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One of Alaska’s most scenic drives skirts Rainbow Mountain near Paxson

This view is from the top of a small ridge in Red Rock Canyon looking east toward the Canwell Glacier. (Photo by John Schandelmeier)

Rainbow Mountain is 20 miles north of Paxson on the Richardson Highway. Rainbow Ridge parallels the Richardson Highway for about three miles, beginning at Mile 206. The mountain itself is about halfway along the ridge line and rises to 6,650 feet. The Richardson Highway is 4,000 feet below the summit. It is a steep climb, but for those in good shape and with a spirit of adventure, it is worth every step.

Rainbow Mountain was named for the multicolored talus slopes that decorate the highway side of the mountain. The loose scree makes for difficult climbing, but a well-planned climb can avoid most of it.

The loose slope makes for fast, easy descents for those familiar with such slopes. That is a good thing, because one does tend to spend too much time at the top. From the summit as well as most places on the ridge line, you can see the larger peaks that surround Canwell Glacier, on the northeast side of the peak.

Institute Peak and Minya Peak, both a thousand feet higher than Rainbow, are reachable along an east-running ridge line. It takes a fairly experienced climber to tackle those peaks. There are narrow ridges to traverse and ice to cross en route to the summits. It is more than a day trip.

There is more to do in this area than just climb the mountain. Rainbow Mountain’s geology dates back to the Paleozoic era, and it’s is home to two rock glaciers that are easily visible just above the highway. The glaciers, their cores made of ice-cemented debris, are slowly creeping down-slope toward the Richardson Highway.

Along the slopes of Rainbow Ridge, it is possible to find fossils from the late Paleozoic and early Mesozoic period. Ferns and fish skeletal fossils can be discovered on the north end of the ridge.

Not everything on the mountain is a fossil. Hoary marmots are abundant, and Dall sheep are visible most times of the year. The Isabel Pass area is windy, which is not great for people but wonderful for sheep. The middle slopes and several of the higher plateaus are commonly blown clean, making easy foraging for sheep. Steep, rocky slopes are a deterrent to the occasional wolf pack that roams through the area.

Moose find good cover and feed along Phelan Creek, which follows the Richardson Highway at the base of the mountain. The Nelchina caribou herd uses the area throughout the year. Grizzlies are rare but you may spot one digging pea vine on the river bars. Phelan Creek is glacial -- cold, fast and changeable on short notice. There are no fish, but I have found a few agates on the bars as well as pieces of limestone with fern fossils.

A trip to Rainbow would not be complete without a short drive into Red Rock Canyon. The entrance is just north of Rainbow proper at Mile 213. The four-mile drive through the canyon ends at the terminus of the Canwell Glacier.

A snowy road is the road that runs thru Red Rock Canyon near Canwell Glacier. This is about a mile in from the highway turnout. (Photo by John Schandelmeier)

The road is passable by car for the first mile or so, but a decent pickup is necessary beyond that. The canyon is narrow with extremely steep rock walls on both sides. Colorful rock slides spill from the Rainbow Mountain side of the canyon, and iron deposits color some areas brilliant orange. Sheep are common.

You can access the Canwell Glacier moraine from the end of Red Rock road. There's also an ATV trail leading back to the west that skirts the north end of Rainbow. Early in the season, care must be used in Red Rock and in the tight valley negotiated by the ATV trail due to the presence of avalanche chutes. The valley with the ATV trail is especially susceptible to slides because it is shielded from the sun for most of the day, which means it holds its snow quite late in the season.

If you want to plan a trip to the Rainbow area, be aware that early spring is not ideal. As of last week there was still several feet of snow on the ground at the Red Rock Canyon turnout, and very little of Rainbow Mountain itself was snow-free. Avalanche danger is quite high.

But soon the snow will be gone -- or at least manageable. Spring comes late in the mountains, but catches up to the rest of the world in a hurry. Wait until early June. The crowds will be headed to the Valley and the Kenai.

Break from the traffic and turn your rig east out of Palmer and head up Paxson way. If coming from the north, forget the busy Parks and take one of the most scenic drives in Alaska to Rainbow Mountain.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family in Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and a two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.

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