We went to Hot Springs National Park because ... well, that's what we do. We go to National Parks whenever we are in the area of one. We knew nothing about this park and, while we learned a lot, it wasn't what we expected from a National Park.
I have to admit that we really didn't know anything about Hot Springs. All I knew was that there is a Hot Springs National Park, and we intend to visit as many National Parks as we can.
And on this bright, clear day - about 20 degrees cooler than the last two days - a hot bath in the springs' mineral waters sounded good. So we decided to just go see what this National Park was all about.
We headed out and decided to drive a longer route through Hot Springs Village which is a separate town north of Hot Springs. We knew Arkansas Highway 7 through the village turned into Central Avenue in downtown Hot Springs.
We then followed signs to the Hot Springs National Park Visitor Center. They took us right into downtown Hot Springs. From what I had read, I was confused about the relationship between the city of Hot Springs and the National Park.
Is the city actually within the National Park? Surely the park just borders the city and the Visitor Center is just within the city. Right? Wrong!
Here is the best summary I could find from the City of Hot Springs website:
Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas is the only American city nestled within a national park. That is because the United States government recognized its uniqueness and gave it protected status in 1832 as the first Federal Reservation. It became a National Park in 1921, and the City of Hot Springs was officially incorporated in 1876.
Hot Springs’ legacy springs from the thermal waters that are its namesake. There are 47 hot springs which, for thousands of years, have issued forth from the southwestern slope of Hot Springs Mountain at a temperature of 143 degrees F and a rate of nearly a million gallons a day. The waters, having traveled through many layers of filtering rock on their way to the earth’s surface, have been found to be nearly 100% pure.
Traveling back in time to the year 1541, when the Spanish explorer Hernando DeSoto arrived in Hot Springs and drank the thermal waters, he discovered what the native American Indians had experienced as long as 10,000 years ago. This Valley of the Vapors, nestled in the Ouachita Mountains, was a place of peace where various tribes would put aside their differences and gather to enjoy the mysterious springs. Since then, visitors have come for healing, rejuvenation, and recreation.
World-famous Bathhouse Row, consisting of eight architecturally unique, turn-of-the-century bathhouses in the heart of the downtown historic and arts district, is supervised by the National Park Service. One of the bathhouses, the Fordyce, currently operates as a beautifully restored museum where visitors can learn more about the colorful history which shapes Hot Springs to this day.
We did not know the above until after we arrived in the downtown area. That's why it seemed so strange to us to be driving on city streets looking for the Visitors Center.
We ended up driving past the parking areas and drove up the windy Hot Springs Mountain road to the Hot Springs Mountain Tower. It sits on top of the mountain which is the source of the 47 hot springs and rises up an additional 216 feet for a view of the town and surrounding Ouachita Mountains.
This shot was taken from the open air top level.
Since it was cold and windy on that level, we moved down one level to the glass-enclosed section for this photo.
There was a lot of information about the history of the area and some "Myth vs Reality" information.
We drove back down the mountain noticing the numerous trails and lookouts. It was a good drive on a pretty autumn day.
Back in town we parked in the free city parking garage. This shot of two bathhouses, the Buckstaff and Ozark, and the old Army-Navy Hospital was taken from the garage.
The following photos are of three of the eight bathhouses on Bathhouse Row.
The original entrepreneurs just built tents over the various springs and charged travelers. Later, they upgraded to wooden shacks. But forest fires and the moisture from the springs kept destroying the bathhouses.
Eventually sturdier materials were used to construct the eight bathhouses currently on Bathhouse Row. However, the bathhouses couldn't keep up with the rising costs of their opulence and went out of business. Only the Buckstaff is still operating.
The Fordyce, below, is now the National Park Visitor Center, and the only one we actually got to see. The Buckstaff was closed this afternoon for Veterans Day.
We went inside and watched the short film history of the area. Then we took the self-guided tour.
This was a typical bath.
Here is a hydrotherapy room.
This statue of DeSoto and an Indian Maiden is the center of the mens' baths. It's actually a fountain depicting the maiden assisting the explorer with a sip from the springs.
This stained glass ceiling is over the statue.
The mens' parlor opened up into a common area.
On the other end of the common area is the ladies' parlor.
In addition to the "healing" properties of the hot baths, physicians and therapists recommended exercise. So the Fordyce also had a gymnasium.
There was also a weight machine room that Linda thought looked much like a torture chamber with the primitive equipment.
The mens' massage area showcased some of the electrical equipment that was used in massages - also a little scary.
Here is a ladies' massage area.
And a beauty parlor. These bathhouses didn't miss a thing for the comfort of their guests in their heyday.
In the basement, the hot spring for this bathhouse was displayed - a little hard to see in the dark basement.
Behind the Fordyce is a "display spring".
All the other springs have been capped to prevent contamination. It was good to see at least one open spring with the steam coming off.
There were also fountains and various outlets throughout the downtown where people were filling up plastic jugs with hot mineral water.
Of course, if you didn't bring a jug, the downtown vendors were more than happy to sell you one.
By now we were hungry, so we went to the Magnolia. All the trees between the bathhouses and road, Central Avenue, are magnolias.
After lunch, we went back out in search of a place where we could get a Hot Springs bath. The Buckstaff was closed for the day and all the other bathhouses on Bathhouse Row were being renovated.
Apparently, the federal government is in the process of renovating all the bathhouses for historical value and they will lease them to businesses to run. Since 2007 is the 175th anniversary of Hot Springs becoming a federal reservation, I'm guessing they hope to have some leases in place next year.
There are lots of places around town to get modern spa services at modern spa prices. But we just wanted the experience of a good ole fashioned Hot Springs bath. I knew that three hotels offered the service - the Arlington, the Downtowner, and the Austin.
We walked into the Arlington, but the bathhouse reception area turned Linda off. We walked further to the Downtowner which was better. But they didn't have any openings for another few hours.
We did learn that the 143 degree water from the springs is piped into a holding tank where it is allowed to cool to 100 degrees for the bath. Having owned a hottub in the past and knowing my limit was about 104, I had wondered about that.
I also wondered how all these places proved that the water used is actually from the springs. I didn't get an answer to that question, but we were assured that it is only spring water that comes through the pipes. I presume somebody makes sure the bathhouses are not "cheating".
Anyway, the Downtowner price of $39 included a bath, a steam, hot towels, and a massage. It was a good deal, but we couldn't decide if we wanted to stick around that long. A drive back after dark on the country roads after a relaxing bath and massage was probably not a good idea.
We were disappointed none of the bathhouses on Bathhouse Row were open for business. After stepping into a few shops along Central Avenue, we ultimately headed home.
So, this National Park is unlike any we have ever visited. And I'm still not sure why it's a National Park instead of a National Historic Park or one of the other federal facility designations. It's certainly not a nature-lover's type of park.