This 8.3-mile out-and-back hike with a 1,900-foot elevation change isn’t for the faint of heart, but those who complete it will be rewarded with spectacular views and a soothing natural hot spring.
Dawn and I chose the RV life to ditch the chained-to-a-lease, 9-to-5 grind. Instead, we wanted to eat, drink, run, hike, bike, camp, and generally experience the continent from coast to coast.
We left Massachusetts on June 1, 2019 en route to Alaska, covering nearly 7,000 miles in those first 30 days. And we did a lot of stuff!
- Got drenched at Niagara Falls
- Drank awesome Queen City beer
- Marveled at The Music City’s murals
- Walked around America’s only town with a population of one
- Gawked at Mount Rushmore
But one thing we saved to the very last day of our first month full-timing?
On June 30 we set out for a monster 15.5-mile hike in Alaska’s Chena State Recreation Area: The Angel Rocks to Chena Hot Springs Trail.
- Difficulty: Moderate to strenuous
- Distance: 8.3-mile out-and-back trail
- Elevation Gain: 1,900 feet
- Highest Elevation: 2,800 feet
- Projected Time: 5-8 hours one way
Wildfires and smoke everywhere
This area of Alaska has been especially impacted by the 120-plus wildfires that have burned nearly two million acres this summer. It’s on pace to be one of the five worst wildfire seasons on record.
There were days when the Air Quality Index crossed into the hazardous range, which made outdoor activity difficult.
We rolled the dice and drove an hour north of Fairbanks in hopes that the smoke wouldn’t be too bad. Our gamble paid off. While the horizon was awash with smoke, it didn’t impact our ability to breathe. The hike was on.
The Angel Rocks to Chena Hot Springs Trail is an 8.3-mile one-way trek that spans two separate trails:
- Angel Rocks Loop Trail (3.7-mile loop)
- Chena Hot Springs Trail (6.5-mile out-and-back trail)
You pick up the trail at the Angel Rocks Trailhead about 50 miles north of Fairbanks. Then you begin the steady climb up the Angel Rocks Loop Trail around several granite tors called the Angel Rocks.
What is a tor? A tor is a prominent outcropping from an otherwise smooth and gradual hillside or mountain ridge. These granite tors formed millions of years ago when hot magma from the earth’s mantle pushed upward into the crust, then cooled to form hard granite towers surrounded by softer rock. Over time tectonic activity pushed the crust upwards to form the mountains while gradual erosion washed away the softer rock, leaving the granite towers behind. The end result is the granite tors seen here.
Being a loop, the Angel Rocks Trail has both an upper and lower trail, and you’d take both (in whatever order) if you solely did the entire 3.7-mile loop.
If you elect to continue onto the Chena Hot Springs Trail to the hot springs, you can take either the upper or lower trail; they converge at the top.
The Chena Hot Springs Trail begins at the conversion of the upper and lower Angel Rocks Trails, 1.6 miles into the upper trail and 2.1 miles into the lower trail. This convergence is at the highest point along the Angel Rocks Loop Trail after you’ve climbed around 900 feet.
Once at this convergence, you simply follow the Chena Hot Springs Trail about 6.5 miles until you reach the end at the Chena Hot Springs Resort.
From the Angel Rocks Trailhead to the highest point along the Chena Hot Springs Trail, you’ll have climbed about 1,900 feet in elevation. Your legs are going to want that soothing hot springs soak.
Unless you have a ride waiting for you at the hot springs, you’ll need to figure out how you’re getting back to the trailhead. You have a few options, which I’ve listed from easiest to most difficult:
- Bring a friend and drive separately, leaving one car at the hot springs
- Chain up a bicycle at the hot springs and ride back 7.2 miles on Chena Hot Springs Rd to the trailhead
- Walk the 7.2 miles back along the road
- Retrace the 8.3-mile hike
Note: Fairbanks, AK does have Uber and Lyft, but that’s about one hour south. There are no drivers around the Chena State Recreation Area, so don’t bank on a ridesharing app to get you back.
We were feeling the fatigue after the 8.3-mile hike to the hot springs, so we went with Door #3.
How to get to the Angel Rocks Trailhead
The trailhead is just off Chena Hot Springs Road about one hour north of Fairbanks, AK at Mile Marker 48.9. Heading north, it’s right before the bridge crossing over the North Fork of the Chena River.
There’s a self-pay $5 daily parking fee at the trailhead. It’s also quite buggy at the beginning when you’re walking along the river, so bring bug spray.
The trail is well-worn and easy to follow as you cut through a dense forest of birch and spruce.
