November 4-12, 2018
Welcome to the Valley of the Vapors. Sought after and enjoyed by Native Americans, French Explorers and all who have come after. Here you will find fountains and springs spewing water that is heated by pressure deep inside the earth before it travels up through fissures in the rocks and emerges at the surface at an average temperature of 140 degrees. The hot water meets the cooler air and clouds of steam rise and roll with a life of their own. Bring a cup and “quaff the elixir.” Bring a jug and take all you want. This water belongs to the people and is protected from contamination by the National Park Service.
There is a constant flow of free hot water. It’s great for spa treatments and baths but is it safe to drink? Yes. The heat of the water kills the germs that can make you sick so it purifies itself. Thousands of gallons of thermal water are used every day in the two active bath houses, one hotel and by the people that draw it from the fountains. There are also cold water springs with jug filling stations for all to enjoy. Since these are not heated by the pressure of the earth and purified, the National Park Service regularly tests and treats the water to ensure its safety. There are several “demonstration springs” where you can watch the water bubble up from the earth and tumble into a pool but most of the springs have been capped and the water is diverted into a “catchment” system. This is to protect the waters from accidental or deliberate contamination. NOTE: 140 degrees is too hot to jump into but you can flip a few fingers into the open springs to feel the heat. If you opt to bathe at one of the two functioning bathhouses, they add cold water to bring it to a comfortable temperature so you don’t get scalded.
So why is this a National Park? Because way back when, it was believed that the thermal waters had healing powers. People flocked to the bathhouses and springs to be healed for just about everything. It wasn’t a fountain of youth, but waters of health. The government wanted ALL citizens to have access to the cures so they stepped in to make that happen. Later they found that the water didn’t cure the things they thought it did but the protection stands. The park is now devoted to the geologic reasons that these springs are here and the history associated with them.
Hot Springs is different than most parks. By the time the government stepped in to protect the waters, a town had grown up around the springs. The National Park Service has one side of the street and the town has the other. They told us if you want to commit a crime, do it in town because on the park side of the street, all crimes become Federal offenses and the penalty is greater. Good to know… I guess. The park has protected forests circling the town with hiking trails and a campground in one of the gullies but everything is a ten minute drive back into town so you are never “in the wilderness”. The Ranger told us that Hot Springs was the smallest of the National Parks until The Jefferson Memorial Expansion Arch was upgraded. This refers to those with total “National Park” status. There are hundreds more National Memorials, National Historic Sites, National Seashores, National Lakeshores and so on. The granddaddy of them all, protection wise, is “National Park”.
The main part of the park is “Bathhouse Row” where 8 beautiful bathhouses have been restored (at least on the exterior) to reflect the grandeur from back in the day. Each façade is done in a different style. Several of the buildings are leased out to businesses and three are used by the National Park itself. The rest are still being worked on. It’s impossible to get a good picture down bathhouse row because of the big beautiful southern magnolias that line that side of the street.
- Superior Bathhouse – Brew pub that uses the thermal water to make beer… and root beer floats (which we had – very good).
- Hale Bathhouse – Under renovation
- Maurice Bathhouse – Under renovation
- Fordyce Bathhouse – National Park Visitor Center. Fully restored inside and out, three floors plus basement. Open to the public. Ranger tours of first floor and self-guided tours of remainder of building. Inspired by European spas; Col. Samuel Fordyce opened Renaissance Revival bathhouse in 1915; stained glass ceiling in men’s bath hall creates underwater atmosphere.
- Quapaw Bathhouse – Active bathhouse
- Ozark Bathhouse – Art Museum. Mission style architecture may relate to claim that Hernando de Soto visited Hot Springs. He didn’t.
- Buckstaff Bathhouse – Active bathhouse
- Lamar Bathhouse – NPS Gift Shop
Perched above the bathhouses is the first Army Navy Hospital where military personnel were treated with the healing waters. It is now owned by the State of Arkansas and is used as a Career Training Facility for Arkansas residents with mental disabilities. The facility has housing and training for the students that includes basic household duties, managing personal affairs out in the general public and job training. Everything is taught to help them reach their full potential no cost to the resident. What an awesome program! The building towers over bathhouse row and draws your eyes up.
