Rainbow Peak isn’t easy to conquer (unless you’re a badass runner), but it’s definitely worth the views. And if you’re in the mood for a short hike with similarly amazing views, the picnic area about halfway up is one of my favorite spots on the Turnagain. Since Rainbow Peak is in such a prime spot for the sun and wind, it’s one of the first hikes in Anchorage that’s accessible in spring since the snow melts quicker than other places. You’re also likely to see dall sheep, moose, and maybe even bears. I’ve heard of someone seeing a lynx here before but sadly I’ve never seen one.
- Difficulty: somewhat difficult
- Location: Anchorage (roughly 30 minutes from downtown), Alaska
- Kid Friendly: yes (to the first lookout)
- Dog Friendly: yes
- Distance: about 4 miles round-trip
- Elevation: 3500
- Season: spring, summer, fall
- Lat/Long: 61.018901, -149.666134
- Directions: If you have GPS look up “Rainbow Trailhead.” Take the Seward Highway (Alaska Highway 1) south of Anchorage. After about 6 miles past Potter Marsh at Milepost 109, you’ll see a little brown sign that says “Rainbow” with a hiker design. You’ll turn left onto an unmarked parking area and notice two trails. There’s one that leads to the right heading upwards and one to the left in a grassy area. Take the left path and follow the trail next to the stream.
Kevin and I were ready to tackle new hikes the second we moved to Anchorage. We weren’t in the best shape but we felt confident that we’d be able to get into shape as long as we hiked on our days off. But since we weren’t quite where we needed to be, we decided to ease into Rainbow Peak.
The first portion of the hike is covered in shade and follows a lovely stream. It continuously goes uphill the entire time but it’s fairly easy and fun. Zuko had a blast running up and down the trail with breaks to play in the water. At one point we crossed a private road and watched a moose run by before venturing on.
About halfway up the trail is an opening in the trees and a flat-ish area to sit down. To the right is a trail leading straight up scree towards the peak, so this is a great place to stop for a picnic while looking out over the ocean before tackling the peak itself.
We made it to the picnic spot a couple of times randomly throughout the year but only made it to the peak once. The day we decided to reach the top, we only packed a few small snacks and one water bottle. VERY BAD DECISION. We read reviews online that people go up and down in only four hours so we figured we’d be fine, but we weren’t… Over packing is always better than under packing. I wish we had been smarter.
So that day when we passed the picnic area, Zuko ran ahead up the scree while we grabbed at the trees and hoisted ourselves up. Not only did this steep portion take a while to climb, but it was also exposed to the sun. We were sweating like crazy by the time we reached the massive boulder at the top so we decided to take a long break. We drank all the water and ate all our snacks, but realized with dread that we still had a lot of terrain left to reach the top. We didn’t want to give up so we pressed on.
After a bit of walking, we noticed perfectly marked and worn trails going in a few different directions. We decided to take the one on the right because it seemed easier. But wow were we wrong. (And for the second time that day, I might add). The right side dropped down into a low gully with steep scree and piles of boulders. At one point the trail sort of ended and we had to scramble up some boulders to get back on track. Learn from us and take the left side that follows the slope upwards! It may seem steep, but it’s much better than the right side.
There was more scree along the path heading up the south face of the peak. This area has a lot of well-traveled trails as well, but they all seemed pretty scrambly. At this point I felt sharp pain in my head and stomach, and I was having a little trouble breathing normally. I couldn’t regain my strength no matter how many breaks we took on the way up. I felt nauseated and weak, which has never happened to me on a hike before.
The final assent to the peak was brutal for me. Kevin and Zuko were tired but doing fine, but they still stopped frequently for me to take as many breaks as I needed. Multiple people passed us on the way up. Most of them were trail runners but some were hikers like us. I felt ashamed that my body failed me and watched the people pass by with envy and embarrassment. I’m not THAT out of shape, am I?
Even though I felt like dying, I couldn’t help but admire the incredible views in every direction as we hiked up the ridgeline. Everything below looked tiny and we could see for miles. And at the top the views were even more breathtaking. While Kevin took in the moment I collapsed on a rock and curled into a fetal position, hoping that sheer will would make me feel better. I eventually felt well enough to pose for a few photos before watching in awe as the bore tide came in.
The top of the peak was very windy and cold, especially since the sun was getting lower in the horizon. Hiking back down wasn’t too bad, that is until we reached the massive hill of loose scree. This part wasn’t difficult to go down by any means, just annoying and slippery. We had to stop at the bottom to take off our shoes and dump all the rocks out. After that we followed the main trail (now that we knew which one it was) and reached the big boulder area once again. And just before we decided to head back down the scree in the trees, we spotted two grizzly bears on the other side of the large gully. We watched them for 30-45 minutes before venturing on. At this point we both needed food and water badly.
The final stretch of the hike was easy and relaxing after the peak, and I was slowly feeling my strength come back (though the nausea wasn’t going anywhere). All in all, the hike took us 7 hours total thanks to my multiple breaks on the way up. We later Googled my symptoms and concluded that I was slightly dehydrated and weak from my empty stomach. If I had eaten more calories and drank enough water we probably could have finished the hike in 4-5 hours. Or 1-2 hours if we jogged it like those trail runners haha…
All in all, Rainbow Peak is one hell of a hike. I don’t suggest reaching the peak if you’re new to hiking unless you plan for an entire day, but the picnic area is definitely fun and easy no matter how in shape you are. I think I’ll try to tackle this peak again if I’m near the Turnagain in the future, but this time I’ll prepare better.