So you might think by the title that we were experiencing hot and humid weather, or maybe something a little provocative? Well sorry no, we were in the land of hot and steamy thermal water! Hot Springs, Arkansas.
People often ask us “what is the favorite place that you have visited so far?” Always a tough question to answer because as we meander around this wonderful country of ours, our favorites are constantly changing and growing. To be honest, visiting Arkansas has never been on our bucket list but after reading a post about Hot Springs written by our friends, Betsy and Nancy (RV-A-GoGo) we quickly added it to our itinerary after we left Atlanta. Boy, sure glad we did!
Nestled in the Ouachita hills (pronounced wosh-i-taw) and surrounded by five lakes and three rivers, Hot Springs gets its name from the 1,000,000 US gallons of natural thermal spring waters that flow from the surrounding 47 springs each day. The hot waters here aren’t heated volcanically (like most of the features at Yellowstone), but are geothermal – simply heated by earths core. It takes 4000 years for rainwater to percolate to the depths required but the heated water then rises to the surface rapidly maintaining an average temperature of 143 F.
President Andrew Jackson designated the area as a federal reservation in 1832. After that, the rough frontier town developed into a popular spa resort town – eight stately Victorian bathhouses were eventually constructed between the years of 1892 and 1923. Today it is the oldest and smallest of all the National Parks in our country and the only one that has a city running through it.
During the Golden Age of Bathing, over a million visitors immersed themselves in the park’s hot waters hoping the medicinal properties would cure maladies such as rheumatism, lung disease, polio, tuberculosis, syphilis and so many other ailments. Although many of the bathhouses have closed and are now serving in other capacities (Visitor Center, brewery, gift shop, etc.), visitors can still enjoy the ultimate in a thermal mineral bathing experience at the Buckstaff and Quapaw Bathhouses. Back in the day you could buy a book of tickets for 18 baths for $18.75, today at Buckstaff one bath is $33.00! Hate to disappoint but we didn’t partake!
Take advantage of the free public parking garage (but sometimes very crowded so get there early), then stroll along Bathhouse Row (Central Ave). Be sure to stop at each cell phone audio tour sign (found throughout the park) which provides a phone number and a prompt number to call to listen to a narrative about that particular sight.
We strolled along the half-mile brick Grand Promenade which runs parallel to Central Avenue and Bathhouse Row and offers elevated views of historic downtown Hot Springs, including the Arlington Hotel and Lawn, the hot springs cascade, quartz veins in the sandstone and tufa cliffs. There are a number of hiking trails that branch off from the promenade including a path to the summit tower (more about that below).
After our stroll, we were thirsty and hungry so we stopped for lunch at the Superior Brewery & Distillery. Formerly the Superior Bathhouse, this brewery has the honor of being the first brewery located in a national park and the only brewery in the world to use thermal spring water in their brewing process. Lunch was tasty, a Reuben ($10) served with bacon blue cheese potato salad and a Madden’s #1 beer for me and the Frito Pie ($8) and a Kolsch beer for Rob. Both the food and the beer were good. Did brewing it with thermal spring water make it taste any different? Not to this novice beer drinker who can count the number of craft beers I’ve tasted on one hand.
Speaking of spring water, thermal water jug fountains are located along Bathhouse Row and at various other spots throughout the city and the park, so if you have a yen to taste the “therapeutic” spring water, bring your jugs and bottles and fill them for free.
One day after breakfast at the Pancake Shop where they have served breakfast since 1940 (breakfast was ok, nothing special), we visited the National Park Visitor Center and Museum at the restored, very elegant and ornate Fordyce Bathhouse. Here we got a taste of spa life by viewing a film and taking a self guided tour of the 23 restored rooms, furnished as they appeared in the heyday of the spa. That was interesting but despite the posted signs next to each exhibit we really didn’t gain a full understanding of exactly what we were looking at.
That became apparent when we took the free hour long guided tour given by a park ranger at 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. If you can, take this tour! It was on this tour that we learned about the history of the area and the geology of the springs and how the 4000 year old rain water rises back to the surface and becomes heated to 143°.
As the ranger walked the group through each room, she provided step by step details of what a day at the spa was like and explained the purpose of each piece of equipment. Hot and steamy for sure with all that steam and hot water and no air conditioning in the heat of the summer.
Steam cabinets, needle showers, sitz baths to soak your posterior and soothe your hemorrhoids, mercury baths to cure your syphilis, an enema table to cleanse your innards and even an electric bath (fortunately no deaths were ever reported) were among some of the spa treatments that were offered. And most of these treatments were in one common room, talk about lack of privacy! Not my idea of a spa with equipment that looked like it could have been used to torture someone!
We also learned that there’s more to the history of Hot Springs than just the soothing waters. The town developed a seedy side in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s earning the title of the original “Sin City” offering Las Vegas-style amenities such as cards and craps and illegal casino-type gaming well before Las Vegas. It became a popular hangout for the likes of Al Capone, Frank Costello, Bugs Moran, Lucky Luciano and other mobsters. Fortunately gangster activity finally came to a stop due to a federal crackdown in 1960’s. We didn’t have time to visit it but the Gangster Museum in the downtown area provides insight into the seedier side of Hot Springs. Because of the healing waters, town’s nightlife and gambling, beginning in 1887, it became an annual spring training camp for baseball teams.
Besides the bathhouses and mobster history, the Arlington Hotel is another landmark in town. Built in 1924, this Spanish-Colonial Revival style hotel, boasts 500 rooms and has attracted many famous guests including Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, major league baseball players and other celebrities. Although the decor looks elegant, it seemed a little dated to us and some of it needed repairing. Wonder what the rooms are like.
