Alaska Rivers
Where the Water Fun Starts!

Alaska rivers, streams, creeks, oceans and other waterways all have one thing in common. They are all extremely cold!

Most of the Alaska rivers start in the mountains and are formed from melting glaciers or snow. Even the springs that come up from the ground are quite cold - except for hot springs, of course.

You could say that our Alaskan lakes are a bit warmer because people swim in them all the time, but I used to turn blue after about 30 minutes in Spenard Lake, at Anchorage. And that was in the "mid-summer heat" of July or August.

Close-up Photo of an Alaskan Waterfall

My Alaska Creek Story:

To give you an example of the water temperatures of Alaska rivers and streams in summer:

My sister and I, at ages 6 and 7, used to wade across Rabbit Creek. It's on the south side of Anchorage. This is a very shallow creek - only about 5 or 6 inches deep in most places. But it is very swift and has very slippery rocks on the bottom. It is so cold it makes a pain run up your nerve channels when you put a foot or hand in the water. It was our drinking water, which was quite delicious. You definitely didn't need ice cubes!

We would roll up our jeans, take our tennis shoes off and wade across the width of about 10 to 12 feet. Having to move slowly and carefully because of the slippery rocks, by the time we got to the other side, the surface of our feet and legs were totally numb. But that's what kids do! After the thrill wore off, we left our tennis shoes on to wade through it, or walked across a fallen cottonwood tree that made a nice bridge.

In winter, we chopped a hole in the 3 to 5 inch ice layer that formed over the creek, to dip our drinking water. There was still about the same depth of water flowing beneath the ice - and we did NOT need ice cubes!

Now that you know THE MAJOR drawback of falling into an Alaska river, you should plan any trips on rafts, canoes, kayaks or other water travel, with your experience level in mind and the equipment you have available. OR, use a local Alaska Vacation Guide for such trips. There are guides that will take you on just about every major river in Alaska - and that's a lot!

LARGE ALASKA RIVERS - Usually quite swift, deep, murky and can have a dangerous undertow.

Here is some brief information on just a few of the major Alaska rivers. These are all quite deep and swift in many sections and therefore can be quite dangerous unless you know what you are doing:

Yukon River - by far the largest Alaska River - starts in Canada, runs up north of the Arctic Circle, then down through western Alaska, ending up in the Bering Sea which is on the western coast of Alaska. The total length of this river is 2,300 miles (3,700 km). It is a major means of transportation for many of the Alaskan Native villages which have no roads to them. Many of Alaska's other large rivers flow into the Yukon. River rafting is often done on the Yukon River near in eastern Alaska.

Tanana River Valley
Photo of Tanana River on Cloudy Day

Tanana River - is one of the famous Alaska Rivers simply because there is a betting lottery connected with the timing of its ice breaking up in the spring. Yes, even LARGE rivers in Alaska freeze over in the winter! This river starts near Northway, a town not too far from the Canadian border and is formed from two other rivers, the Nabesna and Chisana Rivers. A good portion of the Richardson Highway was built in the Tanana River Valley. The river runs on the south side of Fairbanks and goes westerly until it meets with the Nenana River at the town of Nenana on the Parks Highway. Then it runs northwest and eventually empties into the Yukon River. Total length of this river is about 570 miles (915 km).

Copper River - Another of the major Alaska Rivers. It is about 287 miles (462 km) long and starts at the Copper Glacier in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, then flows along the Tok Cutoff Highway before heading south. It is known for its major salmon runs. There are 13 large rivers that connect with it which also provide many great fishing opportunities. Additionally, it is a popular river for rafting because of it's many excellent camping spots as well its remoteness and fabulous scenery - two glaciers drop icebergs into it! Its final destination is the Gulf of Alaska (Pacific Ocean), just south of Cordova, but not an easy walking distance, I can assure you.

Kuskokwim River While Flying to McGrath
Photo of Kuskokwim River From the Air

Kuskokwim River A very long river (about 725 miles), running all the way from central Alaska to the southwest coast. It empties into a bay by the same name.


These waterways are all accessible from roadways. The rivers are usually smaller and clearer than the large rivers, and they can be assigned mostly to a particular region.

These are listed somewhat in the order you will find them, starting with the northernmost rivers in the region.