The level between the bathhouses and the Army Navy Hospital is the “Grand Promenade” – a beautifully landscaped park and brick walkway that was used as part of the walking program that accompanied the “cure” at Hot Springs. Patrons would stroll along the promenade and socialize. This is important because people spent A LONG TIME in Hot Springs. A common treatment plan ran 21 days with hot bath, hot packs and other “medical” procedures each day. Walking was part of the prescription and the Grand Promenade was the first fitness level for the walks. The patrons carried cups with them so they could “quaff the elixir” as they passed the hot springs. The grand entrance had a fountain, several terraces with stairs and, at one time, a bandstand at the top. All but the bandstand has been restored.
The town is all about the water. There are thermal water fountains with spigot so you can fill a cup or bottle, jug fountains, cold spring water jug fountains and decorative fountains, some thermal and steaming, some cold. There are even decorative fountains inside the bathhouses.
We thoroughly enjoyed Hot Springs and probably would have stayed longer if the cold and rain hadn’t rolled in. We were chatting with a couple at our last stop and mentioned our plan to head for Hot Springs. Their response, “Well, I guess everyone should go… once.” They obviously didn’t care for it. I guess it just depends on what you are looking for. We wanted to hit the National Park portion and learn about the history of it all. We wanted to camp in a nice, wooded area. We wanted to hike. We enjoy browsing, but not really shopping, quaint towns. We enjoy hitting local restaurants. We managed all of those at Hot Springs.
Gulpha Gorge Campground and Hiking Trails
The National Park Gulpha Gorge campground was very nice. It is nicely wooded with a little stream on one side and, unfortunately, a fairly busy road on the other. The road noise settled down overnight so it wasn’t bad. The sites are all first come first served and they were filled every day by mid-afternoon until that cold and rain rolled in. They have an interesting registration system that we haven’t hit before. It is a machine that records which sites are paid for through noon of a certain day (check out time). I mention this because if you decide to extend your original reservation, as we did, you have to wait until noon of the day you are due to leave before you can pay to extend the site… so you are past due for vacating before you can cover the “rent”. That means you can’t run off and play until you have paid to secure that site. Not a huge deal but we had to keep reminding ourselves not to wander off. That’s harder than it sounds for us. We can always find somewhere to hike or drive or play.
There is a hiking trail right out of the campground that connects you to the whole East Mountain trail system. You cross those rocks across the stream and you are on the mountain. We managed to hike just about every foot of those trails. The Dead Chief Trail takes you into town. It is about 1.5 miles one way but is pretty steep for a short bit on each end. You can also drive up to the top of both East and West Mountains and catch trails from there if you prefer. Both mountains have overlooks easily accessible from parking areas if you aren’t a hiker.
The trail system is easy to follow with signs at each intersection and color coding. Maps are available at the campground and the NPS Visitor Center in town. They say the colors match a trail system which ranks them in difficulty so the patients could be told to walk certain trails depending on their health and work their way from strolling the Promenade to climbing the steepest trail up the mountain.
We like to hit local restaurants and were pretty frustrated the first few times in town as we couldn’t find anything that looked decent. We walked all the way down the street in front of bathhouse row and gave up. We wound up rolling out to the strip mall area and hitting an Olive Garden. I was violently ill shortly after so we won’t be hitting that particular restaurant again. We finally found Rolando’s Latino Restaurant just up past the big hotel and it was REALLY good. We saw that they have a patio and frequently have live music but we hit it early on a cold weekday so we stayed snug and warm inside and it was pretty quiet.
Later we walked the other way from the bathhouses, past the Hot Springs (town) visitor center and hit a whole grouping of interesting looking restaurants in a courtyard that we TOTALLY missed on the other days wandering the town. Maybe next time.
Side note: There is a free parking garage one street over from Bathhouse row. You cannot park an RV there. I saw an RV parked near the town visitor center but don’t know if that was a quick stop or if you can park there all day. There is on street parking in many areas and pay parking lots here and there (one just before you hit the free garage which seemed to catch people following the free parking signs).
The next posting will be on the inside of the Fordyce Bath House.