Hot Springs National Park Hot Springs, Ark. Visited: August 28, 2005 NPS Site Visited: 239 of 353 NPS Website; Local Website
WHAT IS IT? A row of 19th-century bathhouses located above the curative waters of 47 odorless hot springs.
BEAUTY (7/10) Hot Springs NP does not look like a National Park. We followed the signs pointing us to the Park but when they indicated we were there, we were on Central Avenue, smack dab in the center of a charming Victorian-era downtown. “Uh, is this it?” we thought. It was. The Park’s centerpiece is Bathhouse Row, a line of nine architecturally distinctive bathhouses.
The bathhouse exteriors are stunning, regal and inviting but only two are open to the public. The Fordyce Bathhouse holds the Park’s Visitor Center and Museum while the Buckstaff Bathhouse still operates as a spa. The remaining nine are in various stages of disrepair and restoration. Their exteriors speak of past greatness while their interiors reveal decades of neglect.
HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (5/10) For 10,000 years, nearly all people, from the prehistoric Native Americans to the Washita Indians to Hernando de Soto’s bumbling band of 16th-century explorers to French trappers to Thomas Jefferson’s exploratory envoys have soaked in the Hot Springs. Then, in 1832, the federal government intervened and, wouldn’t you know, things got tricky.
In the 19th century, curative spas were both a medical panacea and the world’s most popular tourist destinations. The Saratoga Springs resort in upstate New York was the equivalent to today’s Las Vegas in its wide-ranging popularity. When the government learned of the Hot Springs, located in the then Arkansas Territory, they wanted a piece of the action and, in 1832, subsequently made claim to the Hot Springs as a federal Reserve making it a quasi-National Park some 40 years before Yellowstone.
The next 40 years brought complicated legal wrangling, Arkansas statehood and the Civil War. In the 1870’s the government, fed up with the red tape and bureaucratic mismanagement, allowed private bathhouses to build elaborate bathhouses above the Hot Springs. The feds even opened their on Free Bathhouse and Public Health facility for the good and welfare of the common people.
During the halcyon days of Hot Springs, 1890-1920, it was common to see the world’s richest men walking down the Bathhouse Row, adorned only in a bathrobe, headed to the ritziest spa. Walking next to them, in the same vestments, would be some of the area’s poorest people, on their way to the public spas, located along the same Central Avenue.
The spas of Hot Springs, while popular, never attained the fame or prestige of Saratoga Springs. By the time it became an official National Park, 1921, the trend of curative soaking, steam baths and whirlpools had passed. The town feels stuck in a time of never-attained grandeur of great economic promise never fulfilled. Decay has set into most of the bathhouses, their splendorous interiors are now mostly gone and are soon to be sold off by the National Park System. In place of the traditional spas will be, presumably, restaurants and low-end kitschy shops, the businesses that fill the buildings across the street.
CROWDS (6/10) Hot Springs, Ark. retains its resort-type feel but it is hard to figure out who vacations here. We took a Bathhouse Row tour with two well-traveled bathers; they had soaked the world round. They too were confused. “Who comes here and why?” they bluntly asked the Ranger. She responded with the why, “They don’t come here for the spas, the draw is mostly the horse track (Oaklawn, home of the Arkansas Derby) and the Lakes (the man-made Catherine and Ouchita).”
EASE OF USE/ACCESS (3/5) Hot Springs, Ark. is located near the center of the state, about 55 miles southwest of Little Rock via Interstate 30 and U.S. Route 70.
CONCESSIONS/ BOOKSTORE (5/5) What other NPS bookstore sells bathrobes and glass water jugs emblazoned with their Park’s logo? Some other unique items found were Moosewood cookbooks, how-to massage books, patches for all nine bathhouses and the honored baseball book, The Glory of Their Times, for sale because Babe Ruth was known to frequent the Hot Springs spas.
COSTS (4/5) Self-guided tours of the beautifully restored Fordyce Bathhouse are free as are the frequent Ranger-led tours of Bathhouse Row. Campsites are an affordable $10 per site. If you have traveled to Hot Springs, however, you probably want to soak in its famed waters. At Buckstaff Baths, the only Bathhouse still open on Central Avenue, a Whirlpool Mineral Bath costs $20.25 and a Traditional Bathing Package runs $47.00.
RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (3/5) The Park runs a number of guided tours during the day but we would have enjoyed a roaming Ranger amidst the Fordyce Bathhouse labyrinth. We had questions, like “what is that?” and “what exactly does that do?”
TOURS/CLASSES (8/10) We arrived just in time to take in a Ranger-led Bathhouse Row tour whose focus was the Hot Springs role in medical history. The tour was fascinating, in-depth and spawned dozens of questions. We explored the un-open Lamar Bathhouse, and witnessed just how neglected the spas had been. We enjoyed the intimate look into the vast restoration process.
The Lamar Bathhouse’s deterioration and difficult rebuilding brings to light the remarkable job done at the Fordyce Bathhouse. At the Fordyce, more than a dozen rooms have been restored to their turn of the century glory: a full-sized gymnasium, an assembly room, dressing rooms, massage rooms and locker rooms. There is almost too much to see.
FUN (6/10) Be careful, the self-guided tour of the Fordyce Bathhouse might get you yearning for an actual full-service spa therapy. We were psyched and ready, but alas, the Buckstaff takes its last bathers at 1:00 p.m. on Sundays. We can only imagine the pleasures of a needle shower, a vapor cabinet and a full-body Swedish massage. Hopefully, our next priceline.com bargain hotel will have a spa. Impurities be gone!
WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (4/10) Unless you live in the South, there is no reason to travel to these curative waters. Only the town’s Bathhouse Row and, more specifically, the Fordyce Bathhouse retain any historical charm. If you want to relive the glory of Victorian-era travel and bathing, go to Saratoga Springs, N.Y. and try to go during the races in August. If you just want a spa getaway, then consider our hometown’s grand hotel, the Hotel Hershey. You can bathe there in chocolate, or so we’ve heard.
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