When you’re driving Chena Hot Springs Road, keep in mind that it’s best not to rush. This journey defines “scenic route” as a one-day road trip primed for spotting wildlife, exploring a new trailhead, and pulling over to cast a line.
If it weren’t for the hot spring at the end, this road probably wouldn’t exist. The springs were discovered in 1905 and (naturally) it didn’t take long for Fairbanksans to want permanent access from town. At their behest, the U.S. War Department built the first trail to the hot springs in 1913.
The trail became well-worn and the Chena River (which runs a parallel route) remained in heavy use to ship timber from the surrounding forests to town via barge, and to carry residents out to the springs.
Today, Chena Hot Springs Road is fully paved and well-maintained. The journey from Fairbanks to the trail’s end at Chena Hot Springs Resort is 56.5 miles. You can drive it in about an hour, but factor in more time for stops. Gas and snacks are available at Chena Hot Springs Gas (mile 3) and Pleasant Valley Store (mile 23).
No car? The Chena Shuttle, operated by the resort, can be booked for round-trip transport from the airport or any hotel in Fairbanks.
Along the way, you’ll pass the town of Two Rivers, where residents claim that there are at least two sled dogs for every person. Aliy Zirkle and Allen Moore run SP Kennel here, and both are former champions of the Yukon Quest, a 1,000-mile international sled dog race that runs alongside Chena Hot Springs Road (and right past their kennel). If you stop into Two Rivers Lodge (mile 15), you might meet another musher who tends bar and regularly places among the top finishers in the race.
At mile 26, you’ll enter the Chena River State Recreation Area (397 square miles) with eight public use cabins available to rent for a nominal fee and three established campgrounds including Rosehip Campground (mile 27), Tors Trail Campground (mile 39) and Red Squirrel Campground (mile 42).
Wildlife spottings are common throughout the entire road. The best places to look for moose are in water holes of Chena River, including at Slough Lake (mile 28) and Red Squirrel Campground (mile 42), according to the Milepost. Beavers and muskrat can sometimes be spotted at a paved turnout to the south of the road at mile 42.
Fishermen love to try their luck on the Chena River for arctic grayling, and take advantage of three stocked gravel ponds at mileposts 30, 45, and 47. Fish harvested from these waters may be kept but the river is catch and release, as determined by the Department of Natural Resources.
Black and grizzly bears are also in the area, though tougher to spot. Fox, lynx, and coyotes make their home here as well, along with many birds including eagles and ravens.
Kayaks and canoes are popular for day trips on the Chena River, with plenty of put-ins and pullouts. The current is swift and the water is cold, so paddlers should exercise caution at all times even though the river is only classified as a I-II in difficulty. Day hikers and backpackers will enjoy trailhead access to Granite Tors (mile 39) and Angel Rocks (mile 48), two of the more popular hikes in the area.
Keep your eye out for funny street names during the drive, as Alaskans like to show off their wit and humor in nomenclature. Those who build rural roads are granted the privilege of choosing a street name. You’ll pass Funk Road, Thermometer Court, and Archives Alley. If you have kids along for the ride, it might be fun for them to count the number of roads named after animals.