When Thomas and Robert Swan first stumbled upon the Chena Hot Springs in 1905, they probably never dreamed that one day the area would be part of Alaska’s vast 3.3 million acre State Park system. Shortly after this discovery, local Fairbanks residents got wind of the hot spring. They were understandably quite excited, and so the U.S. Army built a trail from Fairbanks to the Chena Hot Springs. Today, that trail is part of the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest sled dog race.
With some 250,000 acres, today’s Chena River State Recreation Area has a lot more to offer than just a winter dog sled race. Alaskans fought long and hard to keep this land from becoming gold mines and then oil fields. One look, and you’ll understand why. The ecology is incredibly diverse, from frozen tundra to majestic forests to sweeping prairie to jaw-dropping rock formations. When you come with an RV, you’ve got the perfect base camp to see it all.
Chena River SRA has over one hundred hiking, equestrian, skiing, biking, and snowmobiling trails. The Chena River itself is also an outstanding place for kayaking, canoeing, fishing, and trapping. You could even try swimming as well, but we highly recommend heated wetsuits for this activity. Visitors can also take a paddleboat tour of the river. How cool is that?
To reach the Chena River SRA, take the Steese Highway (AK S.H. 2) northeast past Fairbanks. Then, go right on Chena Hot Springs Road. It is a rather long and winding road, but it is a straight shot to the Park. This road goes all the way through the park and most of the major hiking trails start or end on this road. Chena Springs Road basically bisects the Park, and it ends at the hot springs.
The Park is easy to find. One salient thing about Alaska is that there is usually just one way to drive from Point A to Point B.
Because this park is so vast, it is very vehicle-friendly. Chena Springs Road is not exactly the Long Island Expressway. However, for the most part, it is a rather wide and well-kept road almost twelve months of the year. Rangers are there to help you navigate if necessary. Since the road is rather wide, there is usually plenty of RV parking at or near the trailheads and other points of interest.
The northernmost RV campsite in the Park is also the smallest one in terms of parking. It has five RV sites. However, it’s one of the largest in terms of space. And “big” in Alaska means really, really big. There is lots of open space in addition to a very nice picnic shelter. Other amenities include drinking water and flush toilets. Pets are allowed, as are camping fires.
One of the largest no-reservations campgrounds in the park is also the first one visitors come to when they enter. The kid-friendly park has thirty-seven RV parking spots. It also has excellent cell service for major carriers. It’s also literally right on the Chena River, so there are plenty of fishing and hiking options. Restrooms are available as well.
This centrally-located RV park is quite nice as well. It has twenty-four back-in RV parking spots. Pets are allowed and drinking water is available. There is also a nice picnic area and a picturesque bridge over the Chena River.
This cabin is one of several at the Chena River SRA. There is usually one such cabin at the end of each group of trails. The 12x16 Colorado Creek cabin features four plywood bunks that can each comfortably sleep an adult, a wood stove, woodcutting equipment (saw, axe, etc.), as well as a table and chairs. Campers must provide all other supplies. That includes lanterns, and remember fall and winter nights are long and dark in this neck of the woods. Be a good neighbor and leave a little cut wood for the next guest. Also, record something in the camp journal.
Private campgrounds in the vicinity offer the full range of options, from a spot with 30 well-spaced electrical hookup sites with lots of privacy to RV parks with 100+ full hookup sites. Whatever your flavor, you’ll be able to find amenities like a laundromat, showers, dump stations, and free WiFi.
This facility is pretty much the world’s largest igloo. Builders collected some 1,000 tons of local ice and snow to construct it. During the summer, a cutting-edge absorption chiller keeps the indoor temperature at around 25 degrees. Inside, the Aurora Ice Museum is basically a real-life Queen Elsa ice castle. Highlights include a polar bear bedroom, a stunning two-story observation tower complete with a circular staircase, life-size jousters on horseback, a Christmas tree bedroom, a kid's two-story Fort Squidward-type bedroom, and a Northern Lights room with an ice outhouse made exclusively with native Alaskan interior ice. After your tour relax with (what else) an iced drink while you sit on a stool covered with caribou fur.
By mid-November, there is usually about twelve inches of snow on the ground. Yet the water at the Hot Springs still averages about 106 degrees. That’s hot. Ironically, the indoor “heated pool” is cooler than the outdoor hot spring. Other fall/winter activities include kennel tours and snow machine tours. Braver visitors can go on snowshoe or cross-country skiing excursions. Really brave visitors might try a dog sled adventure. But just relax because it’s only two miles.
