Campbell Creek is a splashy, meandering Class I/II creek that originates in the Chugach Mountains and flows southeast through the urban center of Anchorage, Alaska. Most boaters will float some portion of the 8-mile section between the Piper St cul-de-sac and the Dimond Blvd bridge.
Floating Campbell Creek provides a boater with a fish’s-eye view of the lives of thousands of Anchorage residents. The creek passes under highways, through bustling neighborhoods and public parks, past restaurants and car dealerships. It flows behind aging apartment towers and ends at the edge of Campbell Lake, studded with mansions and private float plane hangers. On some of its wilder meanders the creek swings away from the roads and trails entirely and you could almost imagine yourself in the wilderness, if not for a stray telephone pole poking up among the trees and the faint roar of traffic. The Campbell Creek watershed can be both surprisingly wild and unmistakably urban. That glimmer underwater is equally likely to be a king salmon or a shopping cart.
As long as the water level is moderately good, Campbell Creek is a fun float. It is splashy and rocky, and maneuvering around half-fallen trees and shallows will keep you on your toes. And because boaters occasionally remove fallen trees, it may be the only creek of its type in the state that can be boated without repeatedly climbing out to avoid obstacles. But Campbell’s real charm comes not from its technical aspects but its ability to give boaters a new perspective on Anchorage: the good, the bad, the ugly, and the occasionally, kinda, almost sublime.
When to Float
Campbell Creek is ice-free roughly from early May to the first freeze-up in November or December. If in doubt, bike up or down the Campbell Creek bike path and scout the float to make sure the river is fully ice-free. Though cooler shoulder-season days can be quiet and calm, most people will enjoy floating Campbell on a hot, sunny summer afternoon, probably between June and August.
Water levels on Campbell fluctuate both with the seasons and with rainfall, and low water can make the creek difficult to run. The National Weather Service operates a gauge near the creek’s intersection with Dimond and publishes the data online. Note that the volume of water is represented as CFS (cubic feet per second) on the right axis and the scale is non-linear.
For the vast majority of the summer the creek runs at safe, moderate levels. Generally, the lowest water levels occur in mid to late summer during long periods with little to no rainfall. Snowmelt raises water levels in the spring through early summer, sometimes to flood levels. But the highest water levels occur during fall rainstorms. These rainstorms can drop a large volume of water in a short period of time, and urban landscapes like Anchorage’s are designed to shed water as quickly as possible. Severe flooding will cause the creek to flow erratically and pick up trees and downed wood, creating entrapment hazards. Never float a creek or river in flood.
Paddling the entire 8-mile stretch between Piper St. and Dimond generally takes about four to five hours at a moderate pace with a few breaks. If you have to stop to repair your boat or the river is too shallow to run well, it will take longer. Floating from late morning into the afternoon will often help you maximize direct sunlight.
Campbell Creek is open to any kind of non-motorized watercraft. Expect to regularly bottom out on sandbars, thump the bottom of your boat against submerged rocks, and scrape against trees on the riverbanks. Durable boats like recreational kayaks, whitewater kayaks and packrafts are probably ideal for successfully running the creek from top to bottom. Canoes will generally work well too, though they may occasionally be too long to navigate around tight bends or obstacles. Sit-on-top kayaks and stand-up paddleboards may work depending on the skill of the boater.
Every summer, hundreds of eager captains set off down Campbell in plastic innertubes and vinyl rafts from WalMart and the like. Generally, they won’t make it too far before these vessels are shredded by rocks or sweepers. By the end of every summer dozens of deflated rafts and tubes can be found caught in log jams and washed up on beaches along the creek. It is possible to run Campbell in a craft like this, but be prepared to make many field repairs.
Health and Safety
Campbell Creek is shallow, and at normal water levels an adult could stand up and walk out of it nearly everywhere. Typically, the only potential technical hazard on the creek comes from downed trees–sweepers, strainers and log jams. Boaters do occasionally clear downed trees, but conditions on the creek change too frequently to rely on this for your own safety. During some summers it’s possible to float the entire creek without getting out, while on others you may have to portage several times. Always be wary of log jams and strainers, which can force people or boats underwater and hold them. Even a small creek like Campbell can be surprisingly powerful.
The water quality in Campbell Creek isn’t very good. Don’t drink any of the water, and take a shower when you finish your float.
People and Animals
On a sunny summer weekend you’ll pass a cross-section of the city’s residents: children splashing in the water at Campbell Park, fishermen angling for salmon near Taku Lake, armadas of boozy fellow floaters on inner tubes, guitarists serenading girlfriends on one of the dozens of “secret beaches” along the way. People will often smile and wave at boaters, or stop on the bridges to take photos.
On a drizzly November afternoon you might have the creek to yourself and the wildlife. Campbell Creek’s animal residents include beavers, muskrats and many types of migratory birds. Moose are a common sight (including, occasionally, right in the creek), and should be given plenty of space in the spring when they have calves and in the fall during the rut. As the bear-proof trash cans up and down the greenbelt suggest, bears do move up and down the greenbelt but are very rarely seen.
Campbell Creek flows almost entirely through public land designated as the Campbell Creek Greenbelt, and passes numerous public parks, parking lots, and other access points. The paved Campbell Creek bike path winds through the greenbelt, crossing and recrossing the creek many times. At nearly any point during the float, you can easily make your way to the bike path and simply walk to the nearest public access. Between Lake Otis and the New Seward Highway there are two brief stretches during which there are homes and yards on both sides of the creek. Be respectful of private property and only cross it in an emergency.
For the vast majority of boaters, the highest reasonable access point for floating Campbell Creek is at the end of the Piper Street cul-de-sac, off of East Tudor Road. There is a small public parking area here on the street, adjacent to the Campbell Creek bike path and a small overlook for watching salmon. This point marks the confluence of North Fork and South Fork Campbell Creek where they flow out of the Campbell Tract. While it is possible to float the forks above Piper Street, most boaters will find the experience challenging and unpleasant. The forks are shallow, riddled with sweepers and strainers, and in places almost too tight to maneuver a boat at all.
There is a more well-established parking area just downstream of the Piper cul-de-sac at the intersection of Folker and East 46th, and a large parking area somewhat farther down at Campbell Park, at the intersection of Lake Otis and East 48th.
As many boaters with popped innertubes can relate, it’s easy to bail out of the Campbell Creek greenbelt at just about any point. There are dozens of side streets, cul-de-sacs, and small parks along the route that make for easy, legal takeout points.
The farthest takeout for most boaters is the public park off of Dimond, between Victor Road and Arlene Street. There is a large parking area here close to the creek, and it is easy to take out just before (or under) the Dimond bridge. Beyond the Dimond bridge the creek becomes flat and deep, and soon turns into Campbell Lake. Campbell Lake is (somewhat controversially) owned and managed by the Campbell Lake Owners HOA, which forbids public use of the lake. If you do enter the lake, stay relatively close to shore in order to avoid float plane traffic. There is no public access anywhere along the lake shore, and exiting the lake at the far end requires that you cross undeveloped private property.
If you only want to run the top two thirds of the creek, consider taking out at Taku Lake. To only run the top third, take out at the Peanut Farm or Arctic Roadrunner off of Old Seward and pop in for a burger and cold beer.
Other Resources and Trip Reports
- A Cultural and Historical Geography of Campbell Creek, by By Cherie Northon, Ph.D. A thorough and interesting history of Campbell Creek and its role in Anchorage (and Alaska) history.
- National Weather Service (NWS) river gauge at Dimond.