We wondered whether we should backtrack from Memphis to pick up Hot Springs National Park, but we were so glad we did. Not having read anything about the park’s history beforehand, I admit to thinking of Hot Springs as little more than a place to check off on our Project 100 park list. I expected hot pools out in the woods or steaming springs emanating from rocky outcroppings. So I was surprised by the fascinating history of the place that surpasses its interest as a nature-oriented destination.
The visitors center in the Fordyce Bathhouse was our starting point. The 15-minute intro video, “Valley of the Vapors,” explains how Hot Springs grew from a place where early Native Americans and later French trappers took advantage of the thermal waters seeping up from ground to become “The Nation’s Health Sanitarium” and playground for gangsters and baseball players in the early to mid-1900s. Along the way, one thing that led to the protection of the water for all was the government’s role as a steward of the springs by designating the area as a reservation in 1832 (well before the park system was created). Hot Springs didn’t earn the official name of park until 1921.
Even so, it was a place of enterprise. Dozens of public and private bathhouses existed during the so-called “golden age of bathing” in the 1920s, competing for customers who wanted to experience the bathing culture of Europe here at home, or those seeking cures for ailments such as rheumatism, arthritis, and syphilis (I presume the latter is why Al Capone had a permanent room in the town’s famous Arlington Hotel). Some establishments featured opulent drawing rooms, restaurants, gambling and drinking facilities, and exercise equipment that drew in the crowds for decades before bathing fell out of fashion by the 1960s.
Back in the Day
The Fordyce Bathhouse sits among a string of historic buildings along Bathhouse Row. Preserved to look as it did in its heyday, the Fordyce presents several floors of rooms that were used for bathing, medical treatments, and general pampering and relaxation. A self-guided tour takes you through the men’s and women’s dressing, bathing, massage, steam and other treatment rooms. The collection includes a stunning (pardon the pun) array of equipment for electrotherapy and a host of scary-looking devices that reminded me of the movie “The Road to Wellville” about the health farm and unconventional treatments recommended by the man who created Kellogg’s cereal. A beauty parlor, gymnasium, music room and other areas round out the Fordyce tour. We couldn’t get enough of the place.
Happily, the Park Service lets you get a little bit more of the place with a traditional bathing package just like in the old days (historical equipment and all) in the Buckstaff Bathhouse. With the weather being so cold and windy during our stay, we went back one morning to warm up. Our treatment began with a hot tub soak and loofah scrub followed by a sitz bath, the steam closet, a hot towel wrap and finally the needle shower (which isn’t painful like it sounds). Other services such as massage, manicures, pedicures and facials are available, but we opted for just the basic routine. Other spas and hotels in the downtown area also pamper guests with the area’s famous healing thermal waters.
It’s About the Drinking, Too
In addition to bathing in it, many people used to come to Hot Springs to “quaff the elixir” for its supposed curative powers. Public taps around downtown still dispense hot and cold water for free, and we always saw locals filling jug after jug and loading up their cars. We returned several times to fill our bottles, too, even drinking it hot from the tap. On a cold and blustery day, sipping plain, hot spring water is unbelievably comforting and delicious.
And if water doesn’t quench your thirst, the Superior Bathhouse Brewery crafts the country’s only beer brewed with thermal spring water. After a day of hiking through the oak and hickory woods along most of the mountain trails on the east side of Bathhouse Row, we stopped in at Superior for happy hour. From our beer tasting flights of eight samples, our favorites were the Ye Old Ale and the Foul Play Stout — the perfect accompaniment to the meat and cheese board and spicy house chili.
We saved some further exploration of downtown’s historic Central Avenue and the West Mountain trail system for our final day in Hot Springs, and those trails offered fantastic views of town from the eastern edge of the Ouachita mountain range (pronounced by locals as “wash-a-taw” rather than “wah-cheetah” like I’d expected).
Getting All Steamed Up
The geology producing all the hot water and steam rising up from the ground in town is not volcanic in nature. Rather, the springs are the result of rainfall being absorbed into the rock, percolating down to warmer layers below the surface, then being thrust back up through faults and fissures. The reportedly 4,000-year-old water is cooled to an average of 143 degrees by the time it surfaces. A great temperature to enjoy this great little park’s claim to fame!