About as far up the Lillooet River valley as you can drive, Salal Creek starts in alpine near the border of the Coast and Chilcotin mountain ranges and plunges, ice cold, to the join Lillooet river flowing through the valley below. On a map, it's not clear if you can actually paddle any of it, and after reading a few reports from people hiking the Altheney Pass route, which follows the creek for much of it's length, it wasn't any clearer. According to one person I asked, it might be runnable but would be nearly constant whitewater from start to finish, with the river level a constantly hanging question. So, after too many hours staring at Google Earth, last weekend I decided to go check it out.
Getting to the start of the hike is a bit of an ordeal in itself, the trail starts a few kilometres up a spur off the Lillooet River FSR, about 45 kilometres from where the road starts just up from Pemberton. A high clearance 4WD vehicle is probably necessary.
From there, you follow flagging and a faint trail through a mix of bushwhacking and open forest down to the shores of Salal Creek proper, and then start making your way upriver following the creek and wandering into the woods when the water gets too high. Try to stay hikers right of the creek as much as you can, wear neoprene socks and be ready to get your feet wet (I lost track of how many times we had to ford different river channels). The KML file in this TR from backpacking Altheney Pass was pretty good for finding side trails up through the forest that minimized the nastiest bushwhacking.
After about 5 km you'll reach a point where the river channel narrows and you have to climb up through the woods on a steep traverse. During our trip there was snow and avalanche debris through a major section of this part of the hike, making the trail pretty tough to follow at times.
When you reach the river again, you'll be above a confluence of Salal Creek and a nameless side creek. From here up, the creek is exceptionally bony and shallow, with a number of impossible (or at least no-fun) to run sections. A few kilometres beyond that, there might be potential to run a section of the creek in the pass, but we decided against going any higher and set up camp for the night just up from the confluence of Salal and the nameless creek.
The next day we woke up, inflated out boats and walked down to put in below some dangerous looking wood in a particularly fast, shallow and rocky looking corner. From the moment we pushed off, the river was relentless. The first few kilometres are a mix of constant class II boogie water, pretty consistent rock dodging and a few small drops that might push up into class III territory. When we ran it, it seemed to be a pretty ideal level, deep enough to paddle and make moves, but not so pushy that it got overwhelming. Particularly fun is the section of river we had to hike up into the woods to get around at the end of the previous day.
Below this, the river braids out a bit more, with some shallow gravel bars where picking the right line can be the different between smooth sailing and a lot of butt scooting. The river keeps up it's fast, rocky personality and throws some wood and a headwall in for good measure through the new few kilometres. Eventually, Salal meets up with another creek and widens out with the look and feel of a proper class II river. From here it's only a few minutes back to the trail up to the parking area. Keep an eye out for two good eddies river left about 200-300 meters from where the trail heads back into the woods, if you miss or skip these, theres only one small, must make eddy on the left before the river heads down into the forest for it's final plunge towards the Lillooet (this section looks like it could be fun, but requires some more scouting).
Overall, Salal Creek is a pretty amazing packrafting mission with fun paddling, challenging hiking and beyond beautiful views. The river is somewhere in the class II+ to III range and seemed to be running at an ideal level when we ran it. Too much lower and a lot of the high section might not be runnable. Although, the lower section, below the put out, might be friendlier for an exploratory descent with a bit lower flow. If you're headed up, remember that the water is going to be very, very cold, that you're a long way from any semblance of rescue and that you're in prime grizzly habitat.