Heal your ailments in Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas
The same week I returned from visiting Hot Springs, Arkansas, I noticed a large display of iconic Mountain Valley Spring Water green glass bottles at the Sprouts grocery store less than a mile from my home in East Wichita.
I forwarded the purchase because I had two glass jugs in my fridge filled with a water station in the same Ouachita mountain range where Mountain Valley has been supplying water for 150 years.
The water I carried across state lines didn’t last long. It tasted great, and drinking it reminded me of the few days I spent exploring the forest and the historic city center while learning about the geology and culture that, over the course of a decade to the end of the 1800s, transformed the area from a rough border town into a sleek spa town attracting celebrities, athletes and others in the hope that ‘taking the water’ would relieve arthritis, back pain and pain. ‘other ailments.
I wasn’t sure what to expect on my first visit to Hot Springs, a road trip sparked by news that Hot Springs National Park was celebrating 100 years as a national park. I hiked about 400 miles southeast of Wichita in late spring and the drive through west-central Arkansas was breathtaking, with heavily forested layers of every shade of green. extending as far as the eye can see. I could imagine that a walk here in the fall would be beautiful with a different color scheme (the area typically reaches the highest fall foliage in early November).
At 5,500 acres, Hot Springs National Park is the second smallest, behind St. Louis’ Gateway Arch National Park. I appreciated that it was overwhelming to get a good idea of what was on offer even with a short stay in the area. I was surprised to spend as much time enjoying the urban experiences as I did on the park’s 42 kilometers of trails and two scenic drives.
This is a testament to how the city and the national park system have integrated the park’s recreational opportunities with Magnolia-lined central avenue, where you’ll find historic Bathhouse Row structures to one side and shops, restaurants, museums and other attractions on the other side.
Behind Bathhouse Row is a wide path called the Grand Promenade. The 1 mile paved walk separates the lower mountain slope and the historic downtown. As you travel this route you will pass collection boxes for the 700,000 gallons of thermal water that flow daily, steam rising from springs and streams, manicured lawns with seating, and footpaths leading over far into the forest.
What are the hot springs?
Although Hot Springs National Park is 100 years old, that only represents its time as a national park. Park officials say this is the oldest area in the national park system when you factor in that Congress established the hot spring reserve in 1832 to preserve the region’s 47 thermal springs, 40 years before Yellowstone became the country’s first national park.
The waters had long attracted indigenous peoples for their medicinal and spiritual properties, then the first European settlers and eventually the masses arrived as the country’s transportation infrastructure developed. Simple cabanas evolved into elaborate spas which reached their peak in the 1920s. They remained popular until the 1950s, when interest in therapeutic baths declined as medicine evolved.
According to the National Park Service, the area’s namesake is spring water nearly 4,400 years old. It starts with rain falling and entering rock formations on top of mountains and moving 6,000 to 8,000 feet deep into the earth. When it reaches a major fault on the western side of the mountain, it is propelled towards the surface. It emerges at the base of Hot Springs Mountain, just behind Bathhouse Row, with an average temperature of 143 degrees Fahrenheit. The high water temperature kills most harmful bacteria and is controlled according to US standards for drinking water and spa use.
The park collects this spring water and distributes it unfiltered and unchanged. You can bathe in geothermal waters (indoors in spas or hotels only), you can drink the water in its natural form by filling your water bottle or decanter in several thermal fountains, or you can Try it brewed in a beer at the Superior Bathhouse Brasserie.
The thermal water is rich in minerals and is advertised as having no predominant smell or taste, which I have found to be true.
Hot springs today
Eight historic public baths remain on Bathhouse Row, all built between 1892 and 1923 and renovated in recent years. Two function as spas, one serves as a visitor center with a free museum, another is home to the first brewery in a national park. There is also a cultural center with free gallery exhibits for the park’s artist-in-residence program, a gift shop operated by the National Parks of America organization, and a boutique hotel and restaurant with a Mid-century modern style in the oldest visible structure in the row (1892).
You can visit at least everyone’s lobby for free to see exhibits about the building’s history. I found them all interesting to visit, but if you’re not interested in having your own spa experience, take a stroll through Fordyce Bathhouse; its historic exhibits will give you an idea of what a Hot Springs spa looked like in 1900 and some of the hydrotherapy techniques used that seem far-fetched by today’s standards.
Of the two active spas, Buckstaff Bathhouse has been in continuous operation since opening. It has tubs and original amenities to offer a traditional bathing package that visitors might have found when it opened in 1912.
I chose to go to Quapaw Bathhouse, which offers $ 20 public baths in their indoor thermal mineral water pools ranging from 96 degrees to 104 degrees. They also have private baths and a full service spa.
My best advice, whatever your budget: stay a short walk from the park and Bathhouse Row. You can get an affordable room at the modest Happy Hollow Motel right across from the National Park and a few blocks from Central Avenue, or opt for one of the hotels that bring water straight from the hot springs to your bathtub. bedroom.
You’ll appreciate the proximity to the park and the historic district, but if you have the time you might want to head to other areas of the city of Hot Springs for Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort, the Mid-America Science Museum, the 210 acres Garvan Woodland Gardens or one of the area’s lakes and state parks.
Another tip: Be sure to stop by Lamar Bathhouse, the park’s official gift shop, and pick up a 100th anniversary glass jug that you can fill from the thermal or cold fountains. While “take the waters” or “drink the elixir” – phrases that evoke the region’s heyday as “America’s spa” – may not cure you of your ailments, they are must see experiences in Hot Springs.
Ranger Ashley Waymouth’s Hiking Suggestions in Hot Springs National Park
Ashley Waymouth, a Hot Springs National Park ranger, offered these hikes for first-time visitors based on their fitness level and time available.
Great Promenade is a 1 mile paved loop around Bathhouse Row with views of the public baths, hot springs, and beautiful landscaping. There are waysides, benches and checkerboard tables along the Promenade.Goat Rock Trail is a moderate 1.1 mile trail packed with interesting geologic formations and stunning views of the Ouachita Mountains and the Spring Recharge Area.
Peak Trail to Hot Springs Mountain Loop combines multiple trails to create a 2.9 mile loop from Bathhouse Row to the top of Hot Springs Mountain.
West Mountain Loop is a 3.3 mile moderate to strenuous loop that takes hikers to the top and around West Mountain, with distant views of rocky outcrops and downtown Hot Springs.
Oertel Trail to Goat Rock to Upper Dogwood to Hot Springs Mountain to Peak Trail features a fun 5.4 mile loop around Hot Springs Mountain on some of the park’s most popular trails, including the Oertel Trail which goes from moderate to steep.
If you are going to
Hot springs, Arkansas
400 km southeast of Wichita