall: Look for the Moose Creek gauge to have between 60 and 100 cfs, which is probably the closest correlation of gauges in the area. Be aware that you may hike in and discover that the water is too high to paddle safely, and make sure to scout the drops that are too steep to scout from your boat. Also recognize that the canyons could be difficult to hike out of in the event of a lost boat, and definitely bring an extra paddle and rescue gear.

With these precautions, the Kings is an outstanding day trip for paddlers who are comfortable on Willow’s Guard Rail section or Six Mile at low to medium (8.8-9.6 feet) levels. In an easy day trip, you can hike beneath the spires of Castle Mountain, and paddle through a serpentine bedrock gorge that few Alaskans have ever had a chance to explore.


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