Hot Springs National Park, in the Ouachita (pronounced “wosh-i-taw”) Mountains of Arkansas, has the distinction of being America’s smallest national park at just 5,500 acres. Its protected status predates Yellowstone, commonly considered to be the world’s first national park created in 1872. In 1832, Congress, under President Andrew Jackson, designated a Hot Springs Reservation to protect the thermal springs, which were growing in popularity by those seeking its supposed therapeutic properties.
We spent a day at Hot Springs learning more about its history and natural features. After visiting nine parks rich in natural beauty, we weren’t sure what our impressions would be of Hot Springs, slanted more towards history. But we were pleasantly surprised by what we found during our visit.
History recorded Native Americans using the springs for hundreds of years. Hunters and traders became familiar with the region in the 17th and 18th centuries. In 1804 President Jefferson sent an expedition to research the springs, part of the recent Louisiana Purchase. The area became more popular, with its peak years between the 1880s and 1940s. Treatments declined in the 1950s, causing most spas to close.
Hot Springs was elevated to national park status in 1921 and had 2016 visitation of about 1.5 million people, ranking it 16th among the parks. The centerpiece of the park is Bathhouse Row, which contains eight spa buildings built between 1892 and 1923. One building, Fordyce, was built in 1915 and is now the national park’s visitor center.
Inside Fordyce we took a self-guided tour of 23 rooms restored to their appearance during the height of “taking the waters.” We saw rooms with individual bath stalls and massage tables, and an old gymnasium, part of treatment regimes for patients attracted to the area to cure all types of ailments.
There are over 40 springs located around the base of Hot Springs Mountain, and their combined flow is about half a million gallons a day. The thermal water is created from rainwater conducted into the earth via fractures in the rock. The water moves downward very slowly and warmer rocks heat it at a rate of 4 degrees F every 300 feet to an ultimate temperature of 143 degrees F. How slowly does it move? By the time the water comes back up through one of the springs it is over 4,000 years old!
Behind the visitor center was an open spring. We put our hands above the water and could feel its heat below us.
There are nine springs close by where the water can be sampled. We tasted some water from the hot Shell Fountain with small paper cups supplied by the visitor center. We waited a few minutes to allow the water to cool down before trying it. Hard to believe we were drinking water from rain that fell four thousand years ago.
Even with all its history, there are 26 miles of trails in the park in the mountains behind Bathhouse Row. We combined several short trails together to complete a four mile loop along the Hot Springs and North Mountains. The trails took us through pine, oak, and hickory tree forests, with occasional views of the city of Hot Springs and the surrounding countryside. We even saw a turtle on the trail.
Our hike ended next to the cold Happy Hallow Spring, and we enjoyed some of its refreshing water. We both agreed that it was some of the best water we had ever tasted. Locals were there as well, filling up multiple gallon jugs. All the spring water is free and cannot be resold.
We were also hungry after our hike, so we stopped by the Superior Bathhouse, built in 1916, which was recently repurposed as a restaurant and brewery using the local spring water.
Two other bathhouses, Buckstaff and Quapaw, still offer thermal water soaks. After lunch we scheduled a bath at the Quapaw Bathhouse, built in 1922. We received a 20 minute private two person bath in thermal water heated to 100 degrees F. A faucet allowed us to add 143 degree F water to heat it further if desired. Following the bath, we received a cooling session with cold fruit infused drinking water and cool face cloths.
It had been a full day of learning more about the history of Hot Springs, hiking a loop of mountain trails, tasting the spring water, eating in a restored bathhouse, and taking a thermal bath. We left for our campground in the late afternoon having enjoyed our time in this small but historic place.
Our next stop will take us back to a unique area of natural beauty – the World Heritage Site of Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky.