The Coolness Factor in Hot Springs
By Tom Adkinson
Photo courtesy of National Park Service, Arkansas Tourism, Oaklawn Hotel Resort and Spa and Visit Hot Springs
This picturesque spot in the Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas is both a city and a 100-year-old national park. It’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.
Ashley Waymouth is having a busy, busy year. She’s a ranger at Hot Springs National Park, which is challenging even in a normal year, but 2021 is far from normal. It is the park’s centennial, and Waymouth is the centennial coordinator.
Fans of America’s national parks know that Yellowstone was the first national park (1872), but this spot in the middle of Arkansas has an even older claim of federal protection. In 1832 Congress declared the area a federal reservation. The national park designation came in 1921.
“We’re small but mighty,” Waymouth said of the 5,500-acre national park. The only one smaller is Gateway Arch National Park in St. Louis, Mo.
Hot Springs comes by its name naturally. In its boundaries are 47 protected springs, whose gurgling waters really are hot ― 143 degrees Fahrenheit. They are the only federally controlled hot springs in the nation that are managed for public health and consumptive use. Take a sip or fill a jug at fountains located around the city.
A natural wonder of this magnitude has been a magnet for millennia. Archeological evidence shows natives “took the waters” 10,000 years ago, and the Caddo and Quapaw tribes were connected in more recent centuries. The Quapaw name lives on at one of the historic bathhouses that so many people think of first when Hot Springs National Park is mentioned.
The Quapaw is one of eight distinctive bathhouses on Bathhouse Row, itself a National Historic Landmark District. Most were built in the early 1900s, and they led the way for Hot Springs to develop a restorative resort reputation.
Those early patrons included some whose photos didn’t appear on the society pages of their hometown newspapers ― characters such as gangsters Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Bugs Moran, and Frank Costello. Indeed, Hot Springs for many years was known for gambling, drinking, and other questionable pursuits.
Today, nobody flinches when the National Park Service chronicles that chapter in this city’s history and the casual nature of law enforcement. (After all, it is true.) As ranger Waymouth notes, “This was Vegas before Vegas.”
The deeper and more important essence of Hot Springs, of course, lies in the thermal waters that rise to the surface in such great volume.
Waymouth enjoys describing one amazing fact about the springs. The water that you sip or soak in today fell to earth as rainwater approximately 4,400 years ago ― about the time the pyramids of Giza were being built ― and began a descent of 6,000 feet into the earth.
BATHHOUSE ROW REDUX
Two establishments on Bