Ptarmigan Lake - Paradise Valley - Snow River

If you’re looking for big adventure on the Kenai Peninsula, here’s one for you, but you’ve gotta love bushwhacking.

Start at the Ptarmigan Lake trailhead at Mile 23 of the Seward Highway, roughly 6 miles south of Moose Pass. Follow the Ptarmigan Lake trail upstream along Ptarmigan Creek (which itself looks like a nice float but appeared to have a lot of wood). Continue past the end of Ptarmigan Lake where the trail peters out in a flooded forest. A tremendous gravel bar can be found on the south side of the creek and followed for several miles before you head back into heavy Alaska cactus.

The travel gradually improves as you gain elevation, aiming for the east side of Snow River Pass. Occasional flagging is seen, perhaps remnants of the once-and-future hut-to-hut system. Continue up and over Snow River Pass and drop down to the southwest end of Lower Paradise Lake. Inflate the boats to cross the lake and resume bushwhacking to the Snow River.

The Snow River is Class I, II, and III for the next ten miles as it passes through some spectacular country, with glaciers dropping down nearly to river level. The river also cuts through some incredible mini-gorges that look more intimidating than they are, although the swirlies and eddies are powerful enough.

As the river approaches the toe of Sheep Mtn, it makes a sweeping left turn and enters a very narrow gorge that is less than 10 feet wide. We packed up the boats here and portaged along an intermittent trail on the north side of the river. The trail is flagged but often only slightly better than bushwhacking. The trail skirts close enough to the gorge so that you can feel the vibration of a thunderous falls that looks to drop approximately 80 feet.

We rejoined the river near the 300 ft contour to float a few more mini-gorges before emerging into the broader valley leading to Kenai Lake. We took out at the Seward Highway bridge over the Snow River and finished the two-day, 40-mile route with a combination of running and hitching back to the trailhead. It makes for a nice loop involving roughly equal distances of floating and hiking, although the hiking takes up much more time than the boating.

A number of options seem possible, including coming into the Snow River via Grant Lake to hit the upper reaches of the Snow River.

If you really, I mean really love bushwhacking, then the Grant Lake option of this trip is for you. Park at the railroad bridge in Moose Pass and hike the 3.5 mi up to Grant Lake, fill your boats and paddle 5 mi to the end of the lake. We were lured to the river right side of the valley and schwacked at a 0.5mi/hour pace. Brutal. We eventually just went straight up into the talus and camped on a ridge. This actually turned out to be the best route. I would suggest just walking up the river for 1.5 mi and then climbing straight up through the brush to the ridge on river right. Then make a left descending traverse to the confluence of two streams at the 1,500 ft elevation contour. Head up the valley leading to the pass to Snow Glacier initially on climbers left and then trend slowly to the right. The hiking here will nearly make you forget about the brush. This section is open alpine tundra full of wildflowers, glacial polished bedrock, and crystal clear kettle ponds.

The top of the pass has a tremendous view of the Snow Glacier and Paradise Valley. Descend the tundra slopes to the toe of the glacier and put in where a subglacial river emanates from the snout. Very cool paddle here with a vertical ice wall on the left and vertical stagnate ice wall on the right. After a few miles of braided channel the river enters bedrock gorge number 1. This is a mandatory portage, we did it on the river left. There is an amazing bedrock rib near the end of the gorge that separates a tributary that enters from the left from the main river that is confined to a 6 ft wide straight channel. You can walk out this rib in total awe. The outburst floods keep the banks completely scoured and a lot of the portage is on bedrock.

After 1.5 miles of more braided channel you reach another canyon. We ran a portion of this and then pulled out in small eddys on river left. This is a new channel formed after the large meander that led towards Upper Paradise Lake was cut off. The lower half of this gorge is class 5.

Another mile of braided channel brings you to a third gorge that has a few class 3+ features that are runnable. After this gorge you have several miles of braided channel and the fun features described by Brad below. After the bushwhacking that we did, the pink flagged trail around the final gorge was really nice.

This route was a lot of work, but totally worth it. I would recommend sunny weather, because fighting that much steep brush in the rain would not be fun. We spent 2 nights out, started at 1pm the first day and then put in two 12-hour days.

Did the Grant Lake version of this trip over 3 days this weekend with an afternoon start on the first day. As Jeff mentions, it was still a lot of work but I did not encounter the same level of suffering that they did accessing the alpine from Grant Lake. I linked gravel bars on Grant Creek as far as possible until the canyon walls closed in…then climbed/contoured along the timbered knob on the south side of the river until able to drop back down on the upper gravel bars above the canyon. This isn’t exactly fast moving, but its just tight, mossy, spruce forest and a pretty benign shwack. Once back down along Grant creek, I turned right almost immediately to follow a gravel creek bed to the base of steep fern meadows. Aim for the ridge just right of the large glacial hanging valley. Less than a thousand feet of quad burning climbing from there and you are in the alpine. Contour North, cross the large hanging valley and continue contouring through the saddle to Snow Glacier. This is totally gorgeous alpine hiking…really comparable only to the Lakina traverse for me.

