Chena Hot Springs, Alaska

RIP Hot Water…You Will be Mist

Our Visit

From Fairbanks it is only a short hour drive. The smooth roads take you out scenic curves with a ton of recreational areas and trailheads along the way. As you parallel the White Mountains, the road eventually dead ends, and there we were, Chena Hot Springs Resort! Overall, we found this place to be extremely interesting, although we were only there for a day. I think a well planned trip and 2-3 days there would be ideal…but then again, I am not much of a planner!

History of Chena Hot Springs

Chena Hot Springs Resort celebrated its 100 year anniversary on August 5, 2005. It was discovered on August 5, 1905 by two gold mining brothers Robert and Thomas Swan who learned that a U.S. Geological Survey crew, in 1904, had seen steam rising from a valley somewhere on the upper Chena River. The surveyors concluded that it had to be from a hot springs but did not investigate further.

In the summer of 1905, Robert Swan, looking for a place where he could ease the pain of rheumatism, set out in a boat loaded with supplies with his brother Thomas, in search of the hot springs.

Over one month after leaving Fairbanks they arrived at the North Fork of the Chena and traveled up that tributary to the mouth of Monument Creek. They ascended Monument Creek a short way, and found the hot springs on Aug. 5, 1905.

By 1911, the property boasted a stable, bathhouse, and twelve small cabins for visitors. The resort was on its way to becoming one of the premier resorts of Interior Alaska and a favorite getaway spot for world-weary residents of Fairbanks. 

As the fame of the hot springs spread, Alaska’s delegate to Congress, Judge James Wickersham, asked the Department of Agriculture to analyze the waters. The bureau of Chemistry analyzed three pints and concluded that the water was different from any American hot springs previously examined.

The principal characteristics of the Chena Hot Springs waters consisted of its content of sulfate, chloride, and bicarbonate of sodium. In fact, it was very similar to the waters of a famous hot springs in Bohemia.

HEALING WATERS

People have been going to hot springs for centuries; some in search of the eternal fountain of youth and others searching for cures for whatever ails them. The healing water of Chena Hot Springs has been compared to mineral waters found in hot springs in the Czech Republic formerly known as Bohemia.

The water is composed of a variety of different, identified minerals. Many people believe that by bathing in the water, skin conditions such as psoriasis, muscular pains, and arthritis may be relieved. The water may be beneficial for some circulatory disorders and attract lots of people with bronchial disorders who claim the combination of steam and minerals provides breathing relief.

Chena’s recorded history dates to the early 1900’s but there is evidence indigenous people used the water as well. The water boasts usage by people throughout Alaska, the Lower 48 and International visitors and dignitaries from every corner of the globe. The waters are timeless but the resort began when weary gold miners discovered that soaking in the “oh-so-warm” waters helped their aching bodies.

Why does the hot water smell funny?

While the water is stored underground, it comes in contact with a number of different minerals and rocks. Some of these minerals become dissolved in the hot water and this is responsible for the smell. In particular, humans are very sensitive to the smell of sulphur and can recognize it in concentrations as low as 1 part per million. The Chena waters have 1 part per million of sulphur and overall have a very low total dissolved solids or trace minerals in the water compared to other geothermal sites. This is because even though the residence time of the Chena waters of several thousand years underground seems like a long time to us, its really only been a blink of the eye in geologic terms. Most geothermal systems have much “older” water. In addition to the Sulphur content, the Chena water also contains Sodium, Floride Potassium, Calcium, Magnesium, Boron, Lithium, and Chloride. Many people believe bathing in waters containing these and other trace minerals can be therapeutic and this is why many health spas are associated with hot springs around the world.

My little bro throwing a poorly packed snowball at my older brother!

Is the water safe to swim in?

The indoor pool and hot tubs at Chena have chlorinated geothermal water, which effectively kills all bacteria, just like in any other swimming pool in the U.S. The outdoor Rock Lake is completely natural and is regulated as a “flow through hot springs” under Alaska Statute 44.46.028. Under the Statute, Chena is required to test the waters regularly and submit those samples to the State of Alaska to ensure the lake is free from dangerous levels of disease causing pathogens or chemicals. Water is constantly being drained from the Lake and it naturally refills, with a turnover of 2-3 times the volume of the lake each day. We also completely drain the Lake once a week and pressure wash the Rocks and sand to deter algae growth. Despite these precautions and because the water is untreated there are some bacteria present in the water. For this reason, if you have any cuts or scrapes we request that you refrain from using the natural Rock Lake. Additionally, children seem to have a lower tolerance to these bacteria due to their still developing immune systems, and as such we do not allow children under age 18 in the Rock Lake. They are welcome to use the indoor pool and the hot tubs.

Activities

We tried to get either a dog sled ride or go on the snowmobile tour, unfortunately, even in off season this place was bustling, so the tours were all full. Instead, we went into the Ice Museum, the indoor pool, and the natural hot spring fed pool outdoors. At night the lights illuminate the surroundings, it was a pretty awesome scene!

List of Activities:

  • Winter – Dog Sledding, kennel tour, ski/snowshoe rentals, snow-machining, Aurora Viewing Tour, Sunset Tour, flight seeing.
  • Summer – Dog Cart Rides, Kennel Tour, Guided ATV Tour, Guided UTV Tour, Horseback Tours, Bike Rentals, Hiking, Flight seeing.

