Packrafting the Nenana Canyon near Denali National Park

The Nenana is half glacial, half rain/snow fed river that cuts North through the Alaska Range towards the Yukon and provides some of the best scenic and whitewater rafting trips for the interior population. There are many different floatable sections of the Nenana. This post covers the two sections with the most whitewater, I call them the middle and canyon stretches. These are big water rapids. It is very important to know the flow of the river. It can change by 10,000 CFS throughout the boating season, making for wildly different runs. Do not underestimate this river at higher water! With increasing flows comes bigger and more waves, stronger eddylines/boils, and pushier current. I recommend doing your first run of the canyon at 10.5ft/~8.7k CFS or lower on the NOAA gage. This is low-ish flow. A safety big raft would also be a good idea.

not all the rapids are named correctly. Kayakers and rafting companies have different names for them so please post below if you have heard other names

Middle Section
Put in: Denali Village, also known as Crabbie’s Crossing.
Take out: Glitter Gulch, where Kingfisher Creek enters the Nenana (~2.5 hours)

This section has lots of class 2 rapids, several stretches of scenic flat water, and three rapids in the class 3 range. It is a little more continuous than the canyon, less of a pool-drop nature especially for the major rapids. There is no real canyon in this section.

  • Yanert Falls is the first major rapid. You’ll know you’re near when you see the Intertie powerline crossing over the river. The main flow of the rapid has a right to left current. Riding this out will put you in some good waves. Farther left is cleaner, farther right throws you over a 4 foot rocky ledge that is fairly nasty at higher flows. There are holes and fast current after the rapid for a little while depending on flows.

  • Terror Corner is near the end of the run and really isn’t that terrifying. It comes after the confluence with Riley Creek on the left and is easily identifiable by a big cliff face on the right. The river wants to push you into this cliff, which has a few holes along the edge. As long as you stay off the cliff face you should be fine.

  • Heli Pad (I call it that) is the last rapid of this section which comes soon after Terror Corner. You’ll see the bridge near glitter gulch and an actual helicopter landing pad on river right. Running right along the rock face has some good waves and the occasional hole. Running far left (other side of gravel island) is a little cleaner. Watch out for bridge pylons!

Canyon Section
Put in: Glitter Gulch or Riley Creek if you want to run terror corner and heli pad.
Take out: Bridge at the end of Healy Spur road in Healy. (~2 hours)

This is an exciting big water run that is committing but not especially difficult at lower flows. It is a significant step up from the middle section in size and power. Solid eddy turns and the ability to wet reentry if you flip are a must to be successful on this section. It is mostly big waves trains and a few large holes to avoid. This section has more of a pool drop character than the middle section, but the speed of the river is continuous.

  • Razorback/Rooster Tail is the first major rapid. It comes 5-10 minutes after putting in. The rapid starts with a few lateral waves coming off of river right then turns into a big wave train with one large hole at the end in the middle of the river. Good recovery water afterword.

  • Ice Worm is around the corner next. It is the longest rapid in this section. Start middle-left and ride out the wave trains, avoiding holes. The end of the rapid snakes around a right hand bend.

  • Twin Rocks comes up next after some slack water. There are two giant rocks, the first on middle-left and the the other lower one on middle-right. At low flows far left or far right are the easiest lines. At higher flows threading the needle between the two rocks is fun too, but at low flows strong eddylines make it more difficult.

  • No Name Rapid comes next, and is mild navigating around some holes. Middle-left is the easiest line, far right is the most difficult/exciting.

  • Box Car comes up next after passing under the tall windy corner bridge. It is on a left hand bend with huge waves on the right. Cleanly run on left with a mild wavetrain at the end. This rapid is the most likely to flip 18 foot commercial rafts.

  • The Knife is next, where part of the canyon wall juts halfway into the river. Video makes it look mild but at higher flows this is one of the more difficult rapids for kayakers. Strong boils form that can easily flip a packraft if you get out of the passing flow in the middle.

  • Split Rock with a dagger-like rock on the middle-right comes after the Knife. Another rapid easily skirted on the left. The middle rock can (sometimes) be boofed and the far right slot can be run. The entrance to these lines is full of big waves and holes, and flipping here would be a big danger. Run this clean on the left and look at it before getting crazy with it.

  • Coffee Grinder is the final major rapid to end the canyon, and is certainly the most difficult at lower flows. You can see the railroad and the cliff that was blown to pieces on the left to know you’re coming near it. You have to pick between far left (easier) or far right (more exciting) at the entrance to the rapid as there is a gravel island in the middle (at low flows). At the end of the rapid is a constriction and lateral waves that must be punched.

I hope this helps those of you that have been looking at running the canyon in your packrafts!