My brother Mike and his friend Dave had a free weekend in January during their one year rotation in Alaska. They wanted to do something “outdoorsy”—perhaps a multi-day, camping out and skiing trek. I reminded them that Alaskan January days only offer around five useful hours of daylight, leaving the remaining nineteen hours of darkness to staying in a tent or cabin. So instead, I suggested we go to Tolovana Hot Springs.
These hot springs are located a bit north and a good distance west of Fairbanks. Sitting only about 85 miles from the Arctic Circle and deep in the interior of the state, temperatures can plummet well below zero, but the water emerging from the ground remains a piping hot 135 degrees.
I have been to other hot springs. They’re fun, but often crowded, and you tend to miss the essence of the actual “springs,” because most places have been built-up, commercialized, etc., and you can no longer even see the original spring.
Tolovana Hot Springs is different. You cannot drive to Tolovana. The closest you can get by road is eleven miles away at a trailhead on the Elliott Highway. The Elliott Highway itself is a winding road with hardly any features that speak to the presence of man other than the surface of the road and the obvious evidence left by the repeated passage of a plow. Once at the trailhead, visitors to Tolovana can either walk, ski, or, if they are quite spoiled, ride a snow machine along the eleven mile trail. Passage to and use of the springs is reserved only for those who have purchased a stay at one of three rustic private cabins built near the springs. In this way, the primitive, raw nature of the hot springs is preserved, as is the sense of privacy and exclusivity enjoyed by the visiting patrons. I heard about Tolovana Hot Springs from a friend of mine several years ago and ever since I’d wanted to go.
In the car again
As with most of my adventures, the trip started with a Friday night drive, this time north to Fairbanks. The roads were glazed with a slick layer of ice going up and through the Alaska Range, but we still managed to make decent time. Great visibility and the lack of other traffic seemed to help us along. On the north side of the mountains, we pulled over to enjoy the view of several bands of smooth, cool green northern lights emanating from the far northeast corner of the horizon. With no moon or clouds, the stars glittered through the wispy auroras. We did not stay at that spot for long. Still high up in the mountains the temperatures were in the single digits, and an angry wind was howling steadily. Sitting in a warm car for several hours definitely limits your ability to stand in a frigid wind on the side of the road!
Proceeding on to Fairbanks, we continued trying to get some glimpses of the northern lights, but clouds had settled in. We checked into Pike’s Waterfront Lodge and got some shut-eye.
Saturday before daybreak we hit the road, wanting to make sure we used as much of the short daylight as we could get. Dawn found us on the Elliot Highway making our way to the trailhead. Shortly into the drive, two large snowballs sitting on the shoulder of the road erupted into the air as we passed by them. The snowballs were actually two ptarmigan with pure white feathers walking on the shoulder. I debated stopping and going back. We had only packed meat for one night, resolving to eat a vegetarian meal on the second if Mike and I, the “Great Hunters,” were unable to provide. I figured we would get plenty of other opportunities, so I kept the car cruising along.
We found the trailhead, although it took a little searching and keen attention to the highway mileposts. I had gotten pretty familiar with many aspects of the “Alaskan way” at this point, so I was not expecting any large sign on the side of the road saying “Tolovana Hot Springs Trailhead.” We pulled off at a parking area more or less at the correct mile marker. There were no signs of any description, no indication that this was the correct spot. But the topography and the beginning of the trail mimicked what my map and GPS told me it should. I walked down the trail a little ways. After about 100 yards, I found a small wood sign sitting several feet off the trail. The wood was painted white, which stood out in violent contrast to the surrounding snow. Small, weathered lettering on the sign’s bullet-hole-tattered face revealed the words, “Tolovana Hot Springs.” This was the place.
Ski Lessons: Ready – GO!
We clipped into our cross-country skis and shouldered our packs. We would be following the relatively narrow snow machine trail down into the valley below us, back up the other side to the summit of “The Dome,” and then down the backside to where the springs emerge from the side of the mountain. Among our three-man party, roughly 33% percent of us had experience with this type of skiing.
With cross-country skiing, especially on a narrow trail, going downhill can be way more difficult than going uphill. We started hurtling down into the depths of the valley. The first good downhill pitch resulted in a prompt three-man crash. A few more turns later brought several more falls. I remember Mike saying something like, “Blast this darn stuff.” (Perhaps he chose different words.) It was getting frustrating! I ended up taking my skis off and jogging down the trail. After all, breaking a ski or a body part is a poor way to start off a trip. Eventually we made it to the bottom of the valley. By this time, we had worked up a decent appetite and a good thirst. We had lunch while standing in our skis and enjoying the beautiful wintry scene around us. After saying a few words to a passing rider on a snow machine (sissy), we shouldered our packs again and set on up the hill to regain all of the altitude we had just lost.
