Alaska has awe-inspiring vistas and amazing archaeological formations that could not be enjoyed by tourists at large some 50 years ago. With time, science and entrepreneurial minds opportunities to experience what the ultimate frontier has to offer have appeared in a few locations, one of them being Chena Hot Springs (a top 10 hot spring in the US), 61 miles away from Fairbanks. During the visit I’d hopefully be able to see first-hand Aurora Borealis and enjoy a few of the Chena Hot Springs activities. A scenic one and a half hour drive from Fairbanks – where Moose are on the loose but I never got to see any– the hot springs and resort are a remote, enchanting retreat.
Immediately upon arrival at the Resort, we scheduled our planned tours. The tours must in theory be booked 72 hours in advance, but it’s not really necessary. We then joined a tour that explains where the geothermal energy the resort depends on comes from and how it’s used, an interesting- albeit scientific- explanation. Then, off we went wrapped in thick robes to soak in the bubbling, healing waters of the hot spring surrounded by decent views. I have to admit that visiting Chena Hot Springs in September won’t deliver the nicest views of the year as the sky is gray, there’s still no snow at the resort, and there’s little green. Enjoying the springs itself can be planned and arranged individually, but we would spend a night at the resort to take advantage of tours including the Aurora Viewing Snow Coach Tour, the Ice Museum, the ATV tour and the Dog Cart Ride.
After booking our tours we made our way to our room, with enough space for two people and maybe a family of four as long as the children are kids. The bathroom had plenty of hot water and without them being luxurious they have everything you might need when spending time in Alaska’a nature.
On the Lookout for the Northern Lights
There is so much to do at this location all year round and everyone and everything exudes the same message: welcome to our incredible piece of the earth. When the Northern Lights can be seen – usually in uncloudy conditions – they are visible from the entire Chena hot springs and resort area. The Snow Coach Tour allowed us to see the light show of the Aurora Borealis from a vantage point and is good fun. We got up to a hill with a former WWII tank, a bumpy but fun ride that ended right besides a Mongolian ger . Large enough for more than 20 people, there was soup, water, sodas and hot chocolate to eat and drink at any time during the four hours that are spent there; I cannot think of a more comfortable way of experiencing this. We weren’t luck though as the sky was completely covered by clouds and seeing the Auroras turned out to be impossible, despite September being one of the best months to do this. The picture below was taken that night, with a long exposure that allowed for the high aurora activity to filter through the clouds- we could not see it with our bare eyes.
Befriending With Alaskan Dogs
What could be more unique to Alaska than dog sleds? So much folklore has been built around the service of our “best friends” of the animal world. At the end of the ride, I was totally in awe of my trusty, speedy and beautiful bearers. On this little jaunt (as in short- the ride barely lasts 20 minutes), you fleetingly experience the wild and surrealistic nature of that great, solitary territory. The dogs at the Chena hot springs are older dogs that once raced the Iditarod and other long distance races, but have rated and are brought here to be take care of. Despite their age running is still in them, and love to be chosen to be part of the team. There was one dog who was not tied to the cart, but ran with the rest of them leading the group and barking to encourage them to go faster!
The Aurora Ice Museum
The nearby Aurora Ice Museum is a unique, breathtaking (albeit, cold; kept at a constant temperature of -7° Celsius/25° Fahrenheit) testimony of man’s great capacity to create beauty under any condition. I happily snuggled into an over sized parka offered at the entrance to help keep warm, and appreciated the work and effort that had been made when carving the statues. The optional “appletini” offered at the end was great fun too!
The Ice Museum boasts wondrous works by two resident ice sculptures, Steve and Heather Brice, who between them hold 23 world-champion titles in the World Ice Carving Championships held every year. Their sculptures are works of art, done with love and tenacity such as life-sized polar bears: and other animals. There is a far-out Northern Lights room that is bathed in a flow of multi-colored light from crystal chandeliers. The “outhouse” is sculpted in the coveted Alaska Diamond or Marble ice, a distinction which was lost on me: alas, all the ice looked the same.
After our tour, we went to the Museum’s very cool – coolest in the world – Aurora Ice Bar where we warmed ourselves by the unique ice fireplace; sitting on caribou fur-covered stools; sipping their signature drink, “appletini”.
Eating at the Chena Hot Springs Restaurant
As far as eating – the cold makes me hungry – is concerned, I was extremely pleased with the restaurant at the Chena Resort. The breakfast, lunch and dinner menus have a good variety of offerings and all the dishes were full of flavor. The portions are generous, the service is good, the restaurant itself has a very “Alaskan” decoration and the food is delicious. In fact I would go as far as saying that the food was one of the highlights of our stay- it was that good.
When reading all the online reviews and descriptions of the Chena Hot Springs I was initially doubting whether it could be a destination I could be interested in. It seemed to be somewhat of a winter Disneyland, very commercialized and crowded. Fortunately, I was wrong.
The resort isn’t big at all, is quite isolated ( it is literally at the end of the road) and has a very natural appeal to the visitor as nothing is paved and the buildings are made of wood. All the staff members are very friendly and enjoy what they do, which is then passed on to the guests.
Perhaps surprisingly the hot springs are what I found less appealing, again maybe because of the lack of snow, but I enjoyed the other tours which cost between 15-70 USD per adult. Topping the list is the Aurora viewing tour (hopefully the sky will be cleaner when you visit) and I thoroughly enjoyed the food at the restaurant.
Do I recommend visiting Chena Hot Springs in September (or anytime in the year)? If you want to enjoy several activities in one same destination (aurora viewing, riding ATVs, or simply are a fan of hot springs ) and plan on eating the food they offer then make sure you make your way and spend at least one night at the resort. If on the other hand you only want to watch auroras there are other options close to Fairbanks.
Chena Hot Springs Website: www.chenahotsprings.com
I was a guest of Chena Hot Springs, however all opinions, descriptions and pictures in this article are entirely my own, as always!