An Unforgettable Ride on the Nenana River

A wide stretch of the Nenana River outside Denali National Park in Alaska

Gorgeous scenery and rafting fun await with New Wave Adventures at Alaska’s Denali National Park

By J.C. Thomas

Imagine whitewater rafting down an ice-cold river in the wilderness of interior Alaska… are you excited or scared? Maybe both? All the best adventures start with at least a little trepidation – it’s a sign that you’re considering something totally new, something that promises to be unforgettable. New Wave Adventures, a family-owned rafting company based just outside the entrance to Denali National Park in Alaska, offers a range of trips down the dramatic and beautiful Nenana River. These include river runs best suited to daring types seeking the adrenaline rush of crashing waves and rocky passages, but also a much more leisurely scenic wave run, which traverses rapids ranked I to III over 11 scenic miles. It’s available for anyone aged 5 and older, a good indication of the approachability of this highly recommended trip.

Planning Your Denali Rafting Adventure

New Wave Adventures offers morning, afternoon and evening rafting trips on the Nenana River daily from May through September. There are two different 11-mile runs – the Wilderness Wave trip and Canyon Wave trip – and the combo Wave Train trip, which covers a full 22 miles. Further, each route presents the option to ride in an oar boat, operated entirely by a guide, or a paddle rafter, which involves active paddling along with the guide.

The gentlest, easiest trip is the Wilderness Wave trip in an oar boat, available for ages 5 and up. The route is rated class I to III, which means you can expect mostly smooth water with light riffles and gentle curves along with some irregular higher waves, rocks and narrow passages. New Wave Adventures recommends this trip for children, older adults, novices and anyone nervous about rafting. The paddle rafter version is for ages 15 and up. It involves some exertion and is recommended for more adventurous visitors. The Canyon Wave trip covers rapids rated II to IV. The oar boat version of this and the Wave Train combo trip are for ages 12 and up, while the paddle rafter version is for ages 15 and up. The shorter trips are both approximately 3.5 hours from start to finish, while the combo trip lasts about 5.5 hours.

New Wave Adventures has its HQ just outside the entrance to Denali National Park. All bookings include round-trip transportation to and from the river, and shuttles to and from some hotels in the vicinity are available as well. Bookings for 2022 are available now online and over the phone.

The log-cabin headquarters of New Wave Adventures, a rafting company at Denali National Park in Alaska

Getting Ready for Rafting

On the day of your rafting adventure, it’s important to wear appropriate clothing. You’ll be provided a dry suit, a baggy spacesuit-like getup that covers everything from chin to toe. Underneath, wear comfortable, non-cotton long pants, long sleeved shirt or sweatshirt, and two pairs of non-cotton socks. The dry suits, as promised, keep you completely dry and relatively warm with only your hands and face exposed. However, the Nenana River is just a few degrees above freezing in summer, which makes the air pretty chilly too. It’s a good idea to bring a warm hat and gloves, but they’re not essential.

After checking in at New Wave Adventures’ HQ, you go back to a staging area to prepare for the rafting adventure. One long trellis wall is curiously stuffed with old, beaten-up, soggy-looking sneakers. Everyone needs to select a pair one size larger than their usual shoe size – these go over the bootie parts of the dry suits, and protect the suits from the abrasively silty river water. Next, pay careful attention to the instructions for donning the dry suit. These are some impressively engineered, state-of-the-art pieces of kit and must be put on properly, with each limb, gasket and zipper tackled in the correct order. Otherwise, you risk damaging the suit or potentially letting water in, which is a safety concern as well as comfort issue. So, follow the instructions and ask for help, if needed. Once it’s on, the dry suit feels odd but comfortable. Next up is a personal flotation device (PFD), which a team member will double-check for a safe, correct fit. All these items are available in a wide range of sizes.

