Channelrhodopsins are used to optogenetically depolarize neurons. We engineered a variant of channelrhodopsin, denoted Re d- a ctivatable Ch annel r hodopsin (ReaChR), that is optimally excited with orange to red light (λ ~ 590 to 630 nm) and offers improved membrane trafficking, higher photocurrents, and faster kinetics compared with existing red-shifted channelrhodopsins. Red light is more weakly scattered by tissue and absorbed less by blood than the blue to green wavelengths required by other channelrhodopsin variants. ReaChR expressed in vibrissa motor cortex was used to drive spiking and vibrissa motion in awake mice when excited with red light through intact skull. Precise vibrissa movements were evoked by expressing ReaChR in the facial motor nucleus in the brainstem and illuminating with red light through the external auditory canal. Thus, ReaChR enables transcranial optical activation of neurons in deep brain structures without the need to surgically thin the skull, form a transcranial window, or implant optical fibers.