Alaska Day 4 – Chena Hot Springs
What Time is it in Fairbanks?
My friend Annette and I had been in Alaska for 3 days and had discovered that in Fairbanks in the winter there is only about 5 hours of daylight. The sun would begin it’s climb over the trees around 11:30 a.m. and then drop back down around 4:30. The sky remained in perpetual sunrise/sunset mode all day. For the first two hours the sun would rise over the horizon, colors expanding throughout the sky. Then as soon as it barely peeked over the trees, it would begin its descent, the pinks and oranges reappearing, the sun never reaching any height in the sky.
We woke in the dark and could smell the fresh chocolate chip cookies in the Pike’s Waterfront Lodge lobby. We shuffled down for breakfast. The young dark haired man behind the lobby counter called out to us.
“The shuttle will not be running again today due to all the snow, only trips to the grocery store and airport. If you had any outside tours scheduled, you might want to check if they are still running.”
I quickly went on my email to see if our dogsled ride we had booked would still be running on schedule.
“Why wouldn’t it be? It’s a dogsled…snow is what they do,” we reasoned.
“It’s cancelled.” I grimly informed Annette after seeing the new message in my inbox.
“Well now what?” Annette responded, sipping her coffee.
Our trip to the Arctic Circle had been cancelled the day before and we were able to wing it and find things to do via cab ride to town. We had already visited the places nearby that we wanted to see.
Weather in Fairbanks…Snow and More Snow
“How do you feel about driving in the Alaska snow? I asked, biting my toast.
We are from Chicago and driving in the snow is nothing new, but we had been hesitant to rent a car because we were unsure about mountain road conditions. We had learned on our second day in Fairbanks during a blizzard, that Alaska snow is different. It’s dry and not as slippery. They don’t salt Alaska roads either, they use sand and small gravel.
“It doesn’t seem that bad.” Annette responded, setting down her fork.
“I think we should do it.” I announced. “Let’s go to the hot springs.”
We smiled, did some happy maniacal laughing, grabbed a fresh cookie and headed back to our room to look into booking a car. We gathered up our swimsuits and towels and made our way back to the lobby, munching another warm cookie while we waited.
A short time later, the hotel shuttle dropped us off at the airport rental area. We paid the extra for a 4 wheel drive vehicle. They showed us how to hook up the engine heater at night and then we were off.
The Road to Chena Hot Springs Resort…
According to the GPS, it was an hour and 20 minute drive to Chena Hot Springs. We figured we would have time to drive out there, soak in the springs and get back before dinner.
The roads in town were not too bad which encouraged us to continue. Chena Hot Springs Road ran for 56 miles of 65 mile trip. It started off smooth sailing and we sang along to 80’s hits on the radio, happy with our decision.
A few miles into the trip, the amount of snow on the road gradually began to increase…and increase…and increase again. We lost GPS signal and were unsure how much further we had to go, but we knew the road took us all the way there.
Is This Even a Road?…Should We Be Driving Here?
“Are we even on the road?” I asked as the car plowed forward.
“I’m not sure,” Annette responded. “I’m just following the tree line.”
Annette clenched the steering wheel tightly and leaned forward, creeping ahead through deep ruts of snow. It had snowed about 17″ in the last few days and this road seemed like it still held about half of it. The road went on and on and our sunrise sky was starting to turn into sunset sky.
“Maybe we should turn around. I wonder how much further.” Annette offered.
“I don’t know,” I responded, gripping the side door in case of a spin out. “It seems like we should be there already.”
Chena Alaska Hot Springs…We Made It…
We had been driving about 3 hours when we finally began seeing signs for the Chena Hot Springs up ahead. Sighing with relief and trying not to think about the ride back, we pulled past a small airplane parked on the property. As we followed the road we could see billows of steam rising in the distance and a large igloo looking building made from blocks of ice.
We circled the parking area a number of times and all of the spots seemed to be taken. Finally we spied an open spot and headed towards it. It didn’t look entirely plowed and seemed to angle forward a little.
“We got a 4×4, no problem right?” I said.
“Looks good to me.” Annette agreed.
We grabbed our suits and followed the steam. There were small signs with arrows pointing the way to the springs. The sun had set and we trudged down several snow packed pathways in the dark and found the check in area.
The Moment We’ve all Been Waiting for…
There were several people in front of us in line. As we stood in the steam filled room, wearing all of our clothing layers, coat, hat, scarves and gloves from being out in the 2ﾟ weather, it immediately began to get uncomfortable. We tried taking a few things off. The room was warm and humid and we finally made our way to the front to check in.
