I always wanted to visit Hot Springs, Arkansas, even before my daughter ended up going to college about an hour away. It’s the childhood home of Bill Clinton, and also has a reputation as an artsy community. But when we spent an afternoon there yesterday during a visit to see our daughter, the place was full of surprises. The coolest part were these magnificent bath houses, which line the main drag along with giant magnolia trees. That fountain is what it’s all about: really hot water.
Hot Springs is actually a national park, the first federal land ever set aside to preserve a national resource–even before Yellowstone. The 5,000 or so acres, originally part of the Louisiana Purchase, were discovered by an expedition team (similar to Lewis and Clark) dispatched by Thomas Jefferson to explore the springs. Jefferson set them aside as a “reservation” (not to be confused with a Native American reservation) as protected land, and deemed the 18th National Park in 1921.
Most of the 47 springs have been covered to protect the water, but here is one that the public can access. The water is about 4,000 years old with an average temperature of 143 degrees. The bath houses were built because people believed the hot waters were healing, although any benefits are attributed mainly to the high amount of minerals (they happened to drink) instead of the heat. During its heyday, in the ’20 and ’40s, over a million health-seekers road the train to hang out in this little town of about 35,000 residents. (The bath houses were completely segregated until the 60s, and African Americans built their own bathhouse row here. That’s a whole other fascinating story.) There are several decorative fountains in town where visitors can fill up on the spring water, called jug fountains, to “quaff the elixir.” (We drank some and feel better already!)
Several of the bath houses are still open, such as this one, called The Quapaw Bathhouse, with soaking pools and modern day spa services. Although they are privately run, the houses are regulated by the National Park Service. There are men and women in tan uniforms and hats all over the place. Beyond the bathhouses are miles of hiking trails in the local mountains. Hot Springs also hosts a cool documentary film festival in October.
I don’t know about you, but I think this is a great way to spend our tax dollars! If you ever find yourself with a little time in Little Rock, drive about an hour southwest and discover this time capsule of American history. Hike in the scenic hills, with forests of oak, hickory and pines, and then soak away your aches in one of these bath houses. We just missed the blooming redbud and dogwood, but the magnolias are about to bust out. Spring and fall are the best time to visit.
Wait until you see the inside of one of these outrageous bath houses! I will be posting a tour of the Fordyce Bathhouse next. Stay tuned…