Canwell Glacier and Rainbow Basin – Hiking Guide

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Rating: 5 out of 5.

Alaska GuideInterior Hiking

Popular ForHiking, Backpacking, Skiing, Snowshoeing, Mountaineering
DifficultyModerate to Very Difficult
Distance6 miles round-trip to as far as you want
Backcountry SkillsExtensive skills needed, especially in winter – avalanche preparedness, crevasse rescue skills, traveling in bear country, glacier travel, navigation
LocationMile 215.2 Richardson highway (Miller Creek)
Mile 214 Red Rock Canyon Road

The guidebook Delta Range: A Mountaineering Playground by Stan Justice is available in Fairbanks at Beaver Sports. It highlights many of the climbable peaks accessible by the Canwell Glacier.

map disclaimer

Overview

The Canwell Glacier is an approximately 10-mile long valley glacier on the south side of the Delta Mountains in the Eastern Alaska Range. It is reasonably easy to access the area, but there are no nearby amenities and only one “Jeep” trail through the south side of the valley. The weather changes quickly in this valley at all times of the year. It’s essential to be prepared for anything, even snow in the summer.

Summer Access

Via Miller Creek

Parking for Miller Creek is at mile 215.2 on the Richardson Highway. A 3-mile hike up Miller Creek (mile 215.2 Richardson Highway) gains the very rocky terminal moraine and the toe of the glacier. Depending on rain and melt conditions, the creek can be quite full at the terminus, making it challenging to get to the glacier toe. It’s typically easiest to hike up the north side of the glacier via a large moraine much higher than the surrounding debris cover.

Miller Creek viewed from the terminus of the Canwell Glacier
Looking over a very full Miller Creek from the terminus | Purchase Print
Hiker on the moraine of the Canwell Glacier
Hiking up the moraine

About another two miles up-glacier, it is often possible to get off the rock and on to the ice. There is no “trail” here, so route-finding skills are necessary. Dangerous ice cliffs border the rocky moraine and the south side of the glacier is challenging to navigate. There is one moraine on the north side that is higher than the rest of the glacier. This moraine is the most natural path to travel, but be aware that glacier landscapes can change significantly over a few years.

A small stream on the surface of the Canwell Glacier | Purchase Print

Via Red Rock Canyon Road/Trail – Access for Rainbow Basin

Look for a gravel road on the east side of the Richardson Highway near mile 214. It’s nice to have a vehicle with proper clearance and four-wheel drive. The road is very narrow, with only a few sections to pass another car. After winding through some alder and willow, you’ll come to a stream that is the most popular point to park. Trucks or SUVs with good suspension and very high clearance may be able to continue over the creek.

The road/trail continues for about 3 miles before coming to another large stream. After crossing this stream, there is a slightly more comfortable area to head down to the glacier on steep, loose talus. This is off-trail and can be very hazardous. Route finding becomes difficult once entering the lateral moraine.

Person trying to find a safe place to cross a stream near the Canwell Glacier
Hiker searching for the driest place to cross
stream forming a small canyon and ice wall on the Canwell Glacier
First encounter with ice in a small canyon

Heading uphill (south) at this crossing on either side of the stream brings you into the Rainbow Basin on the backside of Rainbow Ridge. It’s a beautiful area and can be good skiing in the winter (via Miller Creek Access, the road will not be driveable), but the avalanche risk is often very high. I do not recommend that anyone venture into this area in winter without significant avalanche awareness training and partners that have as well. Use the same approach as described in the Miller Creek access. The main glacier is not heavily crevassed at the lower reaches but becomes more-so higher up. It is imperative that you be familiar with winter glacier travel and crevasse rescue.

Peaks and glacier in the Rainbow Basin
Peaks and Glacier in the Rainbow Basin | Purchase Print
Back side of the mountains viewed from the Rainbow Basin near the Canwell Glacier
Looking at the back side of Rainbow Ridge from the Rainbow Basin | Purchase Print

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This guide is in its infancy, but will soon expand into many more territories. In the coming months, I expect to add Rainbow Ridge and Gulkana Glacier guides to this area. I’ll also be adding more information to this post on the Canwell Glacier.

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Blog Comments

I did the Great Canwell Glacier Stampede twice as a teenager and loved it each time. Love your photos!

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