Location: Hot Springs, Arkansas
Webpage: National Park
General Description: The hot springs in Arkansas are not volcanic based. Rather the thermal springs emerge in a gap between Hot Springs Mountain and West Mountain. The water comes from rainfall in the mountains to the north and northeast. This rainfall percolates through the shale layer at a rate of about a foot per year until reaching depths of at least 4,500 to 7,500 feet. Along the way natural heating from the rocks and slow radioactive decay. Under artesian pressure of the water column this heated water is forces upward between two thrust faults where it mixes with cooler rainwater before exiting in the basin. The journey takes a minimum of 4000 years to complete. Currently there are 43 thermal springs in the area, 33 of which are capped and collected in a central reservoir to be distributed to the bathhouses, hospital, and the public free of charge. The springs have been known about for centuries being called the “Valley of Vapors” at the time of Hernando de Soto who visited the springs in 1541. In 1673, Father Marquette and Jolliet explored the region and claimed it for France. Under the Treaty of Paris in 1763 it was ceded to Spain, only to be reclaimed by France in 1800. In 1803 it was part of the Louisiana Purchase from France and became part of the young United States. In 1804, President Jefferson sent William Dunbar and George Hunter to explore the region and study the native people. In 1807, Jean Emmanual Prudhomme became the first settler of modern Hot Springs. When he returned to his plantation on the Red River in Louisiana and his experience spurred others to set up cabins for visitors to enjoy the hot water. After Arkansas became a territory in 1819, the Territorial Legislature requested Congress to set aside and protect the springs. It took them 12 years, but in 1832 a National Reservation was set aside to protect the hot springs for public use. Thus Hot Springs Reservation became the oldest public park in the United States. The name was changed to Hot Springs National Park in 1921 when it was transferred to the National Park System. It was long believed that the natural hot waters of the spring benefited diseases of the blood and skin, nervous affections, rheumatism and kindred diseases, and the “various diseases of women”. While early practices were to soak in the waters, the use of vapor cabinets was introduced in 1884. At one time there were nearly two dozen pay bathhouses operating in Hot Springs, nine of those making up “Bathhouse Row” which is the centerpiece of the National Park. Facilities were segregated until civil rights legislation in the 1960s. Baths were offered for whites at the Arlington Hotel, Fordyce, Buckstaff, the 500-room Eastman Hotel, Maurice, La Mar, Majestic Hotel, Quapaw, Hale, Imperial, Moody Hotel, Ozark, St. Joseph’s Infirmary, Superior, Ozark Sanatorium, Rockafellow, and Alhambra, and for people of color at the Pythian, Woodmen of Union and National Baptist Hotel and Sanitorium. Today, only the Buckstaff and Quapaw are operating bathhouses, with the others used for a variety of purposes. The Fordyce has been rennovated and serves as the Visitor Center and museum, the Ozark houses the Museum of Contemporary Arts, and Superior is a brewery/restaurant, Hale a restuarant, and the Lamar a gift shop. The Maurice has been rennovated and is actively seeking proposals for lease. However, there is much more to Hot Springs National Park then just Bathhouse Row. There is the Grand Promenade, a brick lined walkway on the hillside behind the bathhouses, miles of hiking trails all over Hot Springs Mountain, and a scenic drive to the top of Hot Springs Mountain where a modern tower soars over the trees giving panoramic views of the surrounding mountains.
1) I would strongly recommend starting with the Visitor Center in the Fordyce Bathhouse at the center of Bathhouse Row. There you can see an excellent film about the history of the National Park, gather information about the hiking trails, and spend time in the bathhouse which has been remodeled back to the period of its heyday. You can either take a guided tour or just spent time wandering around yourself as there are multiple informational panels about each room. Be sure to go into the basement to seen an actual hot spring and up to the top floor to see the spacious lounge and gymnasium. You can easily spend a couple of hours wandering through the bathhouse.
2) If you are interested there are two functioning bathhouses to choose from. The Buckstaff offers the traditional experience, whereas, the Quapaw has communal co-ed bathing pools for a more modern experience.
3) There are miles of hiking trails all over Hot Springs Mountain, however, they are all very challenging as they wind up and over the mountain. For those not interested in a strenuous hike, take advantage of the Grand Promenade where you can see many of the capped springs, a couple of springs that are open, and location of the old bandstand, all along a leisurely stroll. You can also sample the waters at the drinking fountain outside the Park Administration Building or even fill up a jug to take home.
4) Finally there is a nice scenic drive up to the top of Hot Springs Mountain along the old carriage road that loops back and forth across the mountainside. At the top there are a couple of viewing sites on the ground or you can take the ride up Hot Springs Mountain Tower for great panoramic views of the surrounding countryside.