The Interior of Alaskan Life 4: Tolovana Hot Springs, so close yet so far away.

The first thing that comes to  mind when planning a trip to Tolovana Hot Springs, Alaska is soaking in the incredible natural, hot water with good company.  The second thing is weather and the ~11 mile trail that leads to the cabins.

A trip to Tolovana Hot Springs, Alaska is always unforgettable.  Not just because you have an incredible time soaking up the waters in the wilds of Interior Alaska but the trip in or out might, to employ an overused term, be described as epic. Whether it’s losing the trail because of a white-out, a broken snow machine, broken ski, frozen body part, dog got caught in a trap, snow machine won’t start, or the car won’t start, something seems to happen. We expect it and we plan for it. The trail also holds an amazing view.  Looking south across Minto Flats, then the Tanana Flats up to the Alaska Range and, the big one, Denali inspires awe to say the least.

A group of nine of us met for breakfast at local greasy spoon before setting off on the 2.5 hour drive to the trail head.  Weather seemed good, 9 below zero.  It had been 30-40 below zero the week leading up to the trip with everybody waiting to see who would be the first to fold and not go. At the trail head it was 17 below and the wind was howling.  Winds are typically high at the trail head this time of year and the day length is roughly four hours.
Alaska travel

Various forms of transport get people from the road to the cabins. I have skied most years myself.  This year I would be on snow machine as were two others.  We knew from the trail report that there would be little snow so most people planned on walking, but one rode a “fat” bike (mountain bike modified with large tires).
winter tours in Alaska

The three of us with machines hauled all the gear while those on foot carried only extra clothes and food. Not every trip out to Tolovana Hot Springs has snow machine support and under those circumstances it’s typical to load that gear in a sled and drag it. Anyhow, the view was staggering.

Sawtooth Mountain, Alaska

Sunset over Denali

The three of us on machines arrived first, naturally, unloaded gear, fetched water, and lit fires in the three cabins. After a beer we decided to head back and see how the hikers were faring becasue..who knows.  Our resident biker was already in camp.  The walkers were all fine except for one dog that had a hard reaction to the cold.  He was ushered by machine back to camp.

Snow machine tours Alaska

The trail to Tolovana is a small section of the Dunbar Trail that runs between Fairbanks and Livengood.  This trail was originally cut by the first Caterpillar to arrive in Alaska in 1911. Word had gotten out in Fairbanks that there was gold up around Tolovana and Livengood so many men set out for them thar hills to strike it rich. Transportation and shipping were extremely difficult in that era so a couple guys bought that caterpillar and agreed to cut trail. Their final product opened up Alaska even further and continued to see high use through the years.

Tolovana Hot Springs, December 7 at 930AM

The other chore, really the first thing to do after arriving at the springs is to pull the cold hoses out so the water gets good and hot for the first soak. The hoses literally run from the source hot water seeping from the hillsides and the cold water from the creek. We had incredibly strong winds which really whisked away a fair amount of that heat so our first soak was “on the low end of perfect”, I believe is what Jeremy called it.

Tolovana Hot Springs, December 7 at 11AM

But you cannot beat a cup of coffee while sitting in the hot waters at 10:30 in the morning watching the sunrise. The second soak was a success.

Denali National Park

Sunset the second day of the trip.  That is Denali (aka Mt. McKinley of Denali National Park) on the left.

Alaska Travel

Same position minutes later with no zoom.  Minto flats is to the right of the sun.

Thanks for having a look at The Interior of Alaskan Life.  It’s a good one. See us on Facebook or even Twitter. Next week we’ll be back in Colombia if uploading time permits and then on to the Galápagos Islands .

IMG_0060Post tub activities…

Thanks to Tom, Melissa, Mark, Ellie, Jeremy, Dianna, Melissa, and Sally. Another great rip to Tolovana.  Thanks for all the help. Until next time.

87 thoughts on “The Interior of Alaskan Life 4: Tolovana Hot Springs, so close yet so far away.

    • I guess when a person has done something so many times it;’s easy to leave out some familiar details. With both the cold and hot hoses in the tub the water is often just like warm. For that reason one person usually goes up and checks the status of the tub. Pulling out the cold hose is just like turning off the cold tap at home and letting only the hot water run. And, yep, that is a really great trip.


  1. Hey Mike! I was in Alaska just last summer, loved the landscape, blue skies, mountain goats and abundance of trees… wish I could have seen more, spent more time in the clean fresh air. I don’t think I could muster up the courage for a sub-zero visit, but it certainly does create some crisply gorgeous photos! Thanks for dropping by my blog 😉 Keep warm.. (brrrrr!! you’d never know I was born in the Canadian TUNDRA!!)


    • Glad you enjoyed your visit. Funny about never knowing you’d be tundra born. Many people born and raised here run as far away as fast as possible as soon as possible. Where are you know then?


  2. I was born in Fairbanks and left when I was about 18 months. I have always wanted to make the trek back. Reading this just gives me one more reason why I’d love to visit! Sounds divine 🙂


    • The light that time of year is surreal for most of the short day. The water is a geothermal heat source nearby. I am not a geologist so don’t not know exactly what it looks like down there. We have many thermal springs in Interior Alaska though. Have you been to a natural hot spring?


  3. An real adventure, with some good pictures, especially the sunsets. Can’t imagine how hard a journey like that would have been before all the modern equipment, clothing and machines available today!


  4. Great photos! I’d don’t think I’d ever want to go myself, but it’s great to read about it. One of my sons and his girlfriend visited Denali last summer (yours) and had a great time. They also (briefly) visited Columbia, and he’s a bird man, like yourself! Small world.


  5. Great pictures, though I have to say I am not a great fan of snow but that is because the stuff is cold and that’s because Cats run about bare pawed in the stuff, but then I suppose that is better than wearing four little booties isn’t it?

    Imagine the nonsense that would be talked about a self-respecting Cat if he wore those!


    The Cat


    • Thanks. It’s funny to write about it after doing that trip so many times. I feel like I’ve done it no justice to be honest. Translating experience into text is such a challenge but a worthy one. I am glad you enjoyed it. Cheers


  6. Great post Mike, this natural hot tub works exactly like one I used to visiti guiding trekkers in Iceland … many days trek away from anywhere, the hot lake (with hot and cold running streams!) was just awesome. Bit gritty down below though 🙂 Alaska sounds more appealing all the time reading your stuff. One question for summer visitors… mosquitoes? Not a problem but is spring, fall or winter better?


  7. How I want to try all these things … Walking in the snow, being in a cabin in the woods, soaking in that tub with hot water and photographing Northern sunrise and sunset … We used to go to a cabin in the woods when I was in University in Bulgaria, but it was never that interesting as it seems in your post!


      • There is a road, with good car you can get to it, the last 3-4 km though are not that friendly, so we usually left the cars there and walked to the cabin, which is fine, even in the snow. In Bulgaria weather conditions are not that extreme … It was always fun, but fun from the point of view 20-22 years old students will have 🙂 I don’t ski, never learned how to, even if my home place is 10 km away from one of the nicest ski resorts …


  8. Great trip. Never made it to Tolovana in winter (wonder why?). Chena yes. Funny how you mentioned Livengood. Remember sampling and mapping there for gold. Hoardes of squiters and various other flying annoyances. Sorta blacked out the sky. Winter is nice, huh?


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