By J.C. Thomas
It’s not at all difficult to imagine the joy of the two prospectors who followed a wisp of steam into an Alaskan valley and discovered Chena Hot Springs in 1905. Amid far-northern wilderness, rarely free of ice, it must have been a heavenly pleasure to soak their aching joints in water averaging 106 degrees Fahrenheit. The springs were certainly known as an oasis of warmth by untold generations of Native Alaskans prior to the gold rush, too. Today, the steaming mineral waters are the heart of Chena Hot Springs Resort, which grew over a century from a few log cabins to a remarkable four-season destination.
Chena Hot Springs Resort is 60 miles northeast of Fairbanks, Interior Alaska’s urban hub. The road connecting the city to the springs is maintained year-round by the state, so tourists from all over the world as well as day-tripping locals face minimal challenge in finding the once-elusive spot. The resort hosted my family during the peak of summer, when the sun barely sets and short sleeves are the norm. We happily learned you don’t need to face the hardships of our spring-soaking predecessors to feel like you’ve made a dazzling discovery there. No magic is lost in the well-planned, adventure-focused, often whimsical way the property is developed for today’s visitors.
First Impressions of Chena Hot Springs
The drive from Fairbanks to Chena Hot Springs takes about an hour and a half on a smoothly paved, mostly flat road that follows the course of the Chena River. The scenery is glorious: less dramatic than elsewhere in the interior, but in summertime lavish with greenery around meadows and beaver ponds, with shoulder-high grasses and wildflowers flanking the entire route. We saw our first moose not long into the drive, a gangly youngster lolloping along the roadside and causing great excitement inside our car.
The entrance to Chena Hot Springs Resort brings to mind forest summer camps as depicted in countless teen movies, with a log-pole gateway and chiseled lumber signage. Ample parking spots and other vacationers milling around remind you this is a popular resort with the ambiance of a wilderness retreat, and not a fictional setting for hijinx. The check-in desk shares a large, lofty building with the bar, restaurant and one of two gift stores. You’re greeted by an impressive display of taxidermy and Arctic curiosities, which serves as thematic decor as well as the chance to safely see some of Alaska’s most iconic beasts up close.
After checking in and dropping off our bags in our Moose Lodge guest room, we explored the resort, map in hand. The property is surrounded on all sides by forested wilderness, with Chena Hot Springs Road the only way in and out. This gives the place an incredible sense of serenity, balanced by a wide array of things to see and do. Along with the hot springs and indoor pool, the resort features a children’s playground overseen by an enormous iron dragon set beside a steaming stream. There’s a greenhouse where produce is grown year-round for the restaurant, an ice museum, horse corrals, and the 24-hour adventure center plus attached cafe and gift store. You might stroll over to the dog kennels and hear the huskies howl, or sit on a rock to throw pebbles into the river, as my children happily would for hours.
Be aware that this is bear country, although the noises of people keep most away. It’s not uncommon for moose, astonishingly large and seriously hazardous (should you mismanage an encounter) to wander through the resort. These creatures are an incredible sight, but call for common sense precautions.
The Hot Springs
From an ancient underground source, the hot springs pool at Chena Hot Springs Resort is constantly being replenished and drained with piping-hot, mineral-rich waters. The stream winding away from the pool looks mellow, but its flow actually replenishes two to three times the volume of the lake every day. The resort has arranged large boulders around the pool to contain and better manage its people-friendly conditions, but it still feels and looks organic. The vibe of a secret, secluded lagoon in the forest is renewed every time you ease back into the waters and take in uninterrupted views of the vast landscape.
The adults-only hot springs pool averages around chest-height, and a muscle-melting 106 degrees F. Slowly drift around the pool, in and out of the mini-coves created by boulders around the edges, and find pockets of noticeably cooler and hotter waters. You’ll naturally linger in one that suits your body’s own thermostat. There’s a hint of sulfur in the air, put there by tiny bubbles eternally rising from the ground, but you don’t notice it after a few minutes.
Next to the hot springs pool is an indoor heated pool for all ages, along with two hot tubs. These indoor options are filled with chlorinated geothermal water, whereas the hot springs pool is entirely natural. Also in the pool house are changing and showering facilities, along with a reception area where day-trippers can purchase pool passes. Most overnight guests have passes included with room rates. You can also arrange massages and other spa treatments in adjacent grass-roofed log cabins.
Seasonal and Year-Round Activities
Alaska’s climate extremes mean that a summertime visit looks quite different to a winter one. However, there are ample activities, tours and adventures available at Chena Hot Springs Resort at every time of year. All-season attractions include tours of the resort’s Geothermal Energy facility, scenic river float trips and the Aurora Ice Museum, billed as the world’s largest year-round ice environment. The Chena kennels are open year-round too, with tours to introduce you to the husky team and learn about their training. Dog cart rides are available over snow or dry ground, with sled-dog tours available in winter and shoulder seasons, weather depending. Other snowy adventures available to resort guests include snowmobile tours and ice-fishing trips. Summertime visitors can arrange ATV tours and horseback excursions.
Fairbanks is famous as one of the best places on Earth to see the northern lights, and Chena Hot Springs is even better in the absence of light pollution. The aurora is typically viewable from August through May, peaking over winter months with their nearly endless hours of darkness. The resort offers an aurora viewing tour, and guests often congregate inside the warmth of the 24-hour Visitor Center at night. They head out at the first glimpse of nature’s most miraculous light show. Imagine witnessing the aurora overhead as you soak in the hot springs!
My family stayed in one of 40 Moose Lodge guest rooms, which feature two queen beds, a full bathroom, TV, hair dryer and coffee maker. These rooms sleep up to four, with children 17 and under free with an adult. They also come with unlimited hot spring passes. The decor is cozy and inviting, with rustic touches like pine headboards. Most guests are unlikely to linger long in their rooms, given the enticing views of forested slopes and nature’s own hot tub awaiting outside.
Other lodging options include Fox Rooms, which are slightly smaller than Moose Lodge rooms and closer to the hot springs; and larger Bear Family Suites with two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a mini-fridge and microwave. Among the more rustic-leaning accommodations at Chena Hot Sprigns Resort are Alaskan-style dry cabins for two to eight guests, camping and RV sites, and Mongolian-style yurts.
The resort offers packages combining accommodations with tours and activities, round-trip transport from Fairbanks, meals and hot springs passes. Day-trip passes are available as well.
Dining at Chena Hot Springs Resort
The main restaurant at Chena Hot Springs Resort has two distinct areas: a pub-like area around the bar, with the walls entertainingly chockablock with taxidermy; and a more spacious and open family dining room. The menu is comprehensive and covers a range of cuisines, although hearty comfort-food classics are the specialty. Fresh, seasonal produce is unusually well represented, given the location, thanks to the resort’s remarkable greenhouse operation. A second dining option is the Aurora Cafe, which is attached to the Visitor Center. It offers specialty coffees, ice creams, hot soups, sandwiches, salads and a range of grab-and-go snacks.
Mile 56.5 Chena Hot Springs Road, Fairbanks, AK 99711
Want to read more about visiting Alaska? Check out “A First Timer’s Guide to Denali National Park“