If you were to play the game where you are given a set of items and tasked to choose the one that doesn’t’ belong with all the rest, Hot Springs National Park would be the odd man out in the deck of national parks. Most national parks promote some aspect of the natural landscape, and while Hot Springs does indeed have natural hot springs, today the park looks like just another street in the town of Hot Springs, Arkansas (the hometown of former president Bill Clinton, if you are one to collect trivia).
The springs have a lengthy history dating back to Native Americans who called the area “the Valley of the Vapors”, a place where many tribes congregated peacefully to partake of the mineral waters. Hernando de Soto recorded his visit to the springs in 1541, instigating the almost exclusive European occupation of the area since. Both the Spanish and French eventually laid claim to the area, culminating in a constant presence from both sides nay one found the other sleeping on duty. In what would become a common occurrence, the Native American tribes were summarily kicked out of the valley they had used for hundreds of years.
The area led a fairly uneventful existence until President Andrew Jackson, an early devotee of the healing waters, used his power as president to encourage Congress to list the area as the first federal reservation in 1832. While most equate Native Americans with “reservations”, this first one was simply what the word sounds like: a plot of land reserved by the government. The land remained under federal jurisdiction until the park service was created, and in 1921 the Hot Springs Reservation was renamed Hot Springs National Park.
Soon after President Jackson brought notoriety to the area, construction of “Bathhouse Row” began in earnest. The springs, which produce roughly one million gallons of water a day, were routed into pools where the 143-degree water could be regulated and a price placed on admittance. The area quickly became known as a health and relaxation retreat with fine Victorian-style bathhouses that pampered their guests.
Various physicians took up residence in Hot Springs and promoted the area as one of rejuvenation. In conjunction with soaks in the hot waters, many prescribed hot packs, massage, steam rooms, chiropractic work, and physical fitness. Behind Bathhouse Row a Grand Promenade was constructed where patrons were to make laps in between bath sessions to work the body and regain health.
More advanced patients were instructed to hike up the steep incline of Hot Springs Mountain, rising to the west of the bathhouses. If the weather wasn’t cooperative, most bathhouses also featured a gym where one could practice all sorts of sports, calisthenics, and weight training.
The bath services varied depending on the time, money, and ailments a person had. Fordyce Bathhouse was known as a “full service” stop and pampered its guests. Upon arrival, guests were segregated into women’s and men’s quarters. Bathers could use the changing rooms or pay extra for a mini suite with a bed and dressing table.
After changing into robes, guests were ushered into their own stall with a large claw foot tub filled to the brim with hot spring water of one’s preferred temperature.
After soaking, patrons were moved to the “cooling room” where they reclined on white lounge chairs and awaited hot packs. Individual maids placed hot packs on problem areas and then wrapped the patron in large, thick towels.
Usually, one would then move on to the massage rooms, but, if preferred, could use one of the large “needle showers” that sprayed spring water from many different directions and whose strength could easily be adjusted by a row of knobs.
Sitz baths and even a now-defunct “electric bath” could also be ordered.
If one still craved some heat, group steam rooms were available or one could climb in an individual steamer. The doors swung out, the person stepped in, sat down, placed a towel around his or her neck, and the doors were then clasped shut while steam from the hot springs was vented into the cubicle. While it does look medieval, I think I’d prefer my steam baths this way since I always feel choked in regular steam rooms!
After partaking in the bathhouse services, patrons were encouraged to lounge in the parlor or sun on the veranda or upper balcony.
Women could also utilize the in-house beauty parlor to have their hair fixed for the evening while the men saw the barber or retired to the lounge for cigars and aperitifs.
Overall, the historic bathhouse experience must have been grand and relaxing. However, full-service treatment like that offered at Fordyce came at a hefty price, so other bathhouses offered either pared down services or community pools. Only two bathhouses were currently serving the public when I was there: Quapaw, which has community pools, and the Buckstaff, which still offers a full-service experience.
Since I am eternally on a budget and it was the only one open by the time I arrived at 4 in the afternoon, I jumped in the pools at Quapaw. For $20, I was able to soak in four different pools and, perhaps most importantly, get a shower! Showers are definitely gold when on the road.
The pools at Quapaw are arranged by temperature, with the coolest pool above the others and built as a long rectangular “walkway”. Bathers are encouraged to use this pool to cool off between sessions or walk back and forth in the waist deep water. When I was there, the coolest pool was 94 degrees, the next hottest was 100, third 104, and the hottest 110. I enjoyed hopping in and out of the different pools, only spending a few minutes at a time in the hottest one. The water is full of minerals so is more buoyant than regular swimming water. It felt similar to swimming in salt water, giving the feeling of floating without even trying to.
After soaking until closing time, I enjoyed my shower and hit the town of Hot Springs, which has some great bars and a very lively music scene. While Hot Springs doesn’t offer as “outdoorsy” an experience as most parks, I still had a great time and would recommend it to any and all travelers.
Afterword: The area is also famous for its connections to early 1920s mobsters and gangsters such as Al Capone, Frank Costello, and Bugs Moran. Police busted what was purported to be the United States’ largest illegal gambling ring in the 1960s, thus ending Hot Springs’ notoriety as a mob haven.
The town also hosted the first annual spring training for professional baseball in 1886, and big names such as Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, and Lou Gehrig were all known to train at Hot Springs.