This past February, I moved from the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area to Washington, D.C. I had a company haul my belongings but decided to take a road trip that spanned roughly 1400 miles. My plan was to do a 4 day road trip and hit up a few spots along the way. Unfortunately, something came up literally on the first day of the trip that made it urgent for me to get to D.C. as soon as possible. So the one stop that I got to see was Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas.
There is one national park in the state of Arkansas, and it’s quite a quirky one by national park standards. There are a few reasons as to why this park stands out amongst the others.
Normally, national parks are set a good distance away from major cities. They’re untouched lands, where nature can revel without being toiled away by humans and their need to change the environment to their needs.
The first thing that threw me off about Hot Springs National Park is that it is woven into the main city of Hot Springs, Arkansas. There is no gate to enter through and pay a fee, which means the park is free to enter.
Instead, you’ll find that the area turns into a sort of historical downtown area with bustling sidewalks, restaurants and retail stores lining the street.
It was a little hard for me to actually find a good spot to set on the GPS because of the lack of an entrance gate, so I ended up just setting for the park’s visitor center, which is the Fordyce Bathhouse Museum (yes, I did mention this park had many quirks, didn’t I?).
Fordyce Bathhouse Museum and Visitor Center Address:
101 Reserve St, Hot Springs, AR 71901-4195
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Brief History of the Park
In 1832, before national parks in the U.S. was even a thing, Congress had deemed this area of Hot Springs, Arkansas to be preserved for recreational use only. Shortly thereafter, bathhouses started to form, which created Bathhouse Row, a street full of – you guessed it – luxury bathhouses. The area became a hot destination for spa-goers.
Beginning in the 1950’s, the bathing industry started to lose traction and a few of the bathhouses had to close. Only a few of the facilities are open today, though all of the buildings on Bathhouse Row remain intact as it’s been deemed a National Historic Landmark.
Things to Do
TAKE A BATH WITH THE HOT SPRINGS WATER.
The first thing I signed up for was a bath session. This is the only way that you can experience soaking in the waters from the hot springs. Otherwise, you’ll get reprimanded by park officials.
The bath houses that are still operating are: Buckstaff Baths and Quapaw Baths and Spa. Buckstaff Baths has been operational since its formation in 1912 while Quapaw Baths shut down in 1984 and reopened in 2008.
Because of this, I wanted to try Buckstaff Baths and see what the traditional bathing experience on Bathhouse Row was like. Marble is prominent throughout the interior. Although I can imagine that at one point, this building and the services was once a luxury experience, I have to say that at this point in time, there is much left to be desired in the luxury department in service and in decor. They offer several services but I opted for the plain Whirlpool Mineral Bath.
They led me up the original old-school elevator to the changing area on the second floor. Once I got undressed, one of the staff member wrapped me in a white sheet, reminiscent of a toga. I was seated until another staff member was available to assist me in the bath.
We were led to the bathing hall – a large white marbled room full of iron cast tubs with partitioners so we could still have some privacy. I was given 20 minutes to soak in the tub full of hot springs water, still wrapped in my toga sheets, and I have to say it was bliss. The temperature was nice and warm and I didn’t have a hard time relaxing and drifting into naps.
Then, a staff member walked me over to the massaging room, laid me down and covered me in hot towel for a few minutes. Afterwards, I was led to the old-school sauna chamber that’s big enough only to fit a chair. I was covered in another towel and sat experiencing the hot steam engulfing my skin for another few minutes. The last thing was the needle shower.
The whole experience with the Whirlpool Mineral Bath package lasted less than an hour, and I left the bath hall completely and utterly relaxed. For $40, I think the experience of a traditional bath experience is definitely worth it. The only thing I wish they improved were the staffing. Although everyone was nice, they didn’t have the typical spa staff professionalism.
Hike the Grounds
I opted for Peak Trail – short and very doable, with some incline in the middle. The end result was Hot Springs Mountain Tower, where you can get a 360 view of the area for a fee ($8 for adults). However, the view from the ground overlooking the city below wasn’t too shabby so I felt content just staying on ground level. I was surprised that on this particular trail, I didn’t see any hot springs crop up though.
Peruse through the Museum
Along with being the visitor’s center, Fordyce Bathhouse also turned parts of their facility into a museum. You’ll be able to see how the spa operated back in the day, including their electrotherapy section that was used in massages!
Sip some beer
There is only one brewery in all of the national parks, and it happens to be at Hot Springs National Park – Superior Bathhouse Brewery! The brewery opened a few years ago, converting one of the abandoned bathhouses on Bathhouse Row. If those qualifications aren’t unique enough, they are the first to utilize the hot springs water in their beers.
I am not a beer drinker but I still had to try their sample menu and see what the fuss is about. Mmmm, can’t say I can tell the difference (though my novice beer palate is NOT a good way to gauge by any means), but it was a fun experience! Paired it with their delicious reuben sandwich.
Wander the stores
There are various stores and restaurants occupying the street opposite of Bathhouse Row. One in particular that I found fitting, considering this park is essentially the place of spas is Bathhouse Soapery and Caldarium.
This was definitely a unique national park to visit, and I’m glad that I made the small detour on my road trip to check out the area and cross another park off the list. I was able to spend about five hours or so wandering around, and I felt like I got a good taste of what Hot Springs National Park is about. However, I don’t think I would make the extra effort of coming to this park again.