As we work our way south towards the Gulf Coast we wanted to cross one more National Park off the list. Hot Springs National Park (HSNP) was along the way and it’s easy to do in a day.
From the beginning, the waters drew those with disabling conditions seeking to ease their pain in the thermal waters. Over time settlers built cabins and lured travelers to the famed springs. In 1876, the US Supreme Court ruled against private land claims and made the thermal waters available to all. Once the federal government began regulating private bathhouses the building began. By the 1900s, Hot Springs was among the most visited health and wellness resorts in the country. Promoted as a place “where crutches are thrown away,” the area attracted actors, athletes, politicians, and the rich and famous. Notable patients included Will Rogers, Andrew Carnegie, Herbert Hoover, Helen Keller, and Jack Dempsey.
Today only two of the original bathhouses still operate. Others have been transformed for other purposes including the National Park Visitor Center, a cultural center, and a brewery.
We lucked out by getting a full hookup campsite at the park’s Gulpha Gorge Campground. We don’t often drive somewhere without a reservation, but when we arrived, there were several spots available, and we grabbed one. Those who arrived later in the day were not so lucky.
Just behind the campground runs Gulpha Creek, and the park’s 26 hiking trails link together just across the creek. We set out for a nice hike to explore the Hot Springs Mountains, following the Oertel Trail across the mountain and into the historic town of Hot Springs.
The trails were originally established as part of the park’s exercise program and are color-coded based on difficulty. The Grand Promenade runs directly behind Bathhouse Row and served as the most easily accessible of the fitness trails, often prescribed as part of a visit. Our four and a half mile walk through the forest and along the Promenade was a great way to start the day.
The National Park Visitor Center is located in the Fordyce Bathhouse. The 1915 structure has been restored to its original, elegant state. On three floors you can see treatment rooms, the gymnasium, and the parlors that served as “America’s First Resort.” Though the waters held no magical cure, the treatments offered some relief for patients who were suffering and in desperate need of help.
The facilities in Hot Springs at one time rivaled similar bathhouses in Europe. At the Fordyce Bathhouse the men’s bath hall features a large domed skylight containing 8000 pieces of glass arranged to represent Neptune’s daughter, mermaids, dolphins, and fish in swirling water.
In the Hubbard Tub Room non-ambulatory patients were lowered into the tub by the overhead wooden stretcher, allowing for therapies designed to treat polio, arthritis, and paralysis.
The gymnasium was state of the art for the time and included dumbbells, traveling rings, and parallel bars. These facilities were popular with major league baseball players at the time, including Babe Ruth.
The historic area of Hot Springs is a typical tourist area with souvenir shops, restaurants, and bars. There was a gangster presence here during prohibition, and some of that history is reflected in the area.
We strolled the avenue, browsed a bit, but didn’t indulge in anything but a coffee. While it’s possible to receive spa treatments in two of the historic bathhouses, you must book ahead and we passed on that opportunity.
Hot Springs National Park isn’t one you go out of your way to see and you certainly don’t need days to explore. It is, however, an interesting glimpse into a part of American history.