Air Strip

On the backside of the property lies an active airstrip. The content below comes from the website and explains where the flight goes and what you will see. There are more flight options as well, check them out here!

Land in the Village of Fort Yukon

Fly north over the White Mountains and the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge. Watch for the bump as we cross the Arctic Circle at 66°33’47″N, then follow the Yukon River to Fort Yukon.

Enjoy a guided ground tour at Fort Yukon, for approximately 1 hour and learn about the Native American heritage this Alaskan Village has to offer.

Awesome scenery and great views all around, after you come back from your tour you will be given an Arctic Circle Certificate!

Northern Lights – Aurora Borealis

The beautiful blaze of the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, is caused when material thrown off the surface of the sun collides with the atmosphere of the Earth. Think of the sun as the father of the northern lights. It gives off high-energy charged particles that travel out into space.

A cloud of such particles is called plasma. The stream of plasma coming from the sun is known as the solar wind. As the solar wind interacts with the edge of the earth’s magnetic field, some of the particles are trapped by it and they follow the lines of magnetic force down into the ionosphere, the section of the earth’s atmosphere that extends from about 60 to 600 kilometers above the earth’s surface.

When the particles collide with the gases in the ionosphere they start to glow, producing the spectacle that we know as the auroras, in the northern skies: the Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis and in the southern skies: Aurora Australis. The array of colors consists of red, green, blue and violet. The aurora has a curtain-like shape; the altitude of its lower edges can reach to upwards of sixty miles.

The Northern Lights are constantly in motion because of the changing interaction between the solar wind and the earth’s magnetic field. In the northern hemisphere they extend over northern Scandinavia, the whole of Canada, northern USA, Alaska and Siberia. In the case of Alaska, the Earth’s rotational axis means the best time for viewing the Northern Lights is late at night until the early morning hours from 10PM until 3AM.

On the other hand, it is always worth keeping in mind that a solar storm can appear at any time of the day or night, and hunters of spectacular shows would therefore be well advised to concentrate on following the various types of forecasts and predictions which are published on the Internet.

When is the best time to see the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights?

The aurora is always up there. Sometimes it cannot be seen because of unclear skies, rain, snow or sunlight. The aurora can be seen most frequently at night between August-May from 10PM-3AM, and dark nights provide better opportunities than light days to view them.

In addition, Fairbanks, Alaska’s very cold weather tends to produce clearer skies. For your viewing pleasure, Chena Hot Springs Resort provides a special “aurora wake up call” for guests staying in the Moose Lodge, since most aurora “shows” are more visible during that time frame.

Chena Hot Springs Resort is world renown for being one of the best places on Earth to see the northern lights. It is located under the most active band of northern lights, it is away from the light pollution of city lights, and the skies over Chena are clear more often than those over Fairbanks, 60 miles away.

Your best bet is to take a nap before or after dinner and wake up around 10PM. Hang out in the Activity Center with other Aurora chasers and stay up until 3AM! As soon as the Aurora comes out, folks hanging out in the Activity Center will be flocking outside to get their first look at this phenomenon. It makes for a very exciting evening!

When booking your stay at the Resort, it’s best to stay at least three nights to have the best opportunity to see them. Auroral intensity varies from night to night and throughout the night. The best viewing tends to be late evening to early morning hours and a slight tendency for more Auroras in the spring and fall.

Viewing the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis has been listed as one of the “top 100 things to do before you die” by the Travel Channel and in a survey of Japanese, it was listed as one of the top ten things they wanted to see on Earth, (second only to viewing the Pyramids).

Locals will tell you that one of the best experiences one can have is sitting in the soothing natural hot springs rock lake at Chena Hot Springs Resort and watching the lights dance above your head!

Geothermal Energy

The GRED III Exploration Project is also hosted on the Chena Hot Springs Land. Chena Hot Springs and the Department of Energy are jointly funding a $1.4 million exploration project designed to locate and characterize the geothermal resource underlying Chena Hot Springs. The goal is to build a model of the deep reservoir using geologic and geophysical exploration techniques coupled with state of the art reservoir engineering. Once the model has been completed, it will be tested by drilling a 4000ft slim hole, sited to intersect the deep geothermal reservoir. We hope to drill this test hole in 2008, depending on funding from the Department of Energy. The Geothermal budget was zeroed out in 2007, and this has effected our completion of this project. You can read more in depth about the project here.

There are also other alternative sources of energy that the complex utilizes and works to start a more sustainable resort. Check this content out, here.

Why is there hot water at Chena?

The Chena geothermal system is fed by water which circulates deep underground over a period of thousands of years, picking up the natural heat from the earth, and then ‘short circuits’ back up to the surface through cracks and fractures in the granite rock underneath the hot springs area. Granite rock fractures or breaks very nicely in all directions, as opposed to layered sedimentary rock that just tends to break horizontally. This allows the hot water to quickly find its way to the surface from a great depth (~3000 feet).

I would highly recommend giving Chena Hot Springs Resort a visit if you find yourself in the Fairbanks area. Also, check them out on Instagram, they post some amazing content!

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