Trip Report for July 6, 2023 – Canwell Glacier Caves

Looking out a glacier cave under the Canwell Moraine. Blue glowing ice.

Thursday, July 6, I took a few of the kids and families down to the Canwell Glacier area to do some exploring for new glacier caves. One of the biggest and prettiest in the area collapsed last year, so I was hoping we could find and access some newer ones. I remembered a small cave that was right around the corner from the pretty one that I visited 2 years prior. It wasn’t very deep then, more of a large recess, but it had some beautiful ice texture and color.

We drove Red Rock Canyon Road and parked just before the first stream to cross on foot. The water was cold, and there was some grumbling from the kids. I have no idea why. These kids want to go swimming at Tanana Lakes the second the ice thaws and have no problem, but for some reason, the stream was too cold on their feet.

After a short hike, we turned off the road at the second bend on the steep hill to head down to the moraine. There is a social trail that kind of pops in and out of existence, but it can be hard to follow the whole way. It doesn’t matter much since the brush is thin enough to walk through without much trouble.

Changing out of sandals and into hiking boots after the crossing

The lower moraine of the Canwell is pretty desolate. It’s almost all debris-covered dead ice, no longer fully connected to the main glacier and no longer moving. It’s left-over ice that sits stationary and is slowly melting. The talus helps slow the melting ice while numerous streams still form caves and tunnels through the remaining ice. For many in the group, it was their first time hiking off-trail and on the unstable talus, so we weren’t breaking any speed records.

Entering the moraine
On top of the moraine
Descending to the channel

As soon as we were off the moraine, the cave came into view, and it was in great shape! There were no big flakes at risk of falling off, and since it’s more of just a large recess than an arch, it looks to be very stable.

Entrance to the cave

Even though it doesn’t look like much risk of anything big crashing down, there’s still a lot of gravel and rocks sliding off the top of the entrance. A few rocks would occasionally fall after melting out of the ceiling. We all wore helmets and ran through the entrance to enter and exit one at a time while someone watched the top from outside for sliding debris.

The ceiling at the entrance is probably about 30 feet high, but it constricts very quickly further in. It’s probably only about 30 feet back before you have to duck your head. But it is deeper than it was when I visited in 2021. There is no water running through this part of the system, but it is starting to melt out deeper and connect to the main water channel. We wandered a little ways back and could hear the water roaring, but we only had the lights on our phones (I always forget to bring a headlamp in summer in Alaska). It was a bit eerie.

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Near the back of the cave
Making hand imprints in the ice
Gorgeous texture in the ceiling
Exiting one at a time
Back to the talus

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We wandered up the glacier for a bit along the main water channel and did find some more caves and tunnels, but they all had a lot of water flowing through them or had numerous ice shelves that looked unstable and dangerous.

I did briefly wander in one myself to see if it would be worth it for the others, but ultimately decided the risk wasn’t worth the reward. Still, I was able to pull off a few large ice crystals from a melting block of ice on the ground (evidence that this wasn’t a very safe spot). I brought them to the group, and they were pretty captivated by them, which was awesome. Ice crystals in a glacier can get quite large under immense pressure and over long time periods. These crystals were a little over a golf ball in size, and some were clumped together into 3 or 4 crystals. The ice was incredibly clear and fascinatingly shaped. I’m kicking myself for not taking some photos of them.

Looking through one of the smaller caves
Looking out this smaller cave. The blocks of ice in the foreground had fallen from the ceiling probably a few days ago. Not a safe place to hang out for long, but that’s where I managed to pull out the ice crystals.
Leaving the caves and crossing “the beach”

We headed up to the northern moraine to see if we could get up to the ice tongue on the proper main trunk of the glacier, making a photo-op stop at the old broken-down snow machine.

Trying to get photos, and not tetanus
View from my highpoint on the trip

At about 4 pm, it was starting to spit rain a bit, and the group was getting tired. We decided to turn back a little over 2.5 miles in. The view to the south from this moraine is quite dramatic, where a few water channels weave through enormous sections of dead ice.

Blue ice seen through the talussed moraine
Hikers waking up steep talus on the Canwell Glacier
Last leg before climbing back up the hillside to the road.
Hikers crossing a stream along Red Rock Canyon Road
Crossing the stream back to the cars

In the end, we hiked just over five miles. But, five miles on that rough moraine feels like ten on the feet. It was an awesome trip that only saw a few scrapes and bruises. We made it out in time to stop at the Buffalo Center Drive-in for food and ice cream in Delta Junction. For more photos from the trip, check out my daily photo gallery here. For more info on the hike, find my hiking guide to the Canwell Glacier and Rainbow Basin here.

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