Fairbanks to Chena Hot Springs, Alaska
Sometimes, it’s nice to bike with friends. Or, at least, a big, rolling group of friendly Alaskans. That’s what I figured when I registered for the 2012 Chena Hot Springs Bicycle Classic, from Fairbanks to Chena Hot Springs Resort, a breezy 62 miles that I would traverse in reverse on the following day.
The Fairbanks Cycle Club (FCC) hosts this annual ride each June; in 2012, it boasted 201 cyclists of all types. FCC coordinates full support, including snack stops, lunch at the finish, free passes to the hot springs, and vans to drive you back to Fairbanks that afternoon (most riders take this option). You may start in Fairbanks for the full 62 miles, or choose a shorter stint of 8, 17, or 33 miles. There’s only one long, straight stick of road between the city and the bubbling springs, so it’s nearly impossible to get lost.
To expand the trip, I packed my camping gear and tossed it into some friends' car, with a nod, a wave, and a “See you at the finish!” They drove out to meet me, both to lighten my load and as an excuse for them to spend a night at the resort, keeper of the hot springs since 1905.
Back on my bike, I waited with a group of ninety or so cyclists at the start outside of Musher’s Hall (ample parking) of the Alaska Dog Musher’s Association on Farmer’s Loop. From there, we pedaled east and turned left onto the Old Steese Highway. Then, a right onto Chena Hot Springs Road took us immediately under the overpass of the Steese Highway. This all happened within a matter of minutes. From there, we rode the lone ribbon of black draping across the rolling hills of Interior Alaska with hot springs on the mind.
There were enough cyclists to have someone to follow, but not so many that you couldn’t ride solo for a stretch. Preferring the solo route, I took the soft hills and slopes of the first 30 miles at a steady pace all my own. The full east-to-west span of the Alaska Range (including Denali) is often visible on the horizon to the south in sunny weather, suddenly appearing through breaks in the trees and at the right angle 'round a bend.
Jess Smith at the Granite Tors checkpoint of the 2012 Chena Hot Springs Bicycle Classic.
At about the halfway point, where the road flattens out, is Pleasant Valley Store, an institution in the tiny town of Two Rivers, home to several of Alaska’s top mushers. It’s the perfect stop for food, drinks, and a restroom break.
I chatted with one of the other cyclists, a doctor who happened to know a coworker of mine (a common occurrence in a small city like Fairbanks). Later, she told me of passing by a fork off the Chena River, which flows parallel to our route, and spotting a moose and its baby in the water. She stopped to watch, as the parent moose tried to persuade her young to cross the water—perhaps for the first time.
The final miles were flat and easy, and those who opted for a shorter ride pulled up into place alongside us. It started to rain, but we were all getting wet soon enough, anyway. The road ends at Chena Hot Springs Resort, the resort being the only reason the road was built in the first place. I helped myself to the buffet and found a spot among fellow finishers to swap stories from the ride.
It started to clear out as cyclists caught the shuttle back to Fairbanks. As for me, I slipped into a bikini (felt great after spandex) for a quiet and relaxing soak in the hot springs.
When my friends arrived later that afternoon, we staked out a campsite at the adjacent grounds (yurts and hotel rooms are also available). I locked my bike to a picnic table and settled in for the night.
Jess, and Katie Pingree-Shippee at the finish
The next morning, after stretching and packing up camp, I waved goodbye to my friends and set off on my own for the return trip. The soak from the day prior had eased out any soreness I may have noticed, and it felt good to get back to the road. This time, though, it was just me. I hooked in my earbuds and turned on my iPod to set the rhythm for the next 60 miles.
Traffic was light, but a few miles down the road I encountered a vehicle stopped in the grass, and a loose dog. A woman was trying to coax it to her, but it was wandering aimlessly down the centerline. I offered to try to ride up to it on my bike. She said it wasn't even her dog, but she was passing by and didn’t want it to be struck in traffic. By the time the dog was caught, traffic had stopped in both lanes and there were several other passersby in on the effort. Such is the nature of Alaskans, I’ve found.
It was a perfect day for biking, and the remainder of the miles slid by quickly to indie rock in my ears. Without other riders, the mood was different; less about a big event or the final destination and more significant as an experience in itself. I’m very glad I chose to make it an out-and-back overnight. As far as I could tell, there is no more perfect way to spend a Sunday.
Photos 1, 2, and 5 by Katie Pingree-Shippee; photos 3 and 4 by Jess Smith.
Tip for this adventure: Pre-register with Fairbanks Cycle Club for a discounted rate.
Favorite local bike shop: Goldstream Sports in Fairbanks, 711 Sheep Creek Road.