The standard put-in for Willow Creek, known as Guardrail, is reached by turning off the Parks Highway onto the Hatcher Pass Road (also known as Willow Creek Road) at Milepost 71.2 and heading east for 8.4 miles. Just after going up a large hill, a steep pullout on the right will be seen with a guardrail on the other side of the road. Hop over the rail, and head down into the woods on a good trail. This put-in is class III+ when dry, hard class IV in rainy conditions. There are plenty of devils club sections, steep muddy slopes, and bears wandering around, all packed into a 20 minute approach.
To skip the upper canyon and enjoy a class II-III run, drive approximately 6.6 miles up Hatcher Pass Road, and look for a steep driveway to the left with a red gate and chain wrapped around it. This is known as Redgate. The chain does have a lock on it, but is normally just wrapped around the gate. Continue down the road (closing the gate behind you) and pass the cabin using the road on the left. At the bottom of the hill, turn up canyon and head through the brush gauntlet to a clearing. Park here and carry your boat another 100 yards up canyon to a steep slope with a lowering rope leading to the river.
The standard take-out for Willow Creek is reached by turning east off the Parks Highway onto the Hatcher Pass Road (also known as Willow Creek Road) at Milepost 71.2. Head east for 4.1 miles, and turn left at the gravel road sometimes signed "Shirleytown." Note that Shirleytown is also the put-in for fisherman floating 5.6 miles to the Parks Highway Bridge. Check out the Willow Creek Lodge near the bridge--they have a stuffed giraffe.
Willow Creek, along with Six-Mile Creek and the Nenana, is a classic Alaska day run. From the Guardrail put-in, a walk through the woods reveals a stunning creek, with clear, relatively warm water coursing over rounded granite boulders. Deep pools thick with trout, dolly varden, grayling, and salmon separate fun and well spaced rapids. There are a few excellent play spots along the way for kayakers. Rafts occasionally do this stretch, mostly as paddle rafts, although the carry-in can be a bit daunting. The rapids are technical, and eddy hopping and boat scouting are necessary. Being upside down in the rapids seems to lead to an inordinate amount of head and face injuries. There is a fair amount of wood, and the rapids rearrange pretty quickly.
The section can be divided into two parts, Guardrail, and Redgate. Guardrail consists of a series of Class III+ - IV- drops over the course of 2.5 miles. The Redgate put-in is at the bottom of the Guardrail stretch, and consists of a series of Class III drops easing to Class II, with an excellent play hole toward the end of the stretch. Most boaters run Guardrail, then pick up beginners at Redgate, and continue downriver to play.
The walk into the Guardrail stretch drops you into a shallow canyon with granite walls and streambed formations. The rapids begin with Warm-Up where the trail meets the river. There is a good pool to put-in above the drop, or midway down if you're feeling tentative. This is one of the hardest drops on the stretch, so at least you know if you're ready for the rest of it. It is possible to hike up above Warm-Up, and run a few of the lower drops of the Upper Willow. Warm-Up is separated from the next drop, Drop 2, by a beautiful, deep recovery pool. The bottom of drop 2 has a good, small wave at most flows. Drop 3 has been known to collect bears fishing, so keep your head up. From the bottom of the next drop, Left and Then Left, Cowboy's place is visible on the left bank high above the river. Cowboy runs commercial raft trips from his place, by lowering rafts to the river on a zip line. Be careful of debris in the river here--there always seems to be a cable or two somewhere in the pool. The next drop, Slalom, features a few large holes. Around the corner is Right Chute followed immediately by Left Chute, and ending with a drop known as House Rapid, or alternately One Less Lawyer, named for the great Chris "The Grim Boater" Christensen. Below House, a long grayling pool leads into a drop known as 180 for the wave that forms at the bottom. Beware of Fang the Floating Rock, which is positioned at the bottom of the drop in the center tongue before the river bends left, slightly below water level. The next drop has a great boof at the top, and leads into a few nondescript and easier drops until the final drops are reached--Yellow Brick Road (a sweeping left turn with a wall at the bottom) and Five Fingers. At certain flows, a good breaking wave forms in Five Fingers. The pool below Five Fingers is the spot for the Redgate put-in, and announces that the river eases to Class II-III. Just below this pool, the granite canyon ends, and a softer conglomerate is reached, making for wider, less constricted drops.
Redgate is an excellent place for beginner kayakers to get their boat wet. The drops are all straightforward, and there is plenty of recovery space. Wave Train, about midway down the run, provides the most excitement after the first drop, and is announced by a large granite boulder in the center of the river, with a steep drop behind it. There can be some excellent on-the-fly surfing in Wave Train at the right flows. Below this, a cable crosses the river, leading to the USGS Canyon gauge on the right. At the bottom of this drop is an excellent fast wave at low flows. A few more deep pools with conglomerate walls lead to a bedrock ledge that forms an excellent playhole. This has been the site of past Willow rodeo events. Play hard here, because the takeout is 10 minutes downstream.
Enjoy Willow, but please be aware of the following issues:
8 years ago
Willow Creek is gauged in two places, and locals will refer to both. The older gauge mentioned in Fast and Cold is found near the Parks Highway Bridge. This is measured in feet. 7.0' on this gauge is low, 8.0' is medium, and 9.0' is high. A new USGS gauge was installed in 2002, and is found just below the Redgate put-in. It is a more accurate gauge, as it is above a few major tributaries. 200 cfs is about as low as anyone will want to run this stretch, 750cfs is a good fun flow, and 1500cfs is pumping.
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