Channelrhodopsins are light-activated ion channels that mediate cation permeation across cell membranes upon light absorption. Red-light-activated channelrhodopsins are of particular interest, because red light penetrates deeper into biological tissues and also enables dual-color experiments in combination with blue-light-activated optogenetic tools. Here we report the crystal structure of the most red-shifted channelrhodopsin from the algae Chlamydomonas noctigama, Chrimson, at 2.6 Å resolution. Chrimson resembles prokaryotic proton pumps in the retinal binding pocket, while sharing similarity with other channelrhodopsins in the ion-conducting pore. Concomitant mutation analysis identified the structural features that are responsible for Chrimson's red light sensitivity; namely, the protonation of the counterion for the retinal Schiff base, and the polar residue distribution and rigidity of the retinal binding pocket. Based on these mechanistic insights, we engineered ChrimsonSA, a mutant with a maximum activation wavelength red-shifted beyond 605 nm and accelerated closing kinetics.