One of the most challenging trails in the Park is made for a winter sojourn. First, hikers must cross the frozen Chena River. Then, they must make their way through about a quarter mile of dense, swampy lowlands. This time of year, it’s mostly very treacherous ice. Finally, it’s a steep and steady climb to the top of a ridge line. Along the way, expect to see some wildlife here and there. There is also an unmarked dozer trail that leads down the mountain. Hike it if you dare. The three-person Nugget Creek Cabin is at the end of the trail.
For a 3.5-mile trail, Angel Rock has some of the best views of ancient geological formations in the area. There’s a sharp uphill climb at about the 1.5-mile mark, but other than that, the trail is relatively flat and easy to navigate. Back in the day (and we mean the Pleistocene era about 20,000 years ago), vegetation covered this whole area. Some of it remains, and it usually blooms in July. Watch for dogbone, poppies, arnica, and sage, among other things. Of course, there are also berries aplenty this time of year. Particularly in these higher elevations, beware of sudden weather changes, especially strong thunderstorms.
Largely because of extremely low temperatures (as cold as -60) and extremely high winds (as fast as 50mph), the February Yukon Quest is widely considered to be the world’s toughest race. Whereas the Iditarod is a multi-stage race with lots of checkpoints, the 1,000-plus mile Yukon Quest is pretty much a non-break trek. Racers must find a way to survive alone in the wilderness. There are normally about two dozen competitors and most of them finish the race. Winners usually reach the finish line in nine or ten days. The portion through the Chena River area and into Fairbanks is basically the home stretch.
The Chena River itself is a catch-and-release area. Overfishing in the 1970s nearly depleted these waters, and officials are determined to preserve this aspect of the park. So, this rule is strictly enforced. In early summer, once the river ice is entirely melted, the grayling usually come near the surface to feed on insects. There are also a number of marked fishing ponds well-stocked with grayling and trout. These ponds are catch-and-keep. For fishing lures, we recommend caddis fly or stone fly. No live bait is allowed on the river.
Explore the upper Chena River on a kayak, canoe, or SUP (stand-up paddleboard). Many people start at Pioneer Park, which is just outside Fairbanks. Then, it’s about a two-hour paddle to to the Pump House Restaurant. Along the way, in addition to a vast wilderness landscape, expect to see lots of small mammals, birds, and maybe a few larger animals as well. Shuttle service is available from the Pump House back to Pioneer Park. The lower Chena River route goes from Pioneer Park to North Pole (no, not the North Pole). It’s a four to six hour trek through some really wild territory. Once again, a shuttle is available to take canoers from the end back to the beginning.
In late summer, the Alaskan prairie comes to life for a few precious weeks. Berry picking is an annual ritual for the locals. Go right above the timber line to find Alaskan Blueberries. They’re awesome in crumbles and other baked goods, as well as jams and jellies. Raspberries are good early in the season as well. In late summer or early fall, the cranberries, crowberries, and Northern Red Currants come out. You may not be the only creature that is berry-picking, as these morsels are also an important food source for many small animals. Be sure and wash your treasures very thoroughly and stay away from the toxic baneberries.
This three-hour tour includes a number of one-of-a-kind sites, like a bush plane takeoff from the river. Other stops include a guided Chena Indian Village walking tour. The Athabascans have lived in this area for well over 10,000 years. For the intrepid RVers, there’s also a “forty below room.” Just in case spring near Fairbanks is not quite cold enough for you. And you have not eaten a “hearty” meal until you’ve had the gluten-free beef miners stew at the Discovery Dining Hall. Enjoy it with some roasted vegetables and perhaps some fresh apple pecan salad. Of course, there is scenery aplenty as well.
This peak in the northern part of the park is one of the area’s most popular attractions. But getting there is not easy. The twenty-nine mile mountainous loop trail is usually a two to four-day hike for most backpackers. There is a camping area at about the halfway point. Once you reach the summit, the views are quite impressive, as Chena Dome is by far the highest mountain peak in the area. Moreover, the wildflowers usually bloom in July and the berries typically come out in August. At about the 8.5-mile mark, there is a rather cool 1950s-era plane crash site that is largely undisturbed. There are a number of water holes along the trail. However, they are rather unreliable and you must treat the water before you drink it. Check with the rangers for details. Also be advised that the trail is largely unmarked above the timberline.
This trail was just laid out in 2006. So, it conforms to the latest ideas in terms of sustainability. The 18-mile trail cuts through thick forests and is primarily designed for ATV riders. The beginning and ending portions are rather mountainous. It’s a year-round trail, so other forms of transportation are welcome as well, including your own two legs. Lots of people park their RVs at Two Rivers Elementary School or Twin Bears Camp and then tackle the trail, which leads to the Colorado Creek Canyon.