The alarm clock rang out loudly at 7:00 am sharp. I climbed out of bed and walked directly over to the window of my hotel room. As I pulled the curtains open, I looked across the street to the bank’s sizable digital sign. There it was, written in red LED lights, -26°F! (-33°C). Never in my life had I experienced temperatures that low. I wasn’t sure I was prepared to spend most of the day outdoors at the Chena Hot Springs Resort.
I had the next two hours to pack my bags, grab breakfast, and mentally prepare for the frigid temperatures before the shuttle arrived. Just before 9 o’clock, I met the driver in front of the hotel and settled in the back seat of the white Mercedes sprinter van.
Located 70 miles outside of Fairbanks, Alaska is the Chena Hot Springs Resort. This is where I would be cramming as many winter activities as possible into the next 18 hours. My full day at the resort included snowmobiling, dog sledding, a tour of the ice museum and ice bar, a dip in the natural hot springs. Finally, I would stay up through the night, staring up at the sky, hoping for a glimpse of the elusive northern lights.
After spending an hour and a half rolling down a bumpy road in a van so cold the windows had iced over, we finally arrived at the Chena Hot Springs Resort. The driver gave us a quick overview of the property as we pulled in. I dropped my bags at the front desk and a resort employee directed me to another building to check-in for my tours.
First up was the snowmobile tour. I walked from the main building over to the activity center to check-in. The activity center is where you meet to begin most activities the resort has to offer, except for dog sledding and the hot springs. Inside, there is the check-in area, a small shop and cafe, and a large seating area. You can rent items such as snowshoes and cross-country skis to explore the surrounding wilderness via a network of resort trails. The resort also has you covered if you don’t have appropriate boots, mittens, or even pants and parka. I borrowed some of the bulky, white, bunny boots and they were the warmest things I’ve ever had on my feet.
This tour only lasted 45 minutes, but given that we would be riding in sub-zero temperatures, the short ride was perfect. I suited up my bunny boots, mittens, helmet, and goggles. Four of us and our guide walked outside for a quick briefing on the snowmobiles and the tour. One other guest and I had some experience on snowmobiles, so our guide was super cool about letting us hang back some and then using a little extra throttle to catch up to the two other people on our tour.
We started out by following our guide through a nice, open area, enjoying the gorgeous snow-covered scenery and beautiful bluebird skies. Then, we worked our way toward the treeline and cruised through wooded trails as we worked our way up and over a small peak. I hung back behind the group before we started the climb up the hill. I was ready to get some speed in my life and charge up the incline as fast as the snowmobile would let me. However, it wasn’t quite the adrenaline rush I was hoping for. For safety reasons, the machines are designed to max out and a relatively low rate of speed. I can’t say precisely how fast they let you go, but it didn’t feel like I ever moved more than about 30-40mph.
The limited speed was a little disappointing at first. I soon understood the reasoning behind it, though. After we made our descent from the small peak and cruised our way through a relatively flat, open area, the girl in front of me lost control, trying to make a right turn, and flipped her machine over on its side. I hopped off my sled and rushed to help her. It was immediately apparent that she wasn’t hurt in any way (other than maybe a bruised ego.) Thankfully, several feet of fresh Alaskan snow cushioned her fall. The guide and I flipped the snowmachine right side up and were back on track in a matter of minutes.
As we rode our way back through the heart of the resort, I felt our ride was ending too soon. Luckily, our guide had one last surprise for us. We pulled out into the snow-covered airstrip and lined up side by side. A drag race! Even though the snowmachines regulated our top speed, the competitive juices were flowing. The four of us, plus our guide, raced several hundred yards down the straightaway. When we reached the end of the airstrip, we turned around and prepared for round two.
During the sprint back down the runway, I looked up to see a plane coming in for a landing head-on. We all pulled over to the side and watched the pilot put the plane’s skis smoothly down on the runway. I got the impression that the airstrip drag race probably wasn’t a regular practice at the Chena Hot Springs Resort. It was a great ending to the tour though, and I was certainly glad I got to participate. Afterward, I went back into the activity center to warm up before walking to the kennels for some dog sledding.
The dog kennels and visitors center is about a five-minute walk across the resort property from the activities center. I mentioned my hesitancy to involve animals in mass tourism in my recent post about visiting Rainbow Mountain. My approach to dog sledding was no different. It’s something I have given a lot of thought and even participated in once before in Finland.
Dog Mushing is the official sport of Alaska and is an integral part of the Alaskan way of life. People have used dog sleds for transportation since as far back as 1000 A.D. I was very happy to see that the dogs appeared to be very well taken care of. Their handlers seemed like they truly loved the animals and cared about their well-being. Each dog is limited to only two runs per day, preventing them from ever being overworked. When it’s time for a run, the dogs can barely contain their excitement. They seem to genuinely love what they do. When their mushing career is over, Chena Hot Springs Resort has an adoption program to help the pups find a loving home for them to enjoy retirement!