After about 0.8 miles you’ll reach the lower convergence of the upper and lower trails. We elected to follow the upper trail.
Around this point you’ll start to gain elevation, giving you some nice views of the Chena River below.
The forest thins out as you gain elevation. The climb isn’t slippery, though it’s certainly a good workout. There are stairs in a couple of places to assist you.
You’ll recognize the tors when you see them. Not all of them are as massive and pointy as the one pictured in the overview above, but they’re all pretty cool looking.
Keep walking up and around the tors and soon you’ll find the convergence of the upper and lower Angel Rocks Trails as well as the Chena Hot Springs Trail.
At this point you have a choice to make:
- Continue onward on the out-and-back Chena Hot Springs Trail with another 1,000-plus feet of elevation gain, or
- Take the easy way out and loop back on the Angel Rocks Trail.
We pushed onward!
Now you’re walking along the mountain ridge where there are far fewer trees. It’s mostly shoulder-height shrubs with moss and lichen growing low to the ground.
The trail is pretty easy to follow for a while, but soon you’ll come across a rock field where it’s less obvious where to go.
Walk to the right, around the rock field, and you’ll find the trail again about 100 yards out. Keep moving onward and upward and soon you’ll find this pink flag stuck into a rock pile on the ground.
Phew! You’re going the right way. I thought this flag meant we had reached the highest elevation on the hike, but that wasn’t the case. There’s still about two miles of climbing left.
The trail is less obvious at this point. It weaves around some trees and is overgrown in places.
Keep an eye out for the pink and orange flags that let you know you’re going the right way.
Once you forge your path through the scraggly brush, you’ll find yourself walking along an open ridgeline dotted with black spruce trees. My guess is the views are amazing. Even clouded by smoke, it was still beautiful.
The trail continues like that until you reach the first mile marker on the Chena Hot Springs Trail, which occurs at Mile 3.
Uphill hiking can be slow. To this point it’s been all uphill (with the occasional break) but no downhill segments. It took about 2.5 hours to get to Mile 3, though we did stop to take photos in some places. We got started around 9:45 am, which means it was just about lunchtime.
Conveniently, there’s a bench where you can sit down, eat lunch, and enjoy the amazing views.
This spot also makes for some great photo ops of both the landscape and your hiking group.
When your rest is over, it’s time to keep moving along the ridgeline. As you can see in the photo below, you’ve just about reached the highest elevation on this hike.
The mile markers are prominent at most points along the Chena Hot Springs Trail. Soon you’ll reach Mile Marker 4, which marks the highest elevation on the Angel Rocks to Chena Hot Springs Trail.
Push on laterally for another 0.2 miles and you’ll finally begin your descent.
Right now you’re at about 2,800 feet. Your destination, Chena Hot Springs Resort, is at about 1,300 feet. So, over the next 4.5 miles you’ll descend about 1,500 feet. That’s a consistent 6.3% downward grade.
Your legs will rejoice.
The first part of the descent is through dense pine and shrubbery, but the trail is still easy to follow.
Mile Marker 5 brings you to an intersection of sorts.
Ultimately, you’ll keep going downhill about 3.3 more miles to continue to the Chena Hot Springs. But first, take a right to check out a public use shelter about 100 feet away.
Note: The photo above is taken looking up, back towards where we came. Follow the trail Dawn is standing on to go back up the trail. Walk towards the camera to check out the shelter.
Anyone can stay in the Angel Rocks Shelter. It isn’t the Ritz Carlton, but it’ll get the job done in a pinch.
As you can tell from the graffiti on the wall, we aren’t the first people to visit. Some people used the shelter to escape sudden downpours.
Others apparently did this hike in the snow?
On October 14 the average temperature in Fairbanks is just below freezing. You guys are crazy.
We felt compelled to leave our mark, too. Unfortunately, all we had was a pen.
With just 3.3 miles of downhill hiking to go, Dawn and I were eager to get to the hot springs. I won’t lie, I was in a little pain. This was my inaugural trek in my new hiking boots, and the downhill stomping was putting some pressure on my left big toe.
Wait until you see the bruise that developed underneath the toenail.
Continuing down the hill, the forest quickly gets thick. It hasn’t rained much in Alaska this summer, contributing to the wildfires around the state, but this part of the trail was still a little damp and muddy in spots. I can only imagine it gets worse when it isn’t as dry.
But it did open up and dry out in parts.
Just over a mile beyond the shelter, you’ll reach a pair of signs.
The trail continues downward, hugging the side of the mountain. It gets a little narrow in parts, but it isn’t dangerous.