Going up hill turned out to be not as bad as coming down. We took our skis off for the steeper portions of it, but eventually broke out onto flatter ground as we neared the top of The Dome. The spruce trees were getting progressively shorter and sparser, and we soon popped out onto the white blanketed flanks of The Dome. The clear view to the south revealed the massive peak of Denali, backlit by the sun slipping behind it.
Our world turned bright red and then pink as we traversed the broad convex summit of The Dome, dropped into the bright glowing twilight on the other side, and headed down into the next valley beyond. It was not long before we caught our first glimpse of cabins below.
With the inviting structures of the hot springs now in sight and most of the skiing behind us, we grew bolder and more adventurous with the downhill portions—sometimes resulting in graceful derailments into the soft banks on the side of the trail. We decided to just let it rip on what was clearly the final downhill getting into Tolovana Valley. Just as I was teetering on the edge of an impending crash, the trail flattened out and crossed a small, open creek.
It was interesting seeing open, running water in the Alaskan interior in January. Even the largest rivers are completely frozen over this time of the year in that region. A short uphill jaunt later, and we saw a sign that confirmed we had arrived: “Tolovana Hot Springs.”
Into the Soup!
A stacked pile of wood along the exterior wall leading up to the door of our cabin was a welcome sight, as the warmth from the long-gone sun was leaving the air around us at a rather detectable rate. I got the propane lamps working while Mike stoked some life out of the remnant embers left in the wood stove from the previous occupants. It was a cozy little cabin, roughly ten by twelve feet, and well-stocked. There were books and magazines, pots and pans, plates, bowls, cutlery, and even an eclectic cache of non-perishable food items. At one end a bunk bed set up with a few blankets made up the sleeping quarters—plenty of room for us three.
Reasonably satisfied with the state of our new digs, we donned our swim trunks and set out up the trail to the springs. It turned out to be a bit of a walk to get to the “hot tubs,” perhaps as long as a quarter mile. That may not seem too long, but we were wearing only our swim trunks, no hats, gloves or even socks, with sweat from the laborious ski trek standing out cold on our bodies. The temperatures were sliding down into the lower teens or single digits.
The hot springs empty into a rather tiny stream. One could easily stand with one foot on either bank of this little creek. Therefore, there really would not be a way to sit in the springs as nature put them there. Even if you could the water would quickly scald you. So, at Tolovana, they have constructed three separate hot tubs, and hot water from the springs is piped into them through a system of gravity-fed tubes. The hot tubs have been built with enough distance between them that they aren’t visible to one another. This adds to the spring’s tangible effect of remoteness, privacy and exclusivity.
We jumped into the first tub, which was unoccupied, and we were soon emitting ooohs and ahhs as our skin soaked up the pleasantly warm water. The night was deepening, and we just sat enjoying the beautiful evening. Mike adjusted the wooden-handled valve to turn up the heat. I grabbed the supply pipe sitting at the bottom of the tub and yelped as the scalding hot water blasted my hand. It was probably hotter than 120 degrees! With the air temperature as cold as it was, though, the hot tub was very soothing without making us too lethargic.
Hunger soon took the place of our need for relaxation, so we decided to head back to our cabin for some dinner. We hopped out and prepared for the sprint back down the trail. I had a fleeting thought that we should turn the valve back down, being well instilled with the habit of energy conservation. It was funny to realize that, of course, turning down the heat wouldn’t really matter. Conserving or wasting energy isn’t an issue; the springs will simply continue to flow whether we are there or not. With that thought, we ran down the path, our bathing suits stiffening with ice as we went.
I had done enough backpacking at this point that I had the system pretty well down. I have learned which foods are perfect for the sport—lightweight and preferably dried foods that have high calorie content but don’t weigh too much. That said … I also really like steak. So we dined on a set of pan-fried rib eyes with a side of wild rice, washing it down with a sip or two of whiskey. Not a bad feast by any standards!
We had almost run out of fresh water, so I grabbed a five-gallon jug from the cabin’s store of necessities and set off to find the “cold spring.” It was not well marked and it took some wandering around to locate, but I finally found the spring. It was a boxed-in barrel buried into the ground, filled with clear, fresh water. With the aid of a ladle and funnel I filled my container.