During my dog sledding experience in Finland, I actually drove the sled myself. It was a bit unnerving but also a whole lot of fun.Chena Hot Springs Resort doesn’t allow guests to drive the dog sleds. The dog sledding tours here are really just a ride in a traditional handmade sled. Visitors also get the chance to interact with the dogs before and after your ride. The ride takes you on a 1.5-mile loop that lasts around 15 minutes.
Keep your eyes peeled for wildlife.Our guide had a moose run right through his dog team the morning prior to our tour! No dogs, or people, were hurt, but I think it’s safe to say that heart rates were elevated all around! I didn’t see any moose on my tour, but it was interesting to learn about the dogs and their place within Alaskan history. We arrived back at the visitors center without incident. I thanked our guide and all the dogs for a smooth and enjoyable ride. Then, made my way back to the activities center to meet my group and tour the Aurora Ice Museum.
Situated halfway between the dog kennels and the main lodge is the Aurora Ice Museum. They keep the museum at a cool 30°F, making it accessible throughout the entire year. You must visit the museum with a guided tour offered by Chena Hot Springs Resort. Upon entry, the guide gives a brief overview of the museum and how it came to be.Afterward, you are free to explore the museum on your own.
Everything in the museum is made of ice. There are several impressive sculptures throughout the museum, including an interactive, ice-xylophone. Near the back of the museum, you’ll find two bedrooms completely carved from ice! The resort will even rent these ice suites for an overnight stay in the ice museum! If you are brave enough to give it a try, one night will set you back $600.00 USD per room.
The highlight of the Aurora Ice Museum is, without a doubt, the Ice Bar. The bar, the seats, and even the martini glasses are carved entirely from ice. Appletinis are available for $15. You really can’t visit the Ice Bar without trying one of their signature cocktails.
The well-poured appletini was a welcome relaxant after an afternoon of snowmobiling and dog sledding. It didn’t provide much warmth, though, and by this point, I was ready for some heat! What better way to warm up than in the resort’s natural hot springs? A pass to the hot springs was included with the package I purchased through the Chena Hot Springs Resort website.
These welcome waters hold a consistent temperature of 104-106°F (approximately 40°C) and are the perfect way to unwind after an action-packed day. To access the hot springs, you enter a small building about 100 yards from the main lodge. Here you can get towels and use the locker rooms to change and store your belongings. From the locker rooms, you walk past the indoor pool, out the exterior door, and down a covered corridor that leads out to the hot springs. Young children made up most of the pool crowd, as you must be 18 years old to enter the hot springs outside.
As I walked down the gently sloping ramp leading into the hot springs, the fears of frostbite quickly melted away with every step I took further into the springs. I took a quick dunk under the water. I came up thinking this felt better than being wrapped in a warm blanket, fresh out of the dryer. Heavy steam rose from the water into the crisp Alaskan air. At times, this makes it difficult to see more than a few feet in front of you. In an instant, my hair froze. Ice began to form on my head, beard, and even my eyelashes! It was so steamy, it was hard to get a clear photo.
I’m guessing here, but I would say the hot springs could probably hold 100 people comfortably. The bottom was soft and easy to walk on with bare feet. There are two fountains in the springs to keep the water circulating. Large boulders line the perimeter of the hot springs. Despite the extremely low outside temperatures, it’s easy to get hot while you’re in the water. Several boulders sit in such a way that makes it easy to climb onto them if you need to cool yourself down. After dark, colored lights dance around the hot springs adding to the fun atmosphere.
Unlike the hot springs at the Blue Lagoon in Iceland, facilities at the Chena Hot Springs Resort are not luxurious. The changing rooms and showers are cramped and fall in line with something you might see at a two or three-star hotel. The coin-operated lockers are small and not included with your day pass. This requires you to have or make exact change to use them. This is more of a no-frills affair. When you’ve spent all week battling sub-zero temperatures, though, the feeling of slipping into that steaming hot water is hard to beat.
Feeling completely relaxed and fully thawed out, I made my way back to the locker room to get ready for dinner. Located in the main lodge, the cozy restaurant has a cool rustic Alaskan cabin vibe. I grabbed a seat at the bar in the Trails End Lounge. The food was better than expected. Chena Hot Springs Resort proudly grows many of its ingredients in greenhouses right there at the resort. I was washing it all down with a frosty pint of local beer when a resort employee made an announcement.
“The northern lights are out and visible from just outside the main lodge!”
Along with a few dozen other people, I popped up from my seat and rushed outside. Not a single one of us was disappointed. The skies put on an absolute performance for the next 15 minutes or so. I stood out on the snowy airstrip in awe, staring at the sky as the lights danced in ribbons of different colors.
Overcome with excitement, I felt like I was floating back in the restaurant. This trip marked my third attempt at seeing the Northern Lights. My first two attempts in Iceland and Finland were unfortunately unsuccessful. The joy and satisfaction of finally seeing them were overwhelming. The best part was, this was only the beginning. I was about to head back to the activity center, yet again, to head out into the darkness for an all-night Northern Lights tour!
Stay tuned. I’ll detail my entire Northern Lights Tour experience in a new post next week!