The standard put-in for the Lions Head run on the Matanuska River is on a tributary stream from the north, Caribou Creek (which has a fine runnable 30 footer a few miles upstream). 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 Lions Head by running the East Fork of the Matanuska and hooking up with Lions Head. Plan on a long day.
The standard take-out for Lions Head is reached by turning east off the Glenn Highway at milepost 102 and heading down the steep dirt switchback. As the road reaches the river valley, continue straight into the dirt parking area just above the Glacier Park Resort bridge. There is a one-truck width path through the river side brush, complete with a couch to enjoy your post-run beer. Note that this is private property, owned by the Glacier Park Resort. Alternately, you can continue down the Matanuska River for several different trip options.
The Lions Head run on the Matanuska River offers the South Central boater a good, short stretch of Class III-IV whitewater in a beautiful setting. This section of river is formed where the Matanuska Glacier pinches the Matanuska River against a rock formation known as Lions Head, which stands as a sentry to the upper Mat Valley. The rapids are big-water style drop-drop at medium to high flows, and become more technical pool-drop at low flows. At high flows, the water is glacial-gray and makes the rapids difficult to read. At low flows, the water clears up, and begins to take on an azure color. At any flow, this is one cold river, so pogies are a must.
The Lions Head section begins on Caribou Creek, which braids below the bridge just enough to get rafts stuck and keep kayakers ducking the trees hanging off the sides. After 15 minutes, the East Fork of the Matanuska is reached, and the river begins to form a single channel. The first major rapid is reached as the river makes a right hand turn toward the wall that is Lions Head. There is a fast landing beach on the right above the drop (better for kayaks), or land on the left just above the turn (better for rafts) if you want to warm your toes and take a look at the first rapid. The rapids continue in similar fashion for the next four miles. At high water, there is little respite for the relentless gray wave trains with holes studded here and there. At low water, rock dodging will keep the boater busy.
Lions Head at medium to high flows features some excellent play waves. Bring a neoprene skull cap, this water is cold.
Matanuska river review and guide:
I rate the matanuska 4 ½ stars. The Matanuska is a glacial fed river that is dependent on weather. The matanuska is not for novice paddlers, The river is strong and pushy and gets even pushier after a rain or a hot, sunny day. The river can also be pretty easy after a cold and cloudy day. The Matanuska has a good amount of fun and managable boofs that keep the river interesting. The river can be handled well by intermediate and advanced paddlers looking for tough moves and a good challenge. The river feels like it is part of one non-stop rapid for 5 miles straight. It has small eddies that might be able to fit 10 boats. The holes can be large and scary and it is best that you avoid most of them, although some of the ledge holes make for fun boofs.
Matanuska river guide:
The river put-in is at caribou creek just after Lion’s den mountain. The shuttle for the river can take 20 to 30 minutes. Caribou creek is 2 miles of easy class I-II rapids that can easily be managed. When you come out o caribou creek the water will turn form muddy brown to glacial gray. The river will start with class II-III entrance rapids that are in section of braided rapids. About another mile down the river the rapids will all combine into one section of river that is wild and unpredictable. Following the first bend in the start of the rapids will be the first major rapid. There are two main lines in this rapid, one going in between two large holes and the second avoiding all the holes to the right. After this rapid there will be an eddy on river left about 200 yards downstream. Once you eddy out you can get out of your boat and explore the Matanuska glacier by walking along the trail until coming up to the glacial lake. Getting across the lake is not too much of a challenge, there may be a challenge in the mud being sticky. On the other side of the lake there will be a small stream flowing into the lake. If you follow this creek up the hill you will come up to the top of the hill and see the glacial moraine, the glacial moraine may feel like a different, more perfect world. (glacial moraine is the gravel in which a glacier has left behind with its receding.) It is possible to explore more on the glacial moraine but it is best to avoid going on the actual glacier. Once you make the hike back to the river you will have to prepare to get back into the wild waters of the Matanuska.
The river will pick up right where it started with the strong rapids. Following two bends I the river there will be a boof that looks nice and easy, news flash: IT’S NOT. This boof has a giant ledge hole below it that will almost always result in a swim. Immediately after the first hole their will be a second hole that is almost as bad as the first one, you can avoid these holes to the river right. If you are up for a challenge you can hit the edge of the first hole with a 2 o’clock angle boofing into the waves and avoiding the ledge hole. Following the last major rapid the river will start to slow down and it will come up to two adjacent bridges. The takeout for the river is on the river right past the first bridge and just before the second bridge.
The Matanuska River is gauged more than 50 miles downstream at the bridge in Palmer, but what do you expect, this is Alaska. Although the gauge comes in after several major tributaries (all fun runs, including the Chickaloon River, Kings River, Granite Creek, and Moose Creek, with a little local knowledge the gauge is useful. Lions Head follows a few basic rules. Lions Head usually becomes ice free sometime in mid-May. It usually runs low through about mid-June, and then begins to rise with the warmer weather and longer days. It usually peaks in late-July with glacial flows. It then drops into late-September to mid-October. Fall rains can cause flashes on Caribou Creek and bring Lions Head up (and warm it up slightly too!) if only briefly. Call Nova River Runners for current information.
Permits are not required for this reach.
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