I took the opportunity to check out the other two cabins on my slog back to the cabin. It turns out we were staying in second-class accommodations compared to the others, which were much nicer and could accommodate up to eight people while ours could only hold two to four. I did not feel any regret about our housing situation, but it would be a lot of fun to return with a larger group and occupy one of the larger cabins, something I will surely do.
Invigorated by our repast, we headed back up to the springs. Some other folks were ahead of us on their way up to the upper tubs, so we returned to the one we had been in at first. Turns out we did leave the heat on too high; we had to shovel snow into the tub for several minutes before we could even get in!
We got the temperature back under control and soaked for more than an hour. An impressive display of northern lights would have been the crowning jewel on the evening, but unfortunately, the skies were not so generous. Still, it was an absolutely beautiful night, and even though the sun had set hours previously, it took ages for the last dregs of twilight to dissolve themselves into the ether of the night, at last giving way to deep black, punctuated by clear and bright stars.
We eventually pulled ourselves out of the hot water, saturated and pruny. Following a quick jog back to the cabin, we threw some nice large logs into the wood stove and went to bed.
A Peaceful Sunrise
We were up well before the sun, but that is not boasting much when the sunrise was after 11:00 a.m. We ate breakfast and made our way back up to the springs. This time, we checked out the other two tubs and discovered what we had been missing the previous evening. We first stopped at the middle tub, the most rustically constructed of the group. It is a large rectangle made completely of wood boards with water flowing in one end and spilling over the edge of the other.
With the growing light of the imminent sunrise illuminating the scene, we got our first good look at our surroundings and the hot tub itself. Mike noticed that the water had a blue tint, which was easy to see by looking at our pale legs under the water. I am not sure what causes the blue tint, but it likely has to do with the minerals that pour out of the ground along with the heated water.
After a bit, we walked up to the upper hot tub, myself going barefooted to prove either my manliness or idiocy (or both?). We made it without either of my doctor companions needing to perform an amputation. The upper tub is arguably the best. It sits directly across the creek from the bare and pitted face of the hot springs. Areas of intense steam on the hillside indicate hot spots where hot water enters the stream. This upper tub also has a better vantage point above the tops of the trees below, allowing a sweeping view of the wide Minto Flats and Alaska Range beyond. It was a beautiful sunrise. We enjoyed the view while entertaining ourselves by sculpting our hair into strange shapes and allowing it to freeze in the frosty morning air.
We finally decided to retire to the cabin, made a quick but hearty lunch, and packed up. I split some more firewood to replace what we had burned while Mike and Dave creatively did the dishes (with no running water) and cleaned the place up.
It was mid afternoon by the time we left the cabin. We knew that we would be finishing in the dark, but we didn’t care. The temps were surprisingly warm, in the 20s, the air was still and clear, and we were excited about skiing into the sunset and darkness beyond.
Sunset found us once again atop The Dome with a stunning view of Denali lit on fire by the red sun on the horizon. It was fully dark by the time we made it to the belly of the first valley. Headlamps helped us stay on the trail until the moon gained enough height in the sky to break free of the distant clouds and light the way.
The climb up the other side of the valley was long and arduous, but the peace and the beauty of the evening helped to keep our spirits up. At one point while we were taking a short break, a low distant moan that seemed to start as a part of the wind or an echo in our heads materialized and grew in strength into the unmistakable howl of a wolf. It sounded close in the nearly breathless night, but I figured it was actually quite far off. Still, it is almost impossible to hear a wolf howling while in the wilderness and not feel the hair on your neck rise in salute to the eerie sound.
The end of the trail did not arrive a moment too soon. From the trailhead, we could see back down into the wide valley we had just crossed. To the north, some dim auroras were lightly shimmering just off the horizon. It was a shame there was not more activity, because here at Mile 93 of the Elliot Highway, 100 miles from any appreciable source of light pollution, the viewing conditions would have made even a modest display look spectacular.
We stayed that night in Fairbanks and enjoyed a leisurely drive back to Anchorage the following day. It was another gem of a day offering some really great views of the Alaska Range as we drove, stopping often to get photographs. Just past Cantwell, we pulled over to get some shots of a herd of caribou grazing near the road, and then rode on the rest of the way to Anchorage.
It was a great trip. I will be back.
Photos by Mike Latrielle
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