Floating the Charley River

Rafters putting in at Three Fingers of the Charley River
Rafters putting in at 'Three Fingers,' the uppermost access, near the Charley River headwaters. In most years, this upper section is usually only floatable during early summer snow melt, before water levels drop for the remainder of the floating season.

NPS/Josh Spice

The Charley River originates in the Yukon-Tanana uplands and flows northward about 108 miles to the Yukon River. The river flows through three distinct topographic regions - open upland valley, entrenched river, and open floodplain - offering varied, sometimes spectacular scenery as well as unspoiled wilderness. The upland valleys drain a rugged mountain area where peaks over 6,000 feet are common. The river passes beneath high bluffs and cliffs where the majority of the rapids occur. When the river leaves the high bluff area, it enters the flat plain of the Yukon Valley where it slowly meanders to the Yukon River.

A stuck raft on the Charley River

NPS Photo


The Charley River is a cold, clear, intermediate free-flowing stream. Maximum stream flow occurs in late May and early June. The boating season usually begins in June, and there are generally sufficient flows to accommodate small boats through August. During periods of low water, it may be necessary to drag or portage a raft or kayak over shallow riffles and exposed rocks or gravel bars.
Low water boulder gardens on the upper Charley River

NPS Photo by Josh Spice

The Charley River flows from its headwaters at approximately 4,000 feet elevation to its confluence with the Yukon at about 700 feet. With an average gradient of 31 feet per mile, the upper two-thirds of the river can provide a challenging white water experience during high water. When water levels are lower, maneuvering becomes a constant necessity, and some rapids require scouting to determine the best channel. Most of the Charley is rated as class II (intermediate) water on the international scale of river difficulty, with limited areas rated as class III (more difficult). During periods of high water on the upper sections of the Charley, boaters can encounter class IV rapids. Extra caution should always be exercised during high water conditions. Inflatable rafts are recommended due to the difficulty maneuvering through boulder laden areas and because they are easily transported by air. Kayaks, open canoes, or other vessels are not recommended. Visitors are urged to evaluate their level of experience before considering vessels other than rafts.
A bent oar on the Charley River
All of the Charley's boulder gardens can take a toll on paddles and rafts.

NPS/Josh Spice

Visitors are urged to exercise caution when floating the rivers in the preserve. Variable weather conditions and water levels can create unexpected hazards. Water temperatures are consistently low, even in the summer, posing a severe hazard of hypothermia. Life jackets are a minimum safety precaution and should be worn at all times while on the water. Helmets are strongly recommended. Rivers are dynamic systems, and their routes may not always follow the course on river maps. It is important to be prepared for emergencies. Visitors must be safety conscious, well prepared, and self-sufficient. Although permits are not required for floating the Charley River, it is strongly recommended that visitors file a voluntary backcountry trip plan and a notification of trip completion. To file a backcountry trip plan, contact the Eagle visitor center (907) 547-2233.
Aerial photo of a channel change on the Charley River, looking downstream towards the Yukon River in the distance
Charley River channel diversion. Yukon River visible in background.

NPS Photo

Summer 2019 Observation Update

In 2018, downstream of Bonanza Creek at about river mile 15, the Charley River changed channels and took a shortcut where there was once a log jam. The main change from 2018 is what was once the main river channel is now nearly dried up (on image right), as shown in the following photos.
Close up aerial photo of the channel change in the Charley, looking upstream
Aerial view of the Charley River channel diversion, looking upriver.

NPS Photo

The Yukon-Charley Rivers Ranger Pilot who took these photos said, "Numerous sweepers, narrow channels, thin depth shelves make this seem very difficult to navigate with any boat with a motor, but a rafter could probably make it through one of the ways."
Boaters of all types should use extreme caution when navigating this section of the Charley River, as it poses numerous hazards. Where possible, go to shore and scout the route. Depending on water levels, it might be possible to line craft down river and through this new channel.
Hauling gear from an airplane drop-off

NPS Photo


There is no direct road access into the Charley River basin. The region surrounding the Charley River basin is accessible by the Taylor and Steese highways, which terminate at Eagle and Circle respectively. Access to the river is gained either by boat (running and lining up-river from the Yukon) or by aircraft. Fixed wing aircraft with short takeoff and landing capabilities can land on primitive, unmaintained gravel airstrips at Gelvin's, Three Fingers, or Joseph. The most popular landing site has historically been on an unmaintained gravel bar at Gelvin's Cabin, located in the upper portion of the Charley just above Copper Creek, which has been rehabilitated (the 2013 river break-up destroyed the airstrip, causing Gelvin's gravel bar to be unsafe for airplane landings from June 2013 - July 2017).
Read the News Release for more info.

Visitors beginning at Three Fingers or Joseph run a high risk of low water requiring portaging or dragging boats. If beginning your trip at Three Fingers Airstrip, extremely low water levels could add multiple days to your trip. The section between Three Fingers and Gelvin's Airstrip is very shallow and strewn with rocks; it is much more of a creek than a river.
Aerial view of Gelvin's Airstrip along the Charley River, from the east
Aerial view of Gelvin's Airstrip along the Charley River, from the east

NPS/Josh Spice



Most visitors to the Charley River charter a flight from Fairbanks, Circle, or Tok to the headwaters of the Charley, float downriver to the Yukon, and take out at Circle. Average float time from the headwaters of the Charley at Gelvin's airstrip to the Yukon River (75 miles) is six days. An additional two days are needed to float the Yukon River to Circle (70 miles). There are no rapids on this section of the Yukon.

The Charley River basin (designated as part of the National Wild and Scenic River system) is managed as a wilderness area. The 1.1 million acres encompassed by this region are representative of the undisturbed ecosystems of Interior Alaska. Peregrine falcons, sheep, caribou, moose, and bears may be encountered along the narrower sections of the river and should be respected. Visitors are encouraged to abide by minimum impact camping guidelines. Food and beverages, their containers and equipment used to cook and store food must be stored in a bear resistant container, or cached a minimum of 100 feet from camp and suspended at least 10 feet above the ground & 4 feet horizontally from the vertical support. The collection of artifacts is prohibited. Hunting and fishing are permitted by state and federal regulations with a valid license.

The Charley River area as shown on the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve map
Click to view a larger map


From Gelvin's airstrip to the Yukon River, the following 1:63,360 (one inch to one mile) maps are used: Eagle D5, and D6, and Charley River A4, A5, and B4. From the mouth of the Charley River to Circle, the following maps are used: Charley River B4, B5, B6, C6, and D6 and Circle C1 and D1. USGS maps can also be purchased at your local USGS office, the Fairbanks Alaska Public Lands Information Center (limited maps available), or online at https://store.usgs.gov.

Last updated: February 6, 2023

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