Monday, March 20, 2023

Tolovana Hot Springs - Which Mode of Transportation is Best?


My triceps were killing me. I struggled to shove my bike up the huge snow drift then take a step without sliding backwards. Success! 

But not done yet. Again. Push the bike forward, lock the brakes, step up, grunt. Don’t slide backwards. Push, brake, step, grunt. Push, brake, step, grunt. I was cursing my decision to bring my bike and not my skis. Who said bikes were faster? They certainly weren’t today!

We had reservations for a quick overnight to one of the Tolovana Hot Springs cabins. I had been to the hot springs twice – but both times on skis. Eric had been to the springs three times, but only on skis and kicksled. We knew people who had done it on bikes but hadn’t ever done that ourselves. 

The trail has a lot of steep ups and downs. The downhills are too steep for me to ski (especially the last 2 miles to the cabin). Scary and out of control. Not my cup of tea. A lot of the uphills are too steep to ski, too, so I end up walking and carrying my skis for much of the trail. I can usually only ski about half of the 10-mile trail. Maybe it would make more sense on bike? 

Lots of steep hills on the trail

But would the conditions be conducive to biking? It had been windy a few days before our trip and there had been a few inches of snow the week before. The trail has a reputation for being drifted in places. But we figured there had probably been a lot of traffic out to the hot springs since it is March (the best time of year for winter recreation) and spring break was the week prior. And the owner of the hot springs thought the trail would be decent.

After debating, we decided – what the heck – let’s try biking. (Eric’s kicksled is out of commission, so it was not an option for him.) Our good friend, Jill, decided to make a last-minute trip to Fairbanks while her husband is walking to Nome for the 7th time in the Iditarod Trail Invitational multisport race. She would join us walking and dragging a sled, her favorite way to travel in winter.

The morning we left, we checked the weather. Uh, oh! It was supposed to be nice during the day but overnight the winds would pick up to 30 mph with gusts to 50 mph. Should we still go? The wind was supposed to die down by morning, so we decided to chance it. The choice to go was a good one. 

But not without some effort.

Is Bike Pushing Biking?

At the trailhead, it was just a little breezy but warm and sunny. We said goodbye to Jill and headed down the hill on our bikes. We figured we would just meet her at the cabin. The trail starts with a 2-mile downhill. Eric ripped down this while I was a bit more conservative.

 The trail was a little squirrelly and I don’t like when my back wheel washes out, so I was slower. Once we hit the flat area, there was a lot of drifting snow. Snowmachines had made a pretty good trail, but it was still tricky riding. But we were mostly able to ride.

Riding on top of a huge drift that had obliterated the trail

Eric had a blast riding this. He likes the technical aspect of deciding which line to take and balancing while riding on uneven snow; me, not so much. Eric was laughing and whooping and hollering. It was a beautiful day, and I wasn’t not having fun, I just wasn’t having as much fun as Eric. But I was still glad I had taken my bike and not my skis. I would have walked a lot of the downhill and skiing the drifts would have been hard. 

Eric having fun biking

There was a bit of hike-a-bike over some of the bigger drifts, but we were mostly able to ride until we started up the long climb to Tolovana Dome. Then we were mostly pushing our bikes. Pushing a loaded bike is a LOT more work than walking and carrying skis. Now I was regretting our biking choice. We did get to ride in places, but the riding was trickier due to the drifting. 

Not bikeable

Still not bikeable

We had some rolling terrain before the final big descent down to the cabin. Finally, having bikes was the right choice! We could descend the steep downhills to the cabins and it wasn’t scary since I had my bike brakes to slow me down! 

I got quite a bit ahead of Eric and was surprised when he didn’t catch me as quickly as he normally does, since he is a much faster descender. I didn’t find out until we got to the cabin that he was having a problem with his through axle and couldn’t shift into a lot of his gears. Eric finally did catch me toward the bottom, and we biked into the cabin area close together. Eric checked out his bike while I walked around checking out the hot spring tubs. 

The frame cabin at Tolovana - our home for the night

Choosing the Right Tub 

View from the upper tub

There are three tubs for soaking and I wanted to check them all out. Which one should we use? Which one would have the optimal soaking experience? Which had the best view? Which was most out of the wind? Maybe we should make our way down from the upper tub to the lower tub and soak in all of them? We later had fun reading the logbook where many said they were middle or lower tub people. Nobody said they were upper tub people. We wondered what type of people upper tub people were. Somebody needs to do a study about this. We also wondered what type of tub people we might be.

Lower tub

Eric caught up to me while I was walking around. He figured out that something was wrong with his rear axle – probably a missing piece – but the bike is fairly new, and he doesn’t know it well. He didn’t want to mess with it too much. It was rolling and he could use one of his lower gears. He was more concerned with keeping the wheels rolling so that he could get back to the car without too much trouble. Bikes do tend to have more mechanicals than skis. Another point for skis.

Eric works on his bike on the cabin deck

Jill caught up to us not too long after we arrived at the cabin. Walking was only a little slower than biking! We all headed out to look for the fresh water spring, taking Jill’s sled along to make the water hauling easier. 

After dinner, we checked out the tubs. Another couple was in the upper tub (which had the best view) so we opted for the middle tub. There are three cabins and three tubs so everybody can have privacy while soaking. Getting in and getting out was tricky as it was about 15 F with 20 mph winds that were gusting even higher. But once in the water, it was sublime. The temperature was perfect, and we enjoyed soaking our tired muscles. The view from the middle tub wasn’t as good as the upper tub, but I liked the tub as it was the right depth for sitting on the bottom and having the water come up to your shoulders. So, although we didn’t try all of tubs, I might say that I’m a middle tub person.

Soaking in the middle tub

 We talked about coming back out at midnight and soaking in the lower tub while watching for auroras, but the wind kept getting stronger and once we were back in the cabin, we were too cozy to go back out.

Hiking vs Biking vs Skiing - Which is Best?

The next morning, we were up and out the door fairly early. Luckily the wind had died down and the temperature had risen. Jill left an hour before us as she figured it would take her longer to get back to the car than us since we were on bikes, and she was walking. It was another beautiful day going up and over the dome. We got so hot that we had to strip down to just our long john shirts. No jackets or gloves needed. A slight breeze on top of the dome was welcomed! 

Luckily, Eric’s bike held together on the way back. He was able to ride the flats and downhills but opted to just walk the steeper uphills and not stress the drive train. Biking uphill, I was only minimally faster than he was pushing his bike, anyway. And since he’s faster on the downhills, we ended up finishing together.

Meanwhile Jill got to the car an hour before us. We left the cabin an hour after her. So, even though we could ride faster on the downhills, pushing the bikes over the drifts and uphill slowed us down. Bikes were not an advantage on this trip. 

I checked my Strava, and we took about the same amount of time to ski in and out of Tolovana as we did biking, too. We decided that bikes would be an advantage, but only if there were bomber trail conditions with minimal drifting and no new snow. And since that happens rarely at Tolovana, I think next time we will take skis. 

Or Eric just may fix his kicksled. He claims that’s the best way to do the Tolovana trail. I’m a bit skeptical, but maybe pulling a kicksled over huge snow drifts is better than pushing a bike. It certainly can’t be any worse than: Push, brake, step, grunt. Push, brake, step, grunt. 

Actually, the worst thing is to not go at all. A trip to Tolovana Hot Springs is special. No matter how you get there.