Hungry for some more history and good food, a visit to the only remaining saloon in town was a must for us on another day of sightseeing. The historic Ohio Club, which was named for the original owner’s home state, has been open since 1905 and was once the favorite hangout for the mobsters and baseball players. In later years, other celebrities such as Mae West, Al Jolson, Tony Bennett, Babe Ruth and Teddy Roosevelt to name a few have perched at the bar. Lots of interesting pictures hanging on the walls.
An Ohio Burger topped with pepper jack cheese, bacon, an onion ring, hot mustard and served with fries for $8.49 sounded good to us and it was! Even if you don’t eat there, stop in to see the massive 19th-century mahogany bar which measures 15-feet-high and 24-feet wide with hand-carved horse heads. Pretty impressive! Note the Ohio Club is open from 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 a.m. every day (Sunday it closes at midnight) and has live music.
Besides touring the town, we wanted to experience some of the National Park. Driving the hairpin turns of the twisty turny Hot Springs Mountain Drive was fun. Our reward was at the summit – the 216 foot high Hot Springs Mountain Tower, rising 1256 feet above sea level and overlooking 140 miles of beautiful Arkansas countryside. Well worth the admission fee of $7 ($6 seniors, $4 with Senior Nat’l Park Pass). A sign at the register noted that the outside observation deck on the top floor was closed due to wasps. Darn! However the glass enclosed deck was open.
Not liking heights, riding in the glass elevator to the top made me a little nervous (I wouldn’t turn around to look out the glass) but the nervousness quickly went away once we were at the top as I took in the breathtaking panoramic vistas. Hard to capture the total awesomeness of the scenery since taking photos through the glass windows was a little challenging due to the reflections. But I’m not complaining after seeing hundreds of wasps flying around outside – we were quite happy we were shielded by the glass. Informative and myth/reality signs provided much of the history of the tower and surrounding area which made for interesting reading. Well worth a visit! Another worthwhile drive was to the summit of West Mountain.
On our last day in the area, we debated on going to the Gangster Museum or visiting the 210 acre Garvan Woodland Gardens, the botanical gardens of the University of Arkansas. The bright blue cloudless sky, sunny, very comfortable temps convinced us that a day at a botanical garden would be the better choice. Being fall, we thought that there might not be much in bloom and therefore it would be a waste of our $15 per person admission fee. But we were so wrong. Camellias, brightly colored chrysanthemums, roses, haws, holly, pyracantha (firethorn), Japanese maples and cinnamon ferns lined the walkways under canopies of oak, hickory, pine, and ash trees. Too hard to describe how beautiful it was – the waterfalls, the koi pond, the unique bridges and all of the various themed garden areas. Hundreds of new plants had been placed in a number of the gardens waiting to be planted. In addition, even though it was only October, the staff there (mostly volunteers) were hard at work installing Christmas decorations everywhere. Must be spectacular during the holiday season. It’s the kind of place that you can visit over and over again because it is always changing. Highly recommend a visit.
Located outside the ticketed area (no admission fee is required) was our favorite part of the woodland gardens, the Anthony Chapel. It has been ranked number 2 in Buzzfeed’s “22 of the Coolest Places to Get Married in America”. Oh, my, I can see why! Absolutely beautiful. The six story tall structure is made of massive yellow pine column and beams with the floor to ceiling glass walls and numerous skylights providing picturesque views of the sky and surrounding woods. With all the glass, it doesn’t even seem like you are inside a building. Located nearby is a carillon, the Millsap Bride’s Hall, the Grooms Quarters, the Anthony Family Carillon and the Evans Celebration Garden. Perfect for any wedding. No matter what season it is, definitely recommend a visit to both the Gardens and the Chapel.
We had planned to grab a bite to eat at the Chipmunk Cafe next to the Sugg Model Train Garden but there was a long queue waiting for food. Instead we headed back to Hot Springs where we ate at Rolando’s Nuevo Latino Restaurante an Ecudorian restaurant. We decided to eat outdoors on the back patio which was nice except for the pesky bees flying around constantly. I had the Pescado de Mesias, tilapia grilled and topped with a tequila and caper sauce and Rob had Pollo Chuchaqui, chicken tenderloins marinated in a Cuban mojo, sautéed in a lime and wine sauce with roma tomatoes, onions, and celery. Both were served with rice with black beans and cheese and a cucumber salad. Outstanding!
In addition to all this sightseeing, we enjoyed a free wine tasting at the Bathhouse Row Winery. Better not like the wines here as they are only available in Arkansas! At Evilo (olive spelled backward) we sampled some olive oil and vinegars (my favorite thing) and left with one bottle of olive oil. Next we just had to visit Fat Bottomed Girl’s Cupcake Shoppe. I was intrigued when I saw the name and learned that they had competed on the Food Networks Cupcake Wars. Not being big cupcake fans, we limited ourselves to buying a single “Salted Caramel” cupcake, that we split later that night. It was good, but kind of dry and seemed like a typical cupcake, so I was somewhat disappointed but as I already mentioned we’re not big cupcake fans.
In addition to the more touristy restaurants already mentioned above, we ate at a few other places for breakfast. Phil’s Restaurant was quite good and the English Muffin Restaurant where we met some very friendly people, however, the food was just so so.
Obviously it was a very busy and fun week but unfortunately all good things must come to an end and we had to bid adieu to Hot Springs. Even after a week stay here, we didn’t see and do everything we wanted. But we promise to be back, plus after talking to some Arkansans (Ar-can-zans), we want to explore northern Arkansas at some point in the future.
Our next stop won’t be quite as interesting – we’re off to the NIRVC dealership in Lewisville, TX to take care of some minor repairs for our new coach.