Delta River - Paddling the Delta - Miles from Anywhere in Southcentral Alaska

The Delta River , a national wild and scenic river, runs through the Alaska Range in south central Alaska about 175 road miles southeast of Fairbanks. The watershed drains an area of about 150,000 acres with its network of 160 miles of streams and 21 lakes. The Tangle River flows through and connects several lakes in the Tangle Lakes system and then drains into the Delta River. The Delta then flows north through the Alaska Range and joins the Tanana River, which flows into the Yukon River.

The terrain around Tangle Lakes is predominantly tundra-covered rolling hills with glacial features such as moraines, eskers, and kettles. The land adjacent to the upper Delta River includes steep alluvial slopes and a few rock cliffs. Elevation at the Tangle Lakes is approximately 2,800 feet; the drainage falls 650 feet in 51 river miles for an average gradient of 12.7 feet/mile.

Delta at a Glance

Season: early June to mid-September, depending on ice breakup and precipitation.
Recommended craft: Canoe, kayak, or 12-14 foot raft.
Trip length: 29 miles, 2 to 3 days
Water: Class I, II and III; 22 miles of clear water, 7 miles of glacier water.
Potential hazards: Bears; sweepers; wrapped canoe fragments; cold, wet weather and high winds.
Access: put in: Tangle Lakes CG, MP 21 Denali Highway; take out: MP 212.5 Richardson Highway with 49 mile vehicle shuttle.
Portage: a 1/2 mile maintained trail around waterfalls and through steep, rocky terrain; trail is divided into two sections with a pond crossing after the first 1/4 mile.
Restrictions (voluntary) No aircraft on wild section; no powerboats greater than 15 hp in the scenic portion of the river corridor above the lower falls.
Maps: Mt. Hayes A-4, B-4, A-5, C4; Gulkana D-4
Supplies: Two commercial lodges are located on the Denali Highway near the Tangle Lakes. Another lodge is at Paxson. All provide food, gas and lodging. A public phone is at Paxson Lodge.

Upper Tangle Lakes Visitors wishing to explore the Upper Tangle Lakes should use the boat launch in the Tangle River Camp ground at Mile 22 of the Denali Highway. A one mile portage from one of the upper Tangle Lakes to Dickey Lake provides access to the floatable headwaters of the Gulkana River drainage. Dickey Lake drains into the Middle Fork of the Gulkana River. Floatplanes may land at Dickey Lake and the Tangle Lakes.

Lower Tangle Lakes to Black Rapids Access to the Tangle Lakes area is via the Denali Highway on 21 miles of paved road from Paxson or by 114 miles of gravel road from Cantwell. TheTangle Lakes Campground at Mile 21, Denali Highway has a boat launch as well as camping facilities. This boat launch provides access to the Lower Tangle Lakes, which then drain into the DeltaRiver. Floatplanes may land on the Tangle Lakes.If you begin your trip at Round Tangle Lake, follow the Tangle Lakes for nine miles to the Delta River. From this point, the river portion of the trip is 20 miles to the takeout point at MP 212.5 on the Richardson Highway.

The first nine miles of the trip goes through four of the Tangle Lakes which are all connected by shallow channels of moving water. During low water levels, lining canoes and rafts may be necessary for short distances through the lakes.

The Delta River flows north out of Lower Tangle. Lake through the Amphitheater Mountains into the foothills of the Alaska Range. The first 1 1/4 miles of river are shallow and rocky Class II water.

Following this first section there is a 1/2 mile portage around unnavigable waterfalls. The river portage takeout is marked with a sign on the right side of the river. Just below this portage is one mile of Class II rapids. Boaters must have whitewater experience to successfully float this section of shallow rocky rapids. The next 12 miles of river are slow meandering Class I water. At the confluence of the Eureka Creek with the Delta, the river changes to cold, silty glacier water. The last seven miles are braided, often shallow, with numerous channels and gravel bars. The water is swift and generally Class II.

Nearly everyone who floats the Delta takes out just below Phelan Creek at Mile 212.5 on the Richardson Highway. The exact take-out location varies from year to year due to changes in the river channel. Parking is available adjacent to the river and the take-out is marked with a large yellow sign. The vehicle shuttle from the Tangle Lakes launch point to the Richardson take-out is 49 miles.

Lower Delta River For the next 17 miles from the takeout to Black Rapids, the river becomes very swift with high standing waves and glacial silt. It is not recommended for open canoes and is rated at Class III.


Wildlife provides opportunities for sport hunting, trapping, wildlife photography, and wildlife viewing. Hunters seek moose, caribou, bear, Dall sheep, ptarmigan, waterfowl and snowshoe hare. Trappers concentrate on taking beaver, fox, wolf, marten, lynx, wolverine, otter, muskrat and mink. Encounters with grizzly bears occur but are uncommon.

Most of the 110 species of birds found in this area are summer residents found between May and September. Waterfowl are hunted on the Tangle Lakes in autumn and ptarmigan are hunted among the low hills and valleys of the area in late winter.


Tangle Lakes and the Delta River contain grayling, round whitefish, lake trout, burbot and longnose suckers. Most fishing is for grayling, but good lake trout fishing is available in late winter and early spring. Salmon are not found in the Delta due to the 15-foot high Delta River Falls and the heavy silt load entering from Eureka Creek.

There are approximately 200 recorded mining claims along the lower end of the Delta River. Please respect other's rights to use the public lands by avoiding private cabins and equipment that you may observe from the river. The Trans-Alaska Pipeline is visible from river mile 41 to the take-out on the Richardson Highway.


Vegetation includes various plant associations ranging from tundra plants to spruce-poplar forests. Grasses, sedges and herbs grow on the highest, most exposed slopes above the brushline. Willows grow on moist, lowland sites and in the many brushy draws draining the side slopes. Dwarf birch occupies the drier sites associated with well drained soils. Alder is found on the steep slopes of hillsides and canyon walls. Forests of white spruce and black spruce occur below an elevation of 3,200 feet in small pockets along the river and on some hillsides. Open spruce-poplar forests occupy lowland sites along the river and some midslopes of hillsides adjacent to the river. Understory plants are varied and abundant. Fireweed, bistort, rose, mountain-avens, burnet, and shrubby cinquefoil are just some of the many plants found in the area. Many people travel to Tangle Lakes to pick blueberries. Other berries found near the Delta River include crowberry, alpine bearberry, cranberry and red currant.


The river running season generally begins in early to mid-June, depending on ice breakup and precipitation. Average annual precipitation, measured in Paxson, is 9 inches of rain and 110 inches of snow. July is commonly the wettest month. During the summer, temperatures range from 35F to 70F with occasional highs in the 80's. However, be prepared for cold, wet weather at any time. By mid-September, the shorter days and colder temperatures bring the river recreation season to an end.


Native people may have long lived in this area. Approximately 460,000 acres in the Tangle Lakes area has been designated as the Tangle Lakes Archaeological District and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Hundreds of archaeological sites exist in this area. The first recorded use of the Delta River was as a route of exploration by the U.S. Army in 1898. A gold strike along Rainy Creek led to the establishment of the Eureka Mining District; as many as 250 men worked in the area between 1900 and 1910.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication



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