Definitely give yourself some time for the bedrock canyon portages that Jeff mentions. The first “mandatory” portage probably ate up about an hour. For the second gorge, I simply walked and sometimes floated the “old river channel” to avoid any of the class 5 portage. The 3rd gorge with the two class 3+ drops was pretty intimidating for being solo that far out in the backcountry. Think 1st canyon of six-mile. I was able to portage both of the tough drops at river level, but the 1st could be problematic at higher water levels than the 2600cfs or so that I had. The rest of the float was no more than class 3 until the the take-out at the base of sheep mtn.

The pink flagged trail was very tough to find at times, but really worth the effort. This route has apparently been used for a long time judging by the firm tread beat into the ground…but staying on it requires your best trail-sniffing attention. Pink flagging was faded and very intermittent in places. I meant to follow the trail all the way to its unknown starting point (which looks like it may be the AKRR Bridge) but finally lost the trail and bee-lined back to the river to finish rafting to Kenai Lake. Some day I’d like to go back and finish solving the mystery of this mythical Kenai peninsula trail.

Overall, this is a really worthy adventure. Hard work and completely gorgeous. Give yourself at least 3 days and save it for a sunny weekend. I would not do the trip JUST for the float, because the river generally seems either too easy (class 2+) or to hard (class 5+) to fit what most of us are looking for.

When the Snow River Hydroelectric project was proposed in Spring 2017 I knew I had to float it and experience this place that supposedly was to be submerged under several hundred feet of stagnation. Thankfully Chugach Electric pulled the plug on the project by May 2017, but this trip was still burning a hole in my to-do list.

Party of two departed from the Ptarmigan Creek on July 20, 2017. We camped up at Ptarmigan Lake for the night and paddled across to the East end of the lake the next morning; took about an hour heading into light wind. Feels like you’re in a fjord up there. From the East end of Ptarmigan Lake we followed Ptarmigan Creek to the east appx. 2 miles. Lots of wide open gravel bars along this section, plenty of criss-crossing swift braided channels though too.

Once Snow Pass was directly to our South we left Ptarmigan Creek and headed towards the pass. I very much wish we had chosen some other route besides following the valley bottom – the route to Snow Pass was some of the most intense bushwhacking we’ve encountered in Alaska. Traveling above or closer to tree line - on the East side, as Brad mentioned in this thread 9 years ago - might have been a better choice. Camped at a small lake atop the pass (which is still below tree line) our second night. Had a friendly beaver as our night watchman.

Once over the pass, we beelined towards lower Paradise Lake where we put boats in and floated out to the Snow River. It was a pleasant float with a few class III sections before arriving to the take out point for the portage around Snow River Falls. The narrow ~10 ft wide entrance to this gorge is unmistakeable, but just in case here’s the coordinates:

Take-out portage around Snow River Falls:

N 60° 18.105’
W 149° 15.054’

Here, we made a fatal mistake in taking out on river Left, rather than river Right - where the supposed pink-flagged trail was to be found. The canyon was too steep and fast to try and cross again, so back to bushwhacking it was. After much persistence we found an incredible “beach” campsite tucked away among the boulders besides the rapids and called it a night.

On our third day we continued the bushwhack, not knowing for sure if we were above or below the 80 ft falls we’d read about. We eventually came to a large tributary too swift to safely cross without backtracking far up a narrow side canyon; and just about felt the jungle closing in around our minds at that point. We did a 180 back up a steep canyon, gradually perceiving a roar much louder and deeper than the sound of the rapids we had grown to know so well. As we crested the hill, the froth of Snow River Falls unveiled before us; a million firehoses funneled through a 10 foot gap atop an 80 foot sheer drop. Sure were glad to have found it and to be below it. Here’s the coordinates for our falls-viewing spot, appx 500 m downstream from the falls::

Snow River Falls ~appx 500 m downstream:

N 60° 16.655
W 149° 16.856

From here it was an hour further bushwahck down to the end of the rapids, and a few hours float out to the bridge at Kenai Lake.

Summary: three days of bushwhacking and three hours floating. It was an amazing trip in an amazing place. Get back there and soak it up while you can, and tell the world about it.

Just did the Grant Lake version of this trip solo, 6/23-6/25, with a late afternoon start on the first day. Rdevries beta was spot on as far as avoiding really heinous brush.

Can’t recommend this trip enough, totally blown away by the Snow Glacier, Paradise Valley, and the river itself. Only downside was the smoke from the Swan Lake fire impaired some of the views.