On the frozen Alaska tundra, hot springs are sources of life. Like an oasis in the desert, the warm waters fuel a microclimate abundant in trees, algae, insects—and the animals that rely on them for food.
But it’s not just flora and fauna that are attracted to Alaska’s hot springs; geothermally heated groundwater has long had a magnetic pull for people, too. Early 20th-century settlers prized hot springs because their heat extended the region’s growing season, which lasted only 60 days a year around the northern city of Fairbanks, explains Gwen Holdmann, founding director of the Alaska Center for Energy and Power at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “When you were around hot springs, the ground was warm, so you were growing earlier and harvesting later,” she says.
Hot springs also made it possible to fuel indoor electricity and plumbing in areas that had none. A hotel built at Manley Hot Springs in 1907, long before there was anything even resembling an electrical grid in the Alaska interior, was entirely lit and heated by the natural energy produced there, says Jesse Born, part-owner of the Manley Hot Springs Resort.
Although Alaska has 79 thermal springs, half of which are concentrated on the Alaska Peninsula and Aleutian chain, only around 20 of them are used for energy, irrigation and bathing. Most don’t get more than a few thousand intrepid visitors a year. But a small handful of accessible springs that were first developed for tourism at the turn of the 20th century are popular. Chena Hot Springs Resort near Fairbanks, for example, welcomes 300,000 visitors to its healing waters annually, according to owner Bernie Karl.
Altogether, Alaska has three types of natural thermal springs, and only one kind, those found on the Aleutian Islands, is warmed by volcanic activity. The heat source for the water rising from the Central Alaska Hot Springs Belt, a band that stretches from Canada to the Bering Land Bridge, is different. It’s warmed not by magma but by the 90-million-year-old, uranium-rich granite through which it passes. As radioactive elements within the rock decay, heat is generated and transferred to circulating ground water making its way to the surface. Meanwhile, in Southeastern Alaska, warm waters are “associated with deep circulation along open faults and fractures,” Holdmann explains. “Where the plates are slipping along each other, there’s the opportunity for water to percolate for miles underground picking up heat, then coming back up to the surface.”
Despite their different origins, Alaska’s hot springs have one main thing in common: They’re perfect for a soak. It’s nothing short of an adventure to reach some of them, a trip that can require miles of hiking or dog sledding, or a boat or float plane to reach. Others are close enough to cities and paved roads that they can easily be reached by car in about an hour.
But no matter the journey, the water is always fine at these eight hot springs in Alaska.
Trocadero Soda Springs
At most of Alaska’s thermal pools, the water is glassy and still. But at Trocadero Soda Springs, an unusual effervescence comes from the water filtering through a crust of tufa made from hard deposits of silica or calcium carbonate. The carbonated spring is just one of several rainbow-colored thermal pools that bubble and hiss within a five-mile radius of Trocadero in Southeastern Alaska. Only Trocadero, though, has a grand entrance with two giant, golden, tufa-born steps leading to the water. Despite its unique appearance and composition, this spring doesn’t get many visitors. Located about 12 miles southeast of Craig on Prince of Wales Island, it requires a boat to access.
Serpentine Hot Springs
There’s no easy way to reach Serpentine Hot Springs in the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve on the Seward Peninsula. It’s a 100-mile journey no matter how you get there—on foot, snowmobile, plane or boat. But the destination, a rustic red bathhouse in a green alpine meadow beneath a ridge spiked with huge granite monoliths, is stunning in its isolation. Serpentine Hot Springs has been a place of spiritual importance for the Inupiaq for millennia, and every season brings something different: the silent hush of ice and snow in winter, carpets of wildflowers in spring, soft green grasses in summer, and wild berries and ruddy colors in fall. The adjacent bunkhouse, which sleeps up to 12 and requires no reservations, is open in every one of them.
Chena Hot Springs
Chena Hot Springs, about 60 miles northeast of Fairbanks, isn’t known just for its healing waters. Positioned at the center of a 40-square-mile geothermal area, the springs are the linchpin in an innovative vision of sustainability. The Chena Hot Springs Resort and its year-round greenhouse run off of the energy they generate. “We have the first geothermal plant in the world to make energy out of 165-degree [Fahrenheit] water, the farthest-north greenhouse in the world and the most productive greenhouse in the world,” says Karl—and that’s just the start. The resort’s next project is to build methane digesters to turn human waste into even more usable energy. But Chena’s sustainability measures aren’t what draw most of its annual visitors. They come for the same mineral-rich soak in the natural hot springs lake that has been attracting tourists since the first cabins were built in 1905. “It’s a miracle water, it’ll make you feel ten years younger,” says Karl. “I’m a firm believer that if you’re feeling kind of sad, you’re feeling kind of bad, you have to use the healing waters of Chena.”
