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Chena River State Recreation Area started as a small hot spring destination for the residents of nearby Fairbanks. The first visitors to Chena Hot Springs claimed that it had healing powers, spurring numerous additional visitors in search of better health. The U.S. Army built a small road into the area, which soon grew as a logging and mining resource in the early 20th century. Following statehood, Alaska set aside just over 15,000 acres for protection as a state recreation area. Oil was discovered in the region only one year later, and the Chena River faced a risk of massive oil development. Residents lobbied for further protections of the area, and in 1975, the original 15,000 acres grew to over 250,000 acres.
This immense landscape, made up of tundra, mountains, and water, is equally popular in the winter as it is in the summer. Located just an hour east of Fairbanks, Chena River SRA provides hiking, bicycling, dogsledding, and snowmobiling. It’s home to two species of bears, moose, and several species of birds. Chena River’s northern latitude and dark skies make it ideal for viewing the Northern Lights when the conditions are right. You can book an RV in Fairbanks North Star Borough to camp in any of its three RV campgrounds before exploring the rest of America’s largest state.
If you decide to brave the cold winters, you can participate in snowmobiling, dogsledding, and snowshoeing on Chena River State Recreation Area camping trip. You’ll want to make it an overnight adventure to really see everything it has to offer. Chena River SRA has numerous desolate cabins equipped with stoves, sleeping platforms, tables, and an outhouse. Keep an eye out for Chena River’s winter residents, like the snowshoe hare and lynx.
The Chena River itself is famous for kayaking, rafting, fishing, and swimming. There are numerous launch and take-out points for rafting and boating, and you’ll find at most Class II rapids in spots along the river. Fishing for sporty arctic grayling is especially popular in the Chena River. However, all fishing in the river is catch-and-release only. There are four stocked ponds within the recreation area full of rainbow trout and grayling that you can take back to your campsite for dinner.
There's a vast network of trails here, including one that connects all three campgrounds at Chena River. These trails, some of which require an overnighter, follow ridgelines, go through the tundra, and descend into lush valleys. One of the most popular trails is the 15-mile Granite Tors Loop. This difficult trail eventually takes you to the Plain of Monuments, home of 100-foot tall granite spires that pierce the tundra.
There are three campgrounds in Chena River State Recreation Area. All of them offer primitive RV camping only, meaning there are no hookups, dump stations, showers, or flushing toilets. Each campground does have water pumps and vault toilets, though. And at all campgrounds, each campsite has a fire ring and picnic table. Pets are allowed if kept on a leash within the campground; your pets are allowed off-leash outside of developed areas but be mindful of hunting and wildlife.
The first campground you’ll reach when driving into Chena River is Rosehip Campground. This campground offers 37 back-in sites for camper rentals of any length. The campground is ideal for launching small watercraft, like kayaks and rafts. The campsites at Rosehip Campground are shaded, but none are ADA-compliant.
The next campground at Chena River is the Granite Tors Campground. This campground has 24 back-in sites that can accommodate RVs of any size. There’s good spacing between sites for privacy, assisted by foliage that also provides shade. This campground has wheelchair-accessible facilities and also has a boat launch.
The last campground is the smaller Red Squirrel Campground. Here you’ll find five large sites for any RV. This is a secluded riverfront campground with wheelchair-accessible facilities and a more open feeling.
Despite its isolation, you’ll have plenty to do in Fairbanks, an hour to the west. Provisioning and fuel for your motorhome rental are plentiful, and you’ll have several great grills to choose from for dinner. The University of Alaska Fairbanks has an outstanding museum open to the public. Sometime around February, the 1,000-mile international Yukon Quest Sled Dog Race starts at Fairbanks and offers numerous celebrations to participate in.
Fairbanks is about as far north as you can go in a rental RV in Alaska, but you have two great choices for exploring south, both of which eventually meet up in Anchorage. If you proceed southwest, you’ll arrive in Denali National Park in about two and a half hours. Or, drive southeast for four hours where you’ll reach Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. From Wrangell-St. Elias, you can continue to the scenic port town of Valdez, before backtracking and continuing to Anchorage.