You can’t bring any possessions, including phones and cameras, on the raft, so prepare to leave valuables in the secure box at the HQ. A professional photographer captures every trip so you have the option buy photo packages afterwards. Your group and guides, suited up and ready for action, load up in a minivan and drive to the put-in site on the Nenana River, just a few miles along the Parks Highway at Denali Park Village. Here, you’ll get a very thorough safety briefing including the procedures for every imaginable situation. New Wave Adventures’ team of guides have a combined 50-plus years rafting in Alaska, and have all completed intensive whitewater rescue training. You’re in good hands, but should listen closely to the experts throughout the experience. This ensures you feel excitement rather than nerves and enjoy the adventure to the fullest.

The Nenana River Rafting Experience

This past summer, my son and I went on the Wilderness Wave trip in an oar boat captained by the lovely and highly experienced guide, Allie Kat. Full of knowledge about the river and the natural treasures of Denali, Allie Kat was equal parts serene and serious. While the stretch of river we floated down was relatively mild in the whitewater rankings, it takes considerable strength, agility and a certain prowess to row a 16-foot raft full of mostly idle tourists. Hazards, mostly invisible to our non-expert eyes, included underwater rocks and shallow gravelly spots, so plying the raft down the right path is key. We also learned that the speed, volume and protruding obstacles from the river bed can change dramatically from day to day. But, all the passengers had to do was sit on the inflatable sausage-like seats and hold on tight to a strap. It also helped to rock and sway with the movement of the raft, which started feeling natural within a few minutes of floating.

The Nenana River defines the eastern edge of Denali National Park and in this region runs parallel to the Parks Highway. It flows 140 miles from its source, the Nenana Glacier, to the river’s confluence with the Yukon River. This part of Alaska is wild and rugged, with mountains and complex networks of mighty, ever-shifting rivers unlike any in the Lower 48. Several smaller tributaries met the Nenana along our course, merging like freeway on-ramps. I wouldn’t have noticed, but Allie Kat pointed out the subtle differences in color between the meeting waters: the pure, crisp blue of one with a nearby glacial source, another with the ruddy ochre of churned up silt.

The scenery of the river canyon is spectacular, even to passengers whose standards have already been raised by days amid the high-drama landscapes of Denali. There’s no other gateway to these views than the river. Crane your neck to possibly spy Dall’s sheep, dot-like as they’re so high up on almost-sheer cliffs. These walls of rock are ancient and intriguing, with each striation representing eons of geological action. Other sections of the river banks have a more gentle slope, covered with dense evergreen forest or sparse, spindly shrubs depending on the amount of sun or shade permitted by their angle.

While the river runs parallel to Denali’s major highway, and this stretch of the Nenana River is one of Alaska’s most popular rafting destinations, it’s an astoundingly peaceful place. We spotted few other people, all out of hearing distance, and only the occasional sign of human activity. The sensation of being on this almost-freezing, swift-moving river was one of pleasurable newness. It’s enlivening to sense the warm, dry comfort inside the remarkably effective dry suit at the same time as feeling the chill of the air and occasional shockingly cold splash of river water. Alaska’s fickle summer weather had us experiencing this in a drizzly haze for only a short time before the grey clouds shifted and allowed the sun to try its best.

Stepping back onto dry land, which first involves stepping off the raft and directly into the water, is a weird sensation too. After hours with your feet sloshing around in the watery raft bed, you’ll be convinced of a small leak somewhere in your suit. Yet when you carefully extract yourself, your socks are as dry as they were before you were anywhere near the river, as are your clothes.

The memories are awesome, which is certainly the goal of any great vacation. If you’re venturing up to Alaska next summer, be sure check out New Wave Adventures.


New Wave Adventures

Denali Outpost Mile 239 Parks Hwy, Denali, Alaska 99755


Want to read more about Alaska? Check our First Timer’s Guide to Denali National Park

Disclaimer: California News Press and its contributors received goods, services and/or other professional courtesies to facilitate this review. All opinions are those of the author.  

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.