Originating at the foot of glaciers in a mountain pass, the Tlikakila is a braided glacial river located entirely within Lake Clark National Park. The Tlikakila River originates in the Chigmit Mountains (a sub-range of the Alaska and Aleutian Ranges) near Summit Lake of Lake Clark Pass and flows southwest approximately 50 miles into Lake Clark. This small but fast glacier-fed river follows the deep narrow valley of a major earth fault, surrounded by rugged snow-capped peaks, glaciers, waterfalls, and sheer rock cliffs. The river drops through a densely forested valley with thick underbrush then braids out across an expanse river valley.
December 2, 1980. The segment within Lake Clark National Park.
The most important historic value of the Tlikakila River is its proximity and access to Lake Clark Pass, which provided a pedestrian route through the Aleutian and Alaska Ranges, connecting the Upper Cook Inlet (Pacific Ocean) and Bristol Bay (Bering Sea) drainages. The Lake Clark and Cook Inlet Dena’ina traveled Lake Clark Pass (Qizhjeh Vena Tustes in Dena’ina) for trading purposes, probably during the late pre-historic period into the early 20th century. From the late 19th century until 1918, Dena’ina and American prospectors also used the Tlikakila River-Lake Clark Pass route for overland travel.
There are several known fish species in the Tlikakila corridor, including longnose suckers and ninespine sticklebacks in Otter Lake and sockeye salmon in the main river. Dolly Varden and slimy sculpin are also likely to be present. The Tlikakila River provides critical spawning habitat for Lake Clark sockeye salmon—about 20% of all Lake Clark sockeye are thought to spawn in the river.
The Tlikakila River features several exceptional geologic resources. The notable linear shape of the river valley is due to the Lake Clark/Castle Mountain fault zone, a northeast-trending zone where the earth’s crust is in flux. In general, the Tlikakila Valley is a youthful and dynamic geologic landscape, with features both regionally and nationally unique. Glaciers occupy approximately one-third of the Tlikakila River basin and have a direct impact on the river’s hydrology and geomorphic processes. Changes in flow, sediment delivery, and transport characteristics may occur in the Tlikakila River from accelerated glacial melt due to climate change.
The Tlikakila River offers exceptional recreation opportunities. Recreation activities include floating, camping, wildlife viewing, fishing, hiking, and photography. Visitors generally access the corridor via small planes, landing on Summit Lake and portaging to the first boatable reaches, or by landing on larger gravel bars downstream. Most continue to the river’s mouth in Lake Clark.
For most of its length, the river is a braided fast-flowing Class I river boatable in a canoe, kayak, raft, or pack raft. Although there is a short Class II/III reach downstream of the confluence with the North Fork at higher water levels, the trip generally requires little to moderate whitewater skill and is suitable for families. Most floaters take two to four days to float the entire river.
The corridor has no traces of human use or habitation, and natural geologic, hydrologic, and biologic processes are free from on-site modern human influence. The entire Tlikakila River system exists in a primitive and natural state. The Tlikakila River corridor has distinct scenic beauty. Flowing through a textbook U-shaped glacial valley, peaks rise to 5,000 and 6,000 feet on both sides, with many capped by visible hanging glaciers. Some side streams feature waterfalls over 100 feet tall or cataracts that rush through narrow rocky gorges.
Several typical wildlife species are present in the Tlikakila corridor, although the number and diversity is generally not exceptional for the region. One exceptional wildlife value is associated with impressive numbers of bears concentrated along the river to feed on late-spawning sockeye salmon in September and October. The fish provide an important resource for hyperphagic brown bears preparing to hibernate later in the year; these bears may be attracted to the area through December.
Other notable wildlife resources in the Tlikakila corridor include the whistling swans and Sandhill cranes that migrate over Lake Clark Pass and spring lambing among Dall’s sheep on the north side of the valley between Portage Lake and the North Fork.