Alaska Whitewater: Kayaking the Nenana River in Denali National Park

We did a lot of paddling on Alaska Whitewater on our trip up to and in Alaska. We had a blast pushing ourselves in Canada and paddling some of the most amazingly clear blue water I’ve ever seen.

Most of what we found in Alaska was class IV and up, and the water was nearly all glacial waters which is cool when you think about it. This is particularly true of the Nenana River in Denali National Park.

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Nenana River

Alaska Whitewater is famous for the Nenana River
We saw moost and sheep and eagles and more!

The Nenana River is located in Denali National Park. We paddled the Nenana River Gorge, 10 miles, of what should have been solid Class IV whitewater, in a steep-walled canyon. What we found was not the Class IV that we had come to expect of Alaska Whitewater. 

Reading up on the Nenana River Gorge, in a book, “Alaska Whitewater”, given to us by it’s Author, Tim Johnson, and getting beta from locals who both kayak and raft this stretch, we were stoked to get on the Nenana River. We were told we would see a ton of wild sheep and golden eagles, and it was awesome to get to see Denali National Park from such a unique perspective.

While Denali itself was as spectacular as we expected it to be, possibly even more so, the actual park was less than stellar. There were so many rules, so many restrictions, and so few animals due to the crowds, that it was nice to get to see wildlife in its natural habitat where most tourists don’t flock.

According to the beta we received, at the average 9000 CFS, the Nenana River Gorge should be a Class III/IV run. Johnson’s book informed us that it’s am Alaskan big water, fun playboat kind of run. Just what we needed after running Alaska Whitewter extreme creeks for weeks and months on end. The Nenana River sounded really fun and since we were in Denali, of all places, we decided to give it a go.

Where To Gain Access

Som eo fthe best Alaska Whitewater is the Nenana River!
Access to whitewater in Alaska is ridiculously easy.

Almost all Alaskan Whitewater has easy access. It’s literally the easiest, logistics wise, place we’ve ever paddled. We drove to a rest stop that doubled as a great place to camp as well as easy access to the Nenana River. So, all we had to do was wake up, eat breakfast, unload the boats, run shuttle and hit the water.

This is always a good scenario for our family because it always happens that something pulls us back and we get uber delayed in taking off on our run. We really love being able to camp where we expect to put in. Convenience is a good thing for everyone but for a large family it is particularly awesome.

We dropped the RV off at the take out and doubled back to the put in with the truck. While my dad and mom were off doing that we climbed onto the Jonesville Bridge and debated jumping off. We dropped a 60’ throw rope off the side and estimated that the bridge was about that high and the water below didn’t look deep enough for a safe jump. I was relieved when Brody, Kenny and Dally bailed on their plans to jump.

The rest of the time we spent waiting for my parents to return we just goofed off. Our friend Max tried to hit my brothers with his wet rope. It was pretty funny. Then we played flies up for about 20 minutes with the throw rope. Then we sat in our kayaks and talked about random things. Mostly like how cool it was to be in Alaska, in Denali National Park gearing up to run one of the most popular Alaska Whitewater Runs, the Nenana River, with our family and Max!

After about 45 minutes, the KelloggShow truck pulled into the parking lot. All of us quickly jumped up and got our gear on. I wasn’t sure what the river was like, but I was definitely ready and excited. We took a picture, said goodbye to Mom, Emmy, Elly and Coby.  Then carried our boats down to the eddy.

Gear: What You Need To Wear

Staying warm and dry in the Nenana River is as easy as Kokatat.
Having the best gear makes kayaking fun and safe.

Finally, we were in our boats, in the eddy, about to run the Nenana River in Denali National Park! How cool!

We were shocked at how absolutely freezing the water actually was. It was late September and the weather was finally starting to change in Alaska. You could feel summer coming to a close and fall coming in fast. We were told we lucked out in the fact that fall came uber late to Alaska!

Some of us tucked our Kokatat pogies, in the back of our boats, just in case we needed them, most of us knowing we would. And, in that moment, we were extremely thankful for the Kokatat dry suits and tops that promised to keep us warm and dry. We took a few more pictures before peeling out of the eddy and headed down stream toward the canyon.

The Rapids on the Nenana River

The best Whitewater in Alaska is the Nenana River.
Loving every bit of the Nenana River in Denali National Park.

The beginning of the river was just boogie Class II for a good mile or so. Then, the first rapid on the Nenana River came up: Ice Worm.  Ice Worm was my favorite rapid on the whole river. The minute we turned the first corner in the canyon we found ourselves going over big, huge roller waves and wave trains. It was like a rollercoaster and I was yelling “Whoo!” through the whole thing.

It was such a fun rapid. I really love big rollers. I cheered everytime I went over one. This rapid definitely reminded me of one on the Colorado River, at high water, in Glenwood Springs Colorado. Except bigger. And bigger is always better.

After Ice Worm, we had about a mile of Class II again. So we put our Kokatat pogies on, and threw cartwheels and practiced getting on our bows and sterns. Paddling with my family is never boring, we make every Class of water super fun.

The second rapid was Two Rocks. It had two big waves right down the middle of the Nenana River. The current ran into this big boulder, that is on river right. It’s easy to miss, but you have to hit a pourover hole. Not a big pourover at all. When we went down this rapid, we went far river left to catch a big eddy to set up to surf.

Dally, however, ran straight through the middle of the rapid. He surfed the second big wave. When he flushed he caught an eddy just below us.  We all spent some time here surfing and it was super fun. Definitely the biggest rapid on the Nenana River!

The next rapid, Cable Car, found us in the steep walled canyon. Apparently it was named such because it has train cars somewhere underwater. The beta is that it’s best not to swim here, so I assume that’s why it was a Class IV rapid.

There was a small hole on river right, just at the beginning of the rapid. The rest were little ripples. And, there was a big-ish hole, river left, at the end of the rapid, really easy to miss. Just stay right.

Moody Hole is the very next rapid. It’s just below the Moody Bridge. Beta we got said there was a body recirculating hole but we never saw it, despite looking for it and expecting it. Moody Hole is class three.

Further down river is Train Wreck, a Class four. Train Wreck has a old boxcar on river left. I missed it, though. Train Wreck starts off with a big wave and a fun big wave train behind. Good rollers. It was a fun rapid, though I’m trying to understand the Class ratings for the rivers in Alaska.  But, Train Wreck was my second favorite rapid.

Not long after Train Wreck comes Coffee Grinder. Class three. At 9,000 cfs, this rapid had a line of boils, swirlies and hard eddy lines. We stopped and played in the swirlies for a little while. It reminded me a little of our play time on the Kananaskis River in Canmore, Alberta. These were much smaller, but still pretty stinkin fun.

The End

The Nenana River is Alaska's best whitewater.
We had a blast paddling the Nenana River.

After Coffee Grinder we eddied out, and stretched our legs for a tiny bit. When we put back on the water, Kenny, Brody, Max, and Dally found a little cave-like thing. And they played under that for a bit.

At this point, we all were under the impression that we had gone only half way. But when we turned the next corner, about a mile down from the cave, my Dad was so confused and said we were done.

We all thought he was joking, but nope, sure enough we were done, already. It literally felt like we went six miles not ten. We eddied out, and got out of our boats. All I could think about, now that the run was over was hot chocolate or hot soup, hot anything.

Paddlng in Alaska was a really cool experience. Paddling in Denali National Park is something I will never forget. I’m so thankful that my parents do everything they can to ensure we have lots of opportunities to spend time together doing what we love.


Paddling the Nenana River in Denali National Park.

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