We did a not so quick change, requiring several lockers to accommodate all of the boots, coats and hats. Finally suited up we were ready to soak.
Stepping out of the changing area, we made our way to an indoor pool that reminded me a little of high school gym class. We walked past that zone to make our way to the pièce de ré·sis·tance…the outdoor geothermal springs.
Brrrrrr…The Weather in Alaska is Perfect for Swimsuits
There was a long tunnel with a heated floor ramp and hooks for towels that led from the indoor pool area to outdoors. We shed our towels and flip flops and could immediately feel the intense cold.
“Oh Holy Moses!” I shivered.
“Woah momma!…Brrr!” Annette exclaimed.
The tunnel blocked the wind and kept our wet feet from freezing to the ground. It also had enough floor heat to prevent ice slicks. It did not make 2° not feel like 2° standing in our swimming suits. We speed walked towards the steaming water.
“Brr…brr…brr!” I proclaimed with every quick step.
The shallow water at the start of the pool was said to be 105°F. It was an intense shift, going down the ramp from 2°-105°, one deadly cold, the other somewhat scaldie. We opted for the warm and practically dove into the hot sulfery water.
“Brrrr…ow…brr…ow…” Hot and cold battled it out in my body.
“It’s not as boiling over here.” Annette called from the dark.
Relaxing in Alaska’s Chena Hot Springs
I water walked slowly towards her, my whole self engulfed in pleasant warmth. We floated around in the glowing lights, squinting at the grey sky, thick with clouds. We were hoping to glimpse an aurora sighting as we had not seen it yet. There were only a handful of soakers that evening. My tense muscles from the drive were unwinding.
We explored the spring area, noting a waterfall area and large piles of snow around the edges. After circling around for a while, I noticed a strange sensation near my neck under my ponytail.
“Hey, I think I have icicles in my hair!” I called out to Annette in the dark.
“Hahaha…me too.” We made our way towards each other and laughed at our icicle heads.
Despite the frosty edges to our hair, I was starting to feel lightheaded from the heat. I made my way to the ramp and climbed under the railing and onto the surface of a huge rock at the edge of the water. The spot where I sat was in the water but 90% of my body was above.
Steam poured off my arms and the cool air felt fantastic. But not for long… After about a minute, my overheated skin began to register the actual air temperature and the frost developing on me. I quickly submerged back into the steaming liquid.”
“Ahhhhh…!” I exclaimed. “I love this.”
“I’m boiling hot.” Annette sighed as she hoisted up to the rock to cool off.
We repeated the cycle several times over the next hour or two. We were warm and relaxed but getting hungry.
The Steam Trail and a Shapely Towel
We submerged up to our necks in the boiling hot area at the end of the ramp until we were warm enough for the trip through the tunnel. Then we got out quickly and raced for our towels, leaving a steam trail as we went.
We had taken several water breaks and tried out the different pool areas throughout the night. When I picked up my previously damp towel, it was stiff and looked as if it were still on the hook. I briefly wondered if it would shatter if I dropped it.
“My towel is frozen solid!” Annette shivered.
“Let’s get inside, my towel is a giant icicle!” I yelped, dashing for the door while feeling frost forming on my skin.
The attendant gave us dry, pliable towels which we gratefully wrapped around us. We dressed and had dinner in the restaurant on the property before the drive back.
Alaska Snow…Oh No…
We got back in the car and started it. When Annette put it in gear, the tires slid and spun and began burying us deep in the snow ruts. She put the car back in drive and did several cycles of drive, reverse, drive, reverse but we were stuck.
A kind-hearted couple must have witnessed the action and came over to help push us out of the spot. After shouting a multitude of thanks, we were back on the road…the long, dark snow covered road.
A Flasher on the Road…Driving in Alaska Snow
Gripping the steering wheel, Annette guided us slowly up the dark deeply grooved path, thick with snow. Almost an hour in, a large pickup truck zoomed up behind us flashing their lights. We slowed and pulled slightly to the side, sliding out of the tire grooves. Annette motioned them around but they remained behind us, flashing an even brighter roof beam.
“Those jerks can go around, I’m not going any faster.” Annette announced.
“No it’s not worth it.” I agreed.
The light flashing and tailgating went on for several tense miles until finally there was a pull off for a gas station and Annette pulled to the side. The truck raced past and we got back on the road.
By the time we got back to Pike’s Waterfront, it was nearly time for bed. With newfound car freedom in mind, I worked out an exciting plan for fun for the next day.
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