Eagles on Wide River Bank
Photo of Eagles on Riverbank

Alaska Rivers in the NORTHERN REGION:

Beaver Creek - This is a 180 mile (289.5 km) long National Wild River and it makes a beautiful and easy float trip for most of its length. This creek is part of the White Mountains National Recreation Area just north of Fairbanks and flows into the Yukon River in the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge. It can be reached by turning onto the US Creek Road at mile 57 of the Steese Highway. It is 7 miles (11.27 km) to Nome Creek Road. Turn left and go to the end of the road, to the Ophir Creek Campground. That creek runs into Beaver Creek. Currently, catch and release, recreational fishing only is allowed in these creeks.

Nome Creek - Nome Creek Road, mentioned above, runs along the length of Nome Creek. The first section of the creek, on the left fork of the road is a recreational gold panning area, all the way to its intersection with Moose Creek. There are campgrounds and trails on both ends of the road.

Chena River - This Alaska river flows right through the heart of Fairbanks and there are paddle-wheeler river boats that give guided tours on it (see Alaska Attractions). This river also starts in the White Mountains but flows west for about 100 miles (160km) before it connects with the Tanana River. Recreational fishing only is allowed. If you want to catch some fish for dinner, you'll find four ponds stocked with arctic grayling and rainbow trout along the Chena Hot Springs Road in the Chena River State Recreation Area.

Delta River - Runs to the north for 160 miles (256 km) and flows into the Tanana River at Big Delta, on the Alaska-Richardson Highway. It has numerous streams and lakes flowing into it.

Alaska rivers in the SOUTHCENTRAL REGION to Valdez:

Tonsina River - This is a Class III to IV whitewater rafting river, starting in the Chugach Mountains and ending where it flows into the Chitina River at the town of Chitina. The 35 mile (56.33 km) rafting trip starts at Mile 79 on the Richardson Highway and ends in Chitina.

Chitina River - Starts at the Logan Glacier in St. Elias Mountains and runs 120 miles (193 km) before it joins the Copper River at the town of Chitina. It has been popular for rafting and fishing.

East Prince William Sound - At Valdez, which is on a secluded arm of the Sound. You'll find endless opportunities viewing marine life and water birds of all kinds. Within its bays, you'll find some great areas to do kayaking or canoeing, and you can reach several State Marine Parks from this area.

Alaska rivers in the CENTRAL AND SOUTHCENTRAL REGION to Anchorage Area:

Nabesna River - starts in the Wrangell Mountains, this 75 mile (121 km) long Alaska river becomes part of the Tanana River, flowing to the north. This and almost all the other rivers in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park are great rivers for sport fishing.

Matanuska River From Glenn Highway
Photo of Matanuska River Valley in October

Matanuska River - starts at the Matanuska Glacier in the Chugach Mountains and is about 75 miles (121 km) long. It runs close to the Glenn Highway and empties into the north arm of Cook Inlet in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley.

Knik River - starts at the Knik Glacier in the Chugach Mountains and is a 25 mile (40 km) river. It empties into Knik Arm also, but to the east of the Matanuska River.

Photo of Knik River Delta at Knik Arm
Knik River Delta

Eagle River - Located about 14 miles north of Anchorage, it starts at Eagle Glacier Lake in the Chugach Mountains behind the town of Eagle River and flows into Knik Arm of Cook Inlet. This makes a nice, short rafting trip with mostly Class II rapids.

Bird Creek - in Chugach State Park. It comes straight down a mountainside and flows into Cook Inlet. It is about 18 miles south of Anchorage (from where Rabbit Creek Road and Seward Highway meet). You can fish from the pier over the creek, but needs to be done at high tide. There is paved access to the pier from the Seward Highway.

SAFETY TIP: Cook Inlet has the second highest tides in the world. When the tide goes out, it leaves large areas of "mud flats". These are almost pure clay. They look solid and you can walk on them. But if you jump up and down for a minute, the clay turns jelly-like. As kids, we used to do this near the shore by the Seward Highway, because it was fun.

However, if you plan on walking out into the water with wading boots for fishing in the Inlet, be very careful - do not stand in one place any length of time. The clay acts like quicksand and you might not be able to get back out. The suction is extremely strong. And definitely don't try to walk across it to reach the north end of the Kenai Peninsula. It's within walking distance but you wouldn't make it because you'd be sucked down into the clay before you could get across.

