Red Rock Canyon
Summer Day Hikes
Distance: 8.6 miles round trip
Elevation gain: 2100 feet
Trail type: Hiking, 4-wheeling
Considerations: Access road requires moderately high clearance and is brushy
The area just north of Rainbow Ridge contains some of the most spectacular trails in all the Eastern Alaska Range. High jagged peaks, deep rugged canyons, glaciers great and small, flowery alpine meadows, and even a small lake are the highlights of what you’ll find here. The only possible downside, for those on foot, is that the entire hike here is on a wide 4-wheeler trail — a road, really. The country it accesses is well worth it.
From Delta, drive about 52.5 miles south on the Richardson Highway. After the bridge over Miller Creek, turn left onto a gravel road. The road is good quality 2 miles or so to the canyon itself. With a bit of ground clearance, you can continue driving the rocky road right through the canyon. This feature is a bit of an anomaly — a steep and spectacular canyon without any water flowing through it. It seems almost like something out of the desert southwest. You don’t have to worry about flash floods here though. The canyon was carved by the river exiting Canwell Glacier, back when the glacier was larger and the hydrology of the area totally different. The melt stream (Miller Creek) now exits the glacier at a lower elevation, to the north, leaving Red Rock Canyon dry and fascinatingly desolate. Most of the way through, you’ll encounter the canyon’s namesake rock outcrop, which is indeed very red. The road continues to deteriorate, including some sections where alders will scrape your paint job a bit, but vehicles with some clearance can make it back as far as a stream crossing a little over 4 miles from the highway.
The creek crossing at the beginning of the trail probably warrants bringing some rubber boots to stash on the far side, though in lower water conditions, rock hopping is possible. A smaller side trail continues straight after the creek crossing and leads to a small lake and a low pass underneath Rainbow Ridge. The wide and rocky main trail switchbacks steeply for a bit before levelling off on the crest of a lateral moraine of Castner Glacier. Views are great from here on out, and the trail is nearly level until a melt stream from a hanging glacier to the south is crossed. The area of this creek crossing is very bouldery and the trail tends to disappear, but it’s obvious on the far side, climbing steeply again. After switchbacking up the open mountainside, the trail reaches a shoulder of the mountain, with fantastic views of Canwell Glacier and the high, snowy peaks it drains out of. To the south, a steep ridge can be scrambled by sure footed folks, up to an even more spectacular view, including the hanging glaciers and ragged cliffs which make up the back side of Rainbow Ridge. Further wandering is possible in this wide open country, but much of the ground is comprised of loose post-glacial rubble which is very tiresome to walk on. Since this trail climbs to a high elevation, faces north, and receives a lot more snow than the mountains closer to Delta, it’s one of the last in the range to melt out in summer. Probably best to save this one for July and August.
Summer Off-Trail Hikes
Distance: 11.4 miles round trip to lower hut, 21 miles round trip to upper hut
Elevation gain: 2800 feet round trip to lower hut, 4000 feet round trip to upper hut
Trail type: Glacier travel
Considerations: A challenging trip for adventurous hikers only
Follow the directions for Red Rock Canyon. 2.5 miles out the trail, after the stream crossing, where the trail crosses another very bouldery streambed, head down onto the rubble covered glacier, after crossing the stream. This glacier crossing is on unstable material, and may require crossing melt streams running on top of the ice. It’s no fun. Heading mostly straight across the glacier, maybe slightly upstream, you’ll hit bare ice after .75 mile or so. This surface is much easier to travel on and is worth seeking out. To reach the lower hut, travel about 2 miles up glacier, including the crossing of a medial moraine, and then clamber up unstable slopes to the meadow where the hut is located, at 4200 feet, to the left of a stream.
The upper hut is located about 10.5 miles from the road, including 8 miles of glacier travel. It is located at 5400 feet, after the first significant glacier flowing in from the north, but before the very large branch of Canwell Glacier itself. There is likely to be seasonal snow cover up here late into the summer, which makes this into a mountaineering endeavor rather than hiking. I’ll reiterate, unless you’re walking on bare ice, it is NOT safe to hike up the glaciers. Even so, you’ll want some sort of traction on the ice. Micro Spikes such as Kahtoolas work well. Mountaineering crampons are another option.
Distance: 6 miles round trip
Elevation gain: 3000 feet
Trail type: Unmarked alpine route
Considerations: Some routefinding and easy scrambling required
Canwell Peak is likely the best non-technical summit scramble in the Delta region. The hike is almost entirely above tree and brush line, travels through beautiful flowery meadow country, past a spectacular canyon, and through a large alpine cirque before ascending to a narrow ridge with interesting rock formations leading to the craggy summit with wide views over the Delta River headwaters, Delta Mountains, and the Hayes Range in the distance. With views this wide and spectacular, this is a hike to save for a very nice day, preferably later in summer, when late lying snow in Rainbow Basin should be melted out.
From the end of the driveable road, cross the creek and hike up the jeep trail for about a half mile, up onto the Canwell Glacier moraine, until the brush to your right is replaced by a steep slope of low, alpine tundra. Climb up this slope (the rest of the way is off trail) and soon enough you’ll be treated to a wide open view of Rainbow Basin and the rest of the country you’ll be hiking through. Before continuing up into the basin, it’s worth a side trip to the right (southwest) to scramble out onto a prow of rock jutting into the canyon of Rainbow Creek. Back to the main route, hike up the tundra to the east of the creek until you’re directly across the valley from a minor pass in the north ridge of Canwell Peak. The creek also makes a 90 degree turn to the east here. Cross the creek, which is usually an easy rock hop and ascend the tundra slope until you reach the north ridge just above the small pass. From here, simply follow the spectacular ridge to the top, detouring briefly on rubbly slopes to the east around rock outcrops.
After enjoying the spectacular summit views, you can descend the same way you came easily enough, or try out “scree skiing,” right down the face into Rainbow Basin. This is a technique where you confidently plunge step down slopes of small, loose rocks, and can be a quick and energy saving way to lose elevation, though it’s a bit nerve racking at first. It’s best to seek out slopes of small, even sized rocks (generally golf ball sized or smaller) and avoid larger talus and boulders, as well as cliffs.
Distance: 8.6 miles round trip
Considerations: Late snowmelt
The area around Red Rock Canyon is another playground for both motorized and non-motorized recreation in an exceptionally beautiful location featuring spectacular canyons, alpine tundra, steep and snowy peaks, and the largest highway accessible glacier in the eastern Alaska Range. The trails in this area are mostly dry and gravelly, with a few relatively easy creek crossings and bouldery areas which will be slower going.
If you’ll be on some sort of ORV, it’s best to park and unload at the wide gravel area just before the canyon, a little over a mile from the highway. Be aware that this area tends to hold snow well into the summer, especially in the higher elevations. Most years, it’s best to save this one for July and August.
Long Winter Hikes
Distance: 2.5 miles round trip to beginning of canyon
Elevation Gain: Minimal
Trail Type: Snowshoeing, skiing, snowmachining
Considerations: Trail is usually well packed
Although the road through Red Rock Canyon isn’t plowed in winter, it is usually well packed down by snowmachine traffic and makes for an enjoyable outing on skis or snowshoes. Be aware that the canyon is prone to avalanches.
Although it should be safe to go to the viewpoint overlooking the beginning of the canyon in all but the very worst conditions, proceeding through the canyon requires some knowledge of avalanche safety in winter.