Before the 45th President decided to upgrade Jefferson National Expansion Memorial into the Gateway Arch National Park, Hot Springs National Park was always the black sheep among the all-stars in the United States National Parks. Due to the history and the way land were acquired for preservation in the United States, the wild and scenic areas are currently oversee by a few departments. The most famous of all is the Department of the Interior, which the National Park Service (NPS) and Bureau of Land Management are a part of. They all serve different purposes, but when we think of national parks, that meant primarily the Department of the Interior, especially NPS. NPS manages a little more than 400 units of varying sizes for natural, cultural or historical purposes, and the designation of each unit has nothing to do with the unit itself but by the bills that either congress or the president signs. Typically, the crown jewels of protected land receive the National Park designation – we are talking about Yosemite, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon and Katmai. These amazing nature places, and the tiny Hot Springs.
As much as we laugh at the weird status of Hot Springs, it is the first protected area in the United States, even before Yellowstone National Park. A few centuries ago, hot springs and baths are thought to have medical properties, be it European, Asian or even Native American origins. This valley with hot springs was visited by tribal members over 8000 years, but finally ceded the land to the United States. The Arkansas legislature chose to set aside this natural wonder to the federal government as a reserve, and was incorporated as the first federal government protected area, for the thermal water in 1832. Over the years, the designation slowly evolved and it became a national park by 1921. As the city of Hot Springs was founded and incorporated before the expansion of the national park, the park and the city of Hot Springs blend into each other. For example, the thermal water is owned by the federal government and sold to individual bathhouses on bathhouse row. As a result, the competition was not based on the cheapest price, but for the grandest bathhouse.
The National Park visitor center is located in the grandest bathhouse – the Fordyce. The park service purchased the whole row and reopened this for visitors to learn. For us Americans who are not familiar with the bathhouse culture, let me give you a short introduction. The bathhouses here are similar to the ones in Greco-Roman times. One would enjoy a hot bath in a tub bath in a small stall for 15 minutes at 102F. The attendant would scrub you clean with Loofa mitts. Then, it is time to sit in a tiny sink with hot water, known as a sitz tub, for 10 minutes. Just when you are relaxed, the next stop is the steam cabinet, i.e. sauna room. Survive the 2 minutes, and the reward is to lie on a bed with hot packs wherever you need to remove some muscle sore. Finally, the needle shower (just like the barrel in Pop-up Pirate) rinse all the sweat away, and you should be clean and refresh! For hundreds of years, the rich and sick would visit the bathhouses, as a place to socialize, and also to cure illnesses. In other words, a Spa town! For example, the third floor features a gymnasium and plenty of alternative medical instruments, but also a nice skylight for people to relax and talk. There is a hot spring running at the basement of the Fordyce – it literally looks like any other stream. As culture shifts, the bathhouse business began to decline. There are only two functioning bathhouses left, Quapaw (modern) and Buckstaff (traditional, and the one I went). The whole process took about an hour, and it is a fun experience, but I do not think there is any magical power in the baths.
I used to think that Arkansas was flat and devoid of life. Turns out, it is sparsely populated but quite scenic. Hot Springs National Park is surrounded by the Ouachita National Forest, and it is somewhat hilly. In fact, the state is known for abundant of parks and wilderness areas – I was just ignorant and lump it with other southern states like Texas and Mississippi. The Grand Promenade is located just behind the bathhouse row, on the slopes of the North Mountain. It is nicely paved and shady, with green boxes covering up exposed hot springs. On the Arlington Lawn, there is a large Tufa Rock and a hot water cascade, similar to a waterfall. The main difference is the algae growing in the pool and the steaming hot water rising from the surface of the pond. If I had plan to stay here for an additional night, I would have hiked the Sunset trail the surrounds the city of Hot Springs. This park might be the second smallest national park (the smallest now belongs to Gateway Arch), there are still some trails to be hiked. Instead of driving up to the Hot Springs Mountain Tower, I take the Peak Trail, wearing only Converse. The trail might be less than a mile, but it is extremely steep and full of loose gravel.
Hot Springs Mountain Tower is a symbol for the city of Hot Springs. It is an observation tower, with its base containing the only NPS park store that sells souvenirs. Moreover, it sells the ticket to the observation deck. There was no line to the top, and the elevator has a view outside, but the entire operation looks slightly sketchy. The lower level is indoor with see-through glass windows all around it for the surrounding area. The Ouachita National Forest looks splendid from up here, and it would be nice to go out for camping and hiking. The city of Hot Springs looks much smaller in comparison, and nature seems to remain untouched by human civilization.
Overall, I would say that Hot Springs National Park is much better than I thought it would be. You can’t blame the park service for not showing the process of heating these thermal water. Rainwater seeps through the cracks and is heated up deep underground, before expanding and rises back to the surface. There is nothing magical to see here, except to dip in a bath. I’m actually surprised to find that the surrounding area is still mostly natural, rather than the tourist’s mecca like Niagara Falls State Park. I’m sure this area would be gorgeous during autumn, when the leaves turn orange. If they have an outdoor spa facility, like an onsen, this would actually be amazing. Do a day of hike on the sunset trail, and dip in the hot bath before retreating for the night. I can understand why people visit here during spring and fall now!
Visited: September 17, 2019
Address: 369 Central Ave, Hot Springs, AR