'Frontier State' boasts variety of experiences


FAIRBANKS, Alaska -- Eclipsed by glaciers, mountains and wildlife, Alaska's hot springs draw comparatively few travelers from the Lower 48 and remain one of the state's few natural resources that wait to be discovered.

The Last Frontier has more than 100 hot springs, according to the Alaska Public Lands Information Center here. The most celebrated for bathing and nearby overnight stays are located in the state's interior.

Chena Hot Springs

For clients interested in hot springs but who also want a luxury, spa-resort type of experience, the obvious choice is Chena Hot Springs, a year-round, full-service resort located 60 miles northeast of Fairbanks.

Accommodations at Chena range from a relatively modern hotel lodge, sporting suites with double queen beds for $200 per night, to "very rustic cabins" for $60 to $90 per night, said Skip Cox, vice president.

By very rustic, Cox means no running water, geothermal and wood heat and an outhouse. "They're exactly what you think of after you've read a Jack London story about Alaska," he said.

In the midprice and comfort tier, rooms in the older lodge buildings, with two double beds, a bath and television, go for $125 per night.

Chena Hot Springs offers guests the chance to see the northern lights, shown above, from mid-September through April. The resort offers guests dining, massage services and a chance to see the northern lights from mid-September through April.

Chena Hot Springs can accommodate up to 60 bathers at a time in a sandy-bottom lake created from two adjoining hot ponds. The soaking lake is handicapped-accessible, and its temperature runs about 105 degrees.

"The hot springs percolate up from the bottom of the lake, and we also add hot geothermal water from a well. But it's all natural -- no man-made chemicals," Cox said. The resort also has several geothermal pools and hot tubs.

Travel agents account for about 6% of Chena Hot Springs' business, Cox said. About 50% of the resort's business is local, 35% Japanese "and the rest is Lower 48," he said.

The average length of stay is three nights; a van transfer to and from Fairbanks' airport is $60 for one person or $30 per person for two or more. Commission is 10%.

Hutlinana Hot Springs

Clients with a higher threshold for adventure might prefer a package from GoNorth Alaska Adventure Travel Center here, which specializes in outfitting excursions to more remote hot springs.

"We have true hot springs programs for people interested in trips ranging from [those that feature] the regular hotel accommodations to rustic cabins to wild places in the woods where you need a tent," said Chris Barefoot, co-owner.

Of those wilderness locales, one of the nicest, Barefoot said, is Hutlinana Hot Springs, located 150 miles northwest of Fairbanks and accessible year-round.

"If you're a real woods person, I'd say Hutlinana is your place," Barefoot said. "It is remote, so the chances of having to share it with anyone are slim. The other thing I like is it's a picturesque, riverside setting."

According to Barefoot, Hutlinana has camp sites and a lot of wildlife but no cabins or services.

GoNorth Alaska Adventure Travel Center's flat fee for a roundtrip charter transport via Chevrolet Suburban between Fairbanks and the Hutlinana trailhead is $580.

"We set [guests] up with tents, sleeping bags and pads; water purification tablets; and emergency locator transmitters if they feel they need that -- and bear spray, a safety precaution should they be attacked," Barefoot said. "Pretty much everything is commissionable."

Arctic Circle Hot Springs

Somewhere between Chena's resort and Hutlinana's tent-and-compass experiences sits Arctic Circle Hot Springs.

"Circle Hot Springs is a [24-room] Victorian hotel. It's quite comfortable but not fancy," Barefoot said. "You get a room and a sink, no private baths. Your Jacuzzi is down the hall."

Arctic Circle Hot Springs is shuttered this winter, but is expected to reopen in April.

A self-drive, two-night summer program to Circle Hot Springs, accessed by a 136-mile gravel road, is $215 per person, double, including car rental.

Tolovana Hot Springs

GoNorth Alaska Adventure Travel Center also arranges trips to hot springs wilderness lodges accessible only by plane, such as Melozi Hot Springs near Ruby, and dogsled or cross-country ski treks to Tolovana Hot Springs, which offers two cabins, located 50 miles northwest of Fairbanks.

GoNorth's four-night Hot Springs Backcountry Ski program, which includes two nights at a bed-and-breakfast in Fairbanks, two nights in a cabin at Tolovana Hot Springs with the use of hot springs bathing tubs and roundtrip transfers between Fairbanks and the trailhead, costs $550 per person, double.

The independent wilderness tour requires clients to have cross-country skiing experience, their own backcountry equipment, sleeping bags and cross-country skis or snowshoes.

For clients who don't have that experience, the requisite winter survival gear nor the desire to "rough it" to that extent, a three-night Hot Springs Dog Sled Tour to Tolovana Hot Springs is priced at $1,205 per person, double; it is available all winter.

The package includes cabin meals in the backcountry portion of the trip, cold-weather gear, sleeping bags and dogsled orientation and training.

Barefoot said the vast majority of his agency-driven clientele, two-thirds of his business, hails from German-speaking Europe.

Barefoot said he does not understand why more U.S. tourists do not take advantage of the opportunity to bathe in Alaska's hot springs.

Those who do tend to be fairly young professionals in their 30s and 40s and, less frequently, college students.

"The wilderness experience does not have to be all rough and tough," Barefoot said. "It can be romantic and classy and still be a wilderness experience."

By the numbers...

Chena Hot Springs Resort
Phone: (800) 478-4681

GoNorth Alaska Adventure Travel Center
(866) 236-7272

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