Northern lights, more at Chena Hot Springs

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The aurora over the the Aurora Ice Museum.
The aurora over the the Aurora Ice Museum. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Chena Hot Springs Resort/Travis Knauss
Mary Pemberton
Mary Pemberton

Founded over 100 years ago, Chena Hot Springs Resort remains popular with tourists wanting to see the aurora borealis dancing across a winter sky and take a soak in the resort's healing mineral waters. The lucky ones get both at the same time.

In winter, it's particularly popular with Japanese visitors. Chena Hot Springs Resort, about 60 miles from Fairbanks, received its first flight of Japanese tourists nearly 30 years ago. This winter, the resort expects between 3,000 and 4,000 visitors from Japan, with many arriving on eight direct charter flights from Japan.

Why is the resort so popular with the Japanese tourist? Masako Tokida, the resort's Asian marketing manager, said the Japanese love hot springs, and they also appreciate phenomena of the natural world, particularly the aurora borealis. Tokida said that before the Japanese discovered the resort, the resort was "very dead" in the winter. Now it is more like a winter-long celebration, with many Japanese visitors choosing to arrive during the new year to celebrate under the northern lights.

The aurora borealis is a disarming light display caused when charged particles thrown off the surface of the sun collide with the Earth's atmosphere. The stream of particles, known as the solar wind, begin to glow red, green, blue and violent, when they interact with gases in the ionosphere. The aurora can look like a curtain waving in the sky. Sometimes the lights "dance" across the sky. They also can explode overhead in a corona of cascading color.

The best time of year to see the aurora at Chena Hot Springs is between late August and early May. The chances are about 70%, Tokida said. That's because the very cold winter weather at the resort tends to produce clearer skies and the resort is far away from sources of light pollution. Chena recommends that guests wanting to see the aurora stay a minimum of three nights to maximize their chances. The resort also provides a special aurora wake-up call for its guests staying at Moose Lodge.

How does the resort remain popular? It caters to its aurora viewing guests while supplying a variety of fun and interesting things to do otherwise. The resort's Activity Center where aurora viewers gather to wait for the lights to appear is open 24 hours a day. The center's Aurora Cafe stays open until midnight.

The resort also has the "aurorium," a prow-fronted heated log cabin with large plate-glass windows that is open 24 hours a day for guests staying at the resort. Want to be mobile? The resort offers an aurora viewing tour aboard a 13-person large track vehicle that departs nightly, snow cover permitting. The half-hour ride to the top of the ridge allows for premium aurora viewing. If guests get chilled, they can retreat to a heated yurt for a cup of tea, cider or hot chocolate.

But many would agree that the best place to watch the aurora would be from the resort's natural hot springs pool where the water remains a toasty 106 degrees even on the coldest winter nights.

A couple in the outdoor hot springs pool.
A couple in the outdoor hot springs pool. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Chena Hot Springs Resort/Denise Ferree


Guests needing a break from aurora viewing can stop at the Aurora Ice Museum, created from over 1,000 tons of ice and snow. The museum stays 25 degrees Fahrenheit all year thanks to an innovative, patented absorption chiller. Inside the museum, there are ice sculptures by world champion ice carvers Steve Brice and his wife, Heather. The sculptures include a two-story observation tower with circular staircase and life-size jousters on horseback. Guests also can visit the Aurora Ice Bar and enjoy sipping the resort's specialty beverage, an appletini, in a martini glass carved from ice while sitting on caribou fur-covered stools.

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