As you go downhill, you go through the same ecosystems you saw on the way up, except in reverse. Soon you’ll be back among the white birch.
But then you come upon something new: A dense patch of tall ferns. They’re so light and fluffy. Honestly, it felt like walking through a children’s book.
Among the ferns is a welcomed sight: Mile Marker 7!
Once past the ferns, the trail might be a little muddy, but it’s still easy to find your way. Then you come across a dandelion patch.
The dandelions mark an intersection. Follow Dawn’s lead and go left.
Dawn is actually pointing at a sign that says “Lodge” in bold, green letters.
The last mile of the hike treks through forests like the one shown below. Keeping with the theme of this hike, the path is easy to follow.
Around mile eight (no mile marker) you’ll come to a dirt road. Go right down the dirt road.
This road takes you down into the rear of the Chena Hot Springs Resort.
I’m not 100% sure what the Aurorium is, but some quick Googling indicates it’s the site of an expensive three-day retreat hosted by the Chena Hot Springs Resort. If I had $1,800 lying around, I’d be down for it.
Those signs above mean you’re on resort property. Just ahead you’ll see the rear of the building. You made it!
Once you hit the blue-green cart and building, you’ve officially made it.
All told, it took us five hours to hike the entire 8.3-mile trail. The first 4.0 miles (all uphill) took three hours. The last 4.3 miles (all downhill) took two hours.
When Dawn and I strolled up with our hiking backpacks, there were a bunch of people soaking in the hot springs. I’ll be honest, it felt pretty cool walking into the building to pay our $15 entry fee covered in sweat. It felt like we earned it.
The resort has men’s and women’s locker rooms, as well as coin-operated lockers if you want to store your valuables. We packed our bathing suits, so we changed and then brought our packs out to the lounge area and sat down at one of the picnic tables.
We floated and soaked for about 20 minutes before deciding it was time to finish up our hike. After all, we still had to go back and it was 2:30 pm!
While deliberating our next course of action–follow the 8.3-mile trail or walk the 7.2-mile street–we saw some of Alaska’s big game wildlife right behind the hot springs.
Having seen everything there is to see along the 8.3-mile Angel Rocks to Chena Hot Springs Trail, we elected to take the easy way back to our car and walk along Chena Hot Springs Road.
At the entrance/exit to the resort, we saw this sign. It was just another reminder that life in Alaska is different than life in Hawaii.
Chena Hot Springs Road is flat and easy. There just isn’t a ton of shoulder on the side of the road, so be aware of oncoming cars if you decide to walk this way.
The road was less scenic than the trail, but our feet needed it. At this point it was a mental game as we counted down the road’s mile markers looking for magic number 49.
We averaged about 18 minutes per mile–we timed each mile to help pass the time–which means it took us just over two hours to walk back to the parking lot at the trailhead.
Our final stats: 15.5 miles hiked, five hours to the hot springs, 30 minutes at the hot springs, two hours back, two incredibly fatigued hikers, and one badly bruised toenail.
Dawn wants me to apologize for my toe hair. I’m not sorry.
Parting thoughts after hiking 15.5 miles along the Angel Peaks to Chena Hot Springs Trail
Overall, it was an incredible experience. The fatigue we felt was real, but we were still able to complete the 8.3-mile one-way hike in just five hours.
I’m not in peak hiking shape, but I’m not too out of shape either. Most official documentation I’ve read for this hike recommends 5-8 hours, and that seems spot on.
If you do this hike during the summer, the long daylight hours give you plenty of time to finish the round-trip trek without fear of the sun setting. Outside of the sunny season, be aware of when you begin and plan to end.
Food and drink
We each ate one peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a few handfuls of trail mix and jerky, and we each drank about a half-gallon of water.
We each brought a gallon with us but only needed half of it. That water added weight to our packs–a gallon weighs 8.4 lbs–but better safe than sorry.
Some hiking resources recommend three quarts for a six-hour hike. We were out for a little over eight hours, so we probably under-drank, but we had the water if we needed it.
It’s worth noting there’s a stream about 0.5 miles into the hike near the Angel Rocks Trailhead that you can drink from, but that means it’s at the very beginning or very end, assuming you start from the trailhead. If you instead start from the Chena Hot Springs Resort and turn around at the Angel Rocks Trailhead, you can fill up at this stream and enjoy the soothing soak at the end.
(Not going to lie, it was hard to get out of the hot springs and want to hike 7.2 miles back along the road!)
This is a difficult hike, but the views and the changing scenery are worth the effort. Despite the smokiness, we had an amazing time. Hopefully your hike is smoke-free!