Pilgrim Hot Springs
A century ago, Pilgrim Hot Springs on the Seward Peninsula was a Catholic orphanage for young refugees of the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic. In such a remote corner of Alaska, the children and their caretakers could only depend on themselves. “They had a farm and were really self-sufficient growing their own food,” says Holdmann. While ruins are all that remain of the orphanage today, its 20th-century history earned Pilgrim Hot Springs a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. Long before European descendants came to the region, however, these thermal pools were an important part of the Alaska Native landscape. These days, a consortium of Indigenous communities once again care for the land, managing its cabins and campsites, as well as renewable energy and farming projects. Open from mid-June to mid-September, the warm waters of the natural rock-lined pools boast dramatic views of the Kigluaik Mountains and are free for day-trippers from Nome, about 60 miles southwest.
White Sulfur Hot Springs
While few of Alaska’s hot springs have been developed into resorts, a handful have been outfitted with rustic cabins and bathhouses. The secluded White Sulfur Springs in Southeast Alaska’s West Chichagof-Yakobi Wilderness can only be accessed by boat, but, once there, a simple wooden bathhouse perched over a natural pool makes for an unexpectedly luxurious soaking tub. Panoramic views of Bertha Bay are visible through the bathhouse’s ocean-facing window, and from the small outdoor pool 50 feet away. Overnighters can camp nearby or reserve the White Sulfur Springs Cabin, a more modern iteration of one first built by the U.S. Forest Service in 1916. It has no electricity or running water, but a wood stove provides heat, notes Rebecca Peterman, recreation staff officer for the Tongass National Forest’s Sitka Ranger District. “The location is remote,” she warns. In every season, “visitors need to be self-sufficient and come prepared for harsh Southeast Alaska weather conditions.”
Goddard Hot Springs
At 153 degrees Fahrenheit, the Goddard Hot Springs are so hot that the tubs built to contain them have a cold-water valve for adjusting the temperature. The thermal pools on a grassy hillside of Baranof Island near Sitka are believed to be some of the first in Alaska to be visited by non-Native settlers. As early as 1800, Russian immigrants called the warm waters on the ocean’s edge Teplyya Tseplitel Yuchya Klyuchi, meaning “sheltered curative hot springs,” and by 1841, they’d built a hospital next door to take advantage of their healing properties. More recently, the city of Sitka has taken responsibility for the property, and it maintains two cedar bathhouses forming open shelters over the tubs, plus a boardwalk for easy maneuvering around the rocky shore. The boat trip to get to Goddard Hot Springs is full of twists and turns through a labyrinth of coves and channels, but the payoff is real: The only thing better than the hot springs are the views of the forest and ocean from their surface.
Manley Hot Springs
As early as 1907, hotelier Frank Manley was harnessing the hot springs that came to bear his name for his massive Hot Springs Resort Hotel, a property complete with an Olympic-sized swimming pool and a bowling alley. Back then, Manley was a mining town, and its hot springs were frequented by prospectors hoping to clean up and soothe their aching muscles. “Manley water does not have that usual sulfur hot springs smell,” says Born, which makes it especially attractive for a soak. But since the property reopened in 2021 (it had been owned by Born’s grandmother in the 1980s and ’90s), it’s primarily day-trippers from Fairbanks that come for a private one-hour soak in a continuous flow-through bathhouse. This summer, Manley Hot Springs Resort will add a second tub and bathhouse, and more cabins for visitors to stay and play, especially in the brisk winter months when the northern lights are aflicker.
Chief Shakes Hot Springs
Unlike many of Alaska’s hot springs, Chief Shakes in the Tongass National Forest can draw a crowd. It’s a favorite for locals from nearby Wrangell, who come for a healing soak in two seven-foot redwood tubs, one inside a screened-in wooden bathhouse, the other under the wide Alaska sky. The water naturally flows at a balmy 140 degrees Fahrenheit, but the tubs are equipped with cool-water pipes to adjust the heat to something more tolerable. Chief Shakes Hot Springs are only accessible by boat, and because of the river’s up-and-down tidal shift, it’s safest to hire a guide or go with a local. If it’s a weekend or holiday, there’s likely to be several families heading in the same direction.