Chena Hot Springs Resort really caters to the aurora viewing tourist trade. I recall seeing a television show that featured the snowcoaches used by the resort to transport guests up a steep 2.5 mile hillside to a viewing area at the summit. As I watched that day, I thought “Now there is something I must see and experience in my lifetime.” With my trip to Fairbanks planned around the University of Alaska – Fairbanks Geophysical Institute’s aurora forecast, I was committed to making the side trip to Chena Hot Springs to view the northern lights.
This tour is available to guests and non-guests alike. The price is $75 per person for the four hour experience. Folks gather at the resort’s activities center at 10pm for the half-hour trip up to the viewing area and heated yurt. The yurt is a tent-like structure that had two gas space heaters with a number of chairs and a couple of gas type lanterns for light. In the middle of the area is a large serving table with hot water for tea, coffee and hot chocolate. There is also an outhouse available should you have the need.
Our group was very small, just five in total. I thought that was the perfect number of people as it allowed us all plenty of space out on the snow-covered hilltop when the aurora became active. Some in our group were up there just to watch and experience the aurora while another woman and I were there to photograph as much as we could. I should point out that in attempting to take photos of the aurora, you cannot use standard point and shoot type cameras, nor can you use the flash. Photographing the aurora requires an SLR type camera (digital or film) with a wide angle, fast lens and the capability to manually control the exposure time. Before my trip to Alaska, I spent weeks reading and learning how to photograph the aurora so that I would be able to capture the experience to share with others. I was blessed that I had a wonderful time and great northern lights to shoot. On my night at Chena Hot Springs, the aurora was very active and colors vivid!
Between the solar sub-storms, it was possible to slip into the yurt to warm up. That was a real bonus since it was approximately -25° F with winds gusting to probably 20-30 MPH. It was very, very cold! I think the longest stretch of time spent out viewing and photographing the aurora was probably around 45 minutes.
Our time was over at 2am, so we loaded back into the snowcoach to head back down the hill to the resort. Everyone was pretty wiped out... I think some even slept despite the loud noise made by the vehicles snow treads. Once back to the resort, we could still see the aurora dancing over the hills surrounding the airstrip. As much as I would have liked to stay out and take more photos, I was tired and still cold to the bone so I opted for sleep instead.
If you are not interested in a committed four hour timeframe, or paying to view the aurora from the hilltop, you can go out onto the resort’s airstrip to view and photograph the light show. The resort also has an “aurorium” which is a building with glass window front from which you can observe the aurora. There is no charge to utilize the aurorium to consider that an option too.
If you go to Fairbanks or the Interior Region of Alaska to see the aurora borealis, I would encourage you to plan at least one evening out at Chena Hot Springs Resort to enjoy and photograph what is truly a remarkable experience!