An Alaskan vacation brings to mind images of huge salmon, slow-moving glaciers, never ending mountain ranges, and – for those who’ve visited before – mosquitos the size of eagles. But about 60 miles out of Fairbanks, at the end of a winding road through the wilderness, is an oasis in the woods. Whether you want to soak in healing waters, mush a sled dog team, take a flight seeing tour or visit the world’s largest year-round ice environment, Chena Hot Springs offers it all.

A snow-covered cabin and trees surround a water hole at night at Chena hot springs near Fairbanks Alaska.
The Chena hot springs are a magical place from which to explore Alaska, whether there's summer or snow © Cavan Images / Getty Images

Chill in the Aurora Ice Museum

Chena Hot Springs is more than a wilderness hot spring, though that alone is worth the trip. It also has the world’s largest year-round ice environment – The Aurora Ice Museum. Housed in a giant igloo replica with an internal temperature of 24 degrees Fahrenheit, going inside requires a parka (loaners are available).

Purple and blue lights illuminate a large ice sculpture of a warrior on a horse in an indoor ice museum at Chena hot springs
Award-winning ice sculptures are on display year-round at the Aurora Ice Museum © Keri Ann Riley / Lonely Planet

Once inside, the lights are kept dim while colorful bulbs light up award-winning ice sculptures carved by a local couple. For a fee, the tour includes an appletini mixed in a glass carved entirely of ice, at a bar carved of ice, sitting on a stool that is – you guessed it ­– carved of ice. Tradition holds that, once empty, the ice glasses are smashed on the pavement out front while making a wish (They wouldn’t travel well in your luggage anyway).

The truly brave can reserve a night’s stay inside the ice hotel, and sleep on a slab of ice. Guides claim few remain all the way through the night, though.

Relax in the hot springs lake

With the delicious appletini sloshing around in your system, the soothing waters of the hot spring lake feel even more marvelous. Discovered by gold miners more than a century ago, the springs boast mineral content that heals more than just sore muscles. The outside pool averages 106 degrees and the indoor a comfortable 90, and people come from all over the globe to soak in the atmosphere as well as the steaming bath.

Two fountains spurt water in the late at Chena hot springs, with boulders and a small building around the perimeter
Water at the Chena hot springs lake must be cooled before it can be bathed in © Keri Ann Riley / Lonely Planet

Surrounded by boulders and flowering plants, you’ll feel as if you stumbled on an exotic natural pool, aside from the enclosed building and railing along one side. The pool can become crowded, but the experience is still worth it – just sit back, close your eyes, and drift into well-needed relaxation. The outdoor lake is only available for ages 18+ but the indoor pool is fun for all.

Winter nights under the northern lights

Basking under the summer midnight sun in soothing mineral waters is fantastic but a winter visit has its perks too, when the aurora borealis makes an appearance. The dancing lights of the aurora in varying shades of greens, reds and purple are stunning, whether for the first time or the fiftieth. Winter packages at Chena Hot Springs Resort range from day trips to weeklong photography excursions during times when the northern lights are most likely to appear.

Great bands of purple and green light swirl in the night sky with the dark shapes of trees below, near Chena hot springs in Alaska
The area around the Chena hot springs is one of the best places to see the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights © Cameron Davidson / Getty Images

The Chena resort is powered completely by its own geothermal plant, harnessing the power of the earth to create enough electricity to power the entire resort and even sell some back to the utility company. The resort offers a guided tour of the facility where an informed guide explains the whole process. There are also several greenhouses where the staff grows its own vegetables, which are served in the on-site restaurant.

High adventure for every taste

Chena Kennels has dog-yard visits and cart rides available in the summer. Loving and smooching on the dogs is not mandatory but highly recommended. With no snow on the ground during summer months, the dogs pull a cart. In the winter sled rides are a thrilling must-do, mushing along trails through the last frontier. Flight seeing up the Yukon River and ATV rides are also an option, as well as horseback rides along scenic mountain paths.

Small log cabins with wagon wheels framing the doors mark the manicured grounds of the Chena Hot Springs resort
Small but cozy cabins greet guests, and house services such as massages © Keri Ann Riley / Lonely Planet

After an active day of enjoying the outdoors and being spoiled by the staff, be sure to schedule one of several kinds of massages offered inside cozy rustic cabins where stressors and struggles are left behind. Finally, after exhaustion sets in, creekside cabins, yurts and a private campground are options for staying over, though reservations need to be booked in advance, especially during aurora borealis season.

Other options

For a more remote hot spring experience, there are a couple options in the Fairbanks area that take a little more creative effort to reach.

  • Manley Hot Springs is about 160 miles west of Fairbanks at the end of the Elliot Hwy. It was once a resort, but after it closed a local couple opened a greenhouse on their private land where visitors can sit among their fruit trees and grapevines and soak in the natural mineral spring pools. Reservations required.
  • Tolvana Hot Springs is for experienced backcountry explorers only, who can ski, hike, snow mobile or fly into Tolvana Hot Springs, an unmanned natural spring 45 air-miles northwest of Fairbanks. This is a completely bring-your-own trip with no services or emergency contacts. There are three cabins, each with their own outhouse. Reservations required.

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