As my group wanders through the sulfur-smelling greenhouse, looking at tomatoes growing in vertical hangers and a room with 33 types of lettuce, I feel the pull of the huge natural hot springs outside. It’s hard to go on an educational tour of a greenhouse and power plant when I could be soaking mindlessly in a pool of water thick with sulfate, chloride and bicarbonate of sodium. But I’m trying to get a well-rounded picture of Chena Hot Springs and understand its tagline of “where hospitality and sustainability go hand in hand.”
The hot springs resort is 60 miles northeast of Fairbanks, Alaska, and accessible year-round. In winter, you can ride in a dogsled and stay up late hoping for a glimpse of the aurora borealis. In summer, you can take a guided float down the river, looking for bears and moose. Year-round, the resort offers a free tour of the greenhouse and power plant. These facilities are the heart of the operation, generating geothermal power to heat guest cabins and growing delicious salad greens even in the dead of winter.
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Chena Hot Springs history
In 1905, two gold mining brothers heard that a geological survey crew had spotted steam rising from the upper Chena River. Mining is a hard life, so the prospectors, Thomas and Robert Swan, set out in a boat to find the hot springs. A month later, Robert was soaking away his rheumatism.
Of course, everybody else on the hardscrabble Alaskan frontier had aches and pains, too. Fairbanks entrepreneur George W. Wilson heard about the Swans’ discovery and decided to homestead the land and turn it into a resort. By 1911, Chena Hot Springs had a stable, bathhouse and 12 small visitor cabins. The waters got a reputation for curing blood disorders, rheumatism, scalp disease and troubles of the stomach, liver and kidneys. In 1921, Wilson advertised in the “Fairbanks Daily News Miner,” “Plenty of provisions now on hand, including vegetables, and we also have a pool table. Come and bring your best girl with you and have a dance, you will feel like it, suppled up after one of these baths.”
Nowadays, the resort is one of interior Alaska’s top attractions, drawing people from all over the world to stay in its 80 rooms. The rock pool was expanded about seven years ago. It’s huge, with plenty of room to float or paddle lazily around in the hot water.
People came for the hot springs, but now visitors extend their stay at the resort for various activities. On a typical day in winter, the thermometer only nudges up to the teens in Fahrenheit, if that. When I visited in February, snow was thick on the ground — perfect for dog sledding or snowmobiling.
I chose to dogsled. I was there with members of a professional group, and it was a little more intimate than expected when the musher instructed the biggest person to get in the back of the sleigh and the other two to consecutively recline on him. This setup would be less awkward with close friends and family. Then the musher stood behind us and directed the team of 12 extremely hardworking dogs to pull us on a lovely little loop through the snowy woods. Considering our combined weight, we didn’t go very fast. Visitors can also take a behind-the-scenes kennel tour where you can ask a musher all your sled dog questions and pet puppies, if available.
Chena leads aurora tours during aurora viewing season, from autumn to early spring. Visitors ride up to the top of nearby peak Charlie Dome in military-style vehicles. There they can keep warm in Mongolian-style yurts, drinking hot chocolate and waiting for the lights to appear. The dome allows a 360-degree view, without light interference from the resort.
If you go, don’t miss the ice museum. It feels like a giant walk-in refrigerator and looks like an ice castle, filled with chandeliers and sculptures made of ice. There’s even an ice bar where you can get a drink in a glass made of ice.
In summer, Chena offers activities like horseback riding and a half-day river float looking for wildlife. But don’t overbook on tours — you’ll want plenty of free time to hang out in the hot pool.
Chena’s geothermal power
At the powerhouse, our guide tells us about Chena’s clean energy. The hot springs come out of the water at about 164 degrees Fahrenheit, making it the world’s lowest temperature geothermal resource to be used for commercial power production. Since 164 falls short of boiling, the resort uses Freon to bring the water up to a temperature hot enough to move turbines. Chena and the Department of Energy are working together on a $1.4 million exploration project to dig deeper and find hotter water. The hope is that by digging to 4,000 feet they’ll hit water hot enough to ditch the Freon and run on all clean energy. Then, Chena can also sell excess energy to the government. Even if overnight guests aren’t interested in taking the geothermal tour, they’ll still enjoy having their floors warmed by hot water pumped from the springs.
Right now, Chena has three separate wells, one each for soaking, heat and power, our guide told us. This is in case one well gets contaminated from Freon. Once they’re drilling down deep enough and the water’s hot enough to not use chemicals, then they’ll be able to use wells interchangeably.
Chena’s greenhouse provides the resort with peppers, lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes and herbs. As the website likes to boast, Chena Hot Springs Restaurant makes Alaska’s freshest salad, year-round. Resort proprietor Bernie Karl designed the vertical bucket lettuce grow towers himself. And you can learn to build them yourself at home if you want a terrific tomato yield in a small space.
If you visit Chena Hot Springs
Chena Hot Springs is popular in every season, but I loved bobbing around the rock pool in winter, staying warm while being surrounded by snowy fields and peaks. Winter must be the most magical time to visit a hot spring. Still, if you find yourself in Fairbanks at any time of the year, plan a little detour to Chena, at least for a day.
Images via Teresa Bergen / Inhabitat