West Prince William Sound - at Whittier, which is on another secluded arm of the Sound, has several State Marine Parks near it. You can do some great kayaking or canoing here and also some great fishing. You'll find plenty of glacier ice surrounding the area also and see plenty of Alaskan sealife, which makes it a fascinating place to explore.

Alaska rivers on the On the KENAI PENINSULA:

Resurrection Bay - At the town of Seward on the east side of the Kenai Peninsula. This is a great place to do kayaking, canoeing or other boating to see numerous Alaskan sea life and shore birds. This is also where you would start out from, to visit or explore the glaciers and inlets of Kenai Fjords National Park. out of Resurrection Bay with a kayak or canoe though - it is too dangerous to go around the end of the peninsula to get to the fjords. Take a guided tour instead, or a water taxi to the fjords.

Kenai Salmon Fishing River
Photo of Salmon Going Upstream to Spawn

Kenai River - Is 82 miles (132 km) long. Starting near Cooper Landing, it runs along the Sterling Highway some distance. Then goes through Skilak Lake, continues to the west side of the peninsula, going by the town of Soldotna, then emptying into Cook Inlet, near the town of Kenai. Has some of the best salmon fishing available in Alaska. It's known for its trophy size salmon, rainbow trout and Dolly Varden. In the spring, beluga whales have been seen quite a ways upstream feeding on hooligan - which is an oily, but valuable fish.

Cook Inlet Oceanfront - From the town of Clam Gulch to Ninilchik just off the Sterling Highway. This is a very popular area for digging razor clams as it has a high concentration of them. People also harvest seaweed here and from the Homer Spit at the south end of the Sterling Highway.

Kachemak Bay - At the town of Homer on the West Side of the Kenai Peninsula. Being part of Cook Inlet, this bay has tides that have an average vertical distance of 15 feet (4.57 m) difference, with recorded differences of 28 feet (8.53 m). This is not a tame area, so use a guide or take a tour unless you really know what you are doing on the water. You'll find an abundance of Alaska marine life and waterfowl here, as well as land animals along the shore. The bay and surrounding wilderness is a State Park.

Alaska rivers in the WESTERN REGION:

Susitna River - starts at the Susitna Glacier in the Alaska Range and is 313 miles (504 km) long. It empties into the north arm of Cook Inlet, on the western side. It crosses under the Parks Highway about 62 miles (99.78 km) north of Wasilla, then runs on the west side of the Highway some miles. There is no other major road access to this river.

Talkeetna River - An 85 mile (137 km) long river. Is known to be a great river for whitewater rafting and there's also some great fishing. There is a rafting tour group that flies you to the upper part of the river and ends the trip in the town of Talkeetna.

ALASKA RIVERS and Other Waterways - NOT accessible from the highway system:

Nenana River - The river starts at the Nenana Glacier in the Alaska Range and flows west, then north, ending in the Tanana River. It runs along the eastern edge of Denali National Park and also along the Parks Highway for quite a distance. Rafters love this river because it is great for whitewater rafting and part of it forms the eastern boundary of the Denali National Park Total length is about 150 miles (241 km).

ALASKA RIVERS and Other Waterways - not accessible from the highway system:

Nushagak River in Southwestern Alaska
Photo of Nushagak River

Nushagak River - starts in the Alaska Range and flows 280 miles (450 km) to Nushagak Bay which is part of Bristol Bay in Southwestern Alaska, just east of the native village of Dillingham.

Swentna River - A 100 mile (160 km) river, which starts in the mountains on the west side of the Susitna Valley and flows easterly until it joins the Yentna River. There is a settlement and airstrip at Skwentna, which is where the two rivers join.

Yentna River - A 75 mile (121 km) long river but much wider than Skwentna River. It starts in the northwestern area of the Susitna Valley and flows past Skwentna. Eventually it joins the Susitna River which flows into the north arm of Cook Inlet.

And these are only a few of the better known or more accessible rivers and waterways in Alaska. There are more than 12,000 Alaska rivers and lots more creeks and streams that flow into them, plus the endless number of lakes. Alaska will never run out of water - there's just too much of it!

And then there's the FROZEN WATER - have you looked into the Alaskan Glaciers yet?

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