National Park Number: 28 of 59
I’m gonna be honest and admit that we didn’t have high expectations for Hot Springs. Maybe we missed some devoted fans, but it’s seemed like the word on the street among the parks-obsessed crowd is that Hot Springs is pretty missable. In Katmai we met a couple who had been to every national park and they led the conversation by talking about how lame Hot Springs was.
I sort of understand where they may have been coming from. Hot Springs is definitely unique among national parks; it’s very small and right in the middle of a city, and though there is nature and hiking, the main part of the park (and the reason it’s a park in the first place) is essentially just a row of buildings. But despite, or maybe because of, its unusual history, we ended up really loving this place.
Here’s the deal: Hot Springs is home to an unusual water phenomenon, wherein 4000-year-old rain runoff, superheated over centuries by the Earth’s core, is pressure-forced up through fissures in the ground and emerges as hot springs. For hundreds of years (and probably before), the thermal waters have been renowned for their purity and curative properties. In the early 1800s, the springs flowed into open creeks and anyone could come soak in the water. The federal government declared the area a “national reservation” in 1832—it was the first protected land in the country. But the government didn’t do much to regulate use of the land, and people began claiming areas and building bathhouses over the springs. In 1875, the government cancelled all private claims to the land and began regulating use of the hot springs; by then, almost all the springs had been diverted to supply water for buildings, and most of the rest were capped off and, in some places, bricked over to protect the water for drinking.
So today, the main attraction of the park is the row of eight bathhouses remaining from the city’s spa heyday. These were built between 1892 and 1923; one (the Buckstaff) has been in continuous operation as a traditional bathhouse, and another (the Quawpaw) is now a modern spa. The Superior is run as a restaurant and brewery, making beer and root beer from the thermal waters (we tested the root beer, and found it to be top-notch), and the other buildings are used by the Park Service.
We started our visit at one of these—the Fordyce—for a ranger tour of Bathhouse Row. Behind the Fordyce, at the old Grand Entrance of the park, there is a faucet where thermal water comes straight out of a tap, and we all tried a cup. Because the water comes out of the ground at 143 degrees, it’s safe to drink without any filtering. It’s completely clear, tasteless and odorless, and the park encourages people to take as much of it as they want. Along Bathhouse Row, there are several spigots and fountains where people can fill up bottles and jugs to take with them—and during the two days we spent there, there was a constant stream of people, mostly local, loading their cars up with jugs and tanks of the hot springs water. This is a departure from the natural resource management of most places—usually taking anything from a park is completely verboten. But one of Hot Springs’ missions is to keep this water safe and available for anyone who wants it, and that generosity brings a really amazing community element to this park.
A bit up the hill from the spigot is a display springs where we watched the water flowing naturally out of the mountain. Then we continued our tour along the Grand Promenade, a walkway that extends along the hillside behind Bathhouse Row.
We ended our tour at the Fordyce, where the traditional bathhouse structure has been preserved as an excellent museum. Back in the day, people would come from all over to spend time in Hot Springs “taking the waters” (soaking and drinking) and participating in the area’s other attractions that sprang up to entertain tourists. The bathhouses had some famous devotees, including baseball players like Babe Ruth who came as part of pre-season training. The town had a pretty wild reputation, and the street across from Bathhouse Row was lined with bars, gambling establishments, and brothels. It was a famous gangster hangout, where Al Capone and company came to escape the heat from big-city law enforcement and enjoy the heat from the springs.
The next day, we started out in the wooded hills above Bathhouse Row. On Hot Springs Mountain, there is a 216-ft. observation tower, and we took the elevator to the top to look out over the city and the surrounding Ouachita Mountains. The tower has an excellent little museum about the town’s history, with a special exhibit on Bill Clinton, who grew up in town; we perused for a while and took in the views before heading back down for a little hike around in the hills.
Afterward, we headed back into town and I decided to go to the spa—strictly for educational purposes, of course. Whatever you think about Hot Springs National Park, you’ve got to concede it’s pretty awesome that a spa visit is integral to a full experience of the place.
Of the two operational spas on Bathhouse Row, I opted for the Buckstaff to get the full traditional experience. And it was an experience. David and I went to a bathhouse on our honeymoon in Turkey, and it was one of our favorite things we’ve ever done. Getting mercilessly loofahed by a large Turkish man will forever be a cherished moment. I was hoping for a similar experience, and while it wasn’t quite the same, it was still a tremendously relaxing (read: soporific) 90 minutes. All the water used in the bathhouse comes straight from the springs, and the bathing process has stayed the same for a hundred years.
I started with a soak in a big private jet tub, where I was also given cups of hot mineral water to sip. Afterward, I was laid out on a table and wrapped in towels soaked in scalding thermal water; this was the peak heat I experienced and it was INTENSE. I was given ice chips to chew on by my bath attendant (who was wonderful, and walked me through everything with a lot of detail, so that in the end I felt more like the experience happened to me instead of being something I actively did).
After the hot packs, I was taken into a steam cabinet, where my body was enclosed in a vapor-filled box with my head emerging from a little hole. Then I soaked again in a sitz bath, and finally rinsed off in a “needle shower”, which was not at all needle-like, but just involved rinsing off under a bevy of vertical showerheads.
As a finale, I was given a 20-minute Swedish massage, which was totally delicious, and then I was done. Steamed and sleepy and ready to rejoin civilization.
If you go to Hot Springs, I would highly recommend ponying up for a spa experience (unless you’re like David, and hate being pampered. Because believe me, I tried to get him to go, but he’s not into being touched by strangers.) Be warned: there’s a hefty degree of nudity, so if you’re averse to being seen in the buff, you might try the co-ed Quawpaw, where you can soak in you swimsuit. But it was really fun to see what the bathing process was like back in Hot Springs’ prime, and I loved that all the baths and implements were historical.
After my spa experience, I met back up with David and the kids (who’d been working on Jr. Ranger requirements) and we set the bus up near one of the city’s jug-filling stations for dinner. We made ramen and hot chocolate and tea with the mineral water and it was excellent. We also entertained ourselves by quoting John Mulaney’s monologue about meeting Bill Clinton (which can be seen in his Netflix special “The Comeback Kid”), which I believe to be the peak of American storytelling and one of the funniest things I've ever heard.
Hot Springs is an unusual national park for sure, but we loved learning about its history, filling up on thermal water, and, obviously, going to the spa. It also must be said that Arkansas has some of the friendliest locals we’ve yet to meet, and the park rangers here were super passionate about sharing the park’s history. Don’t come here expecting a wilderness experience, but do come here—it’s the smallest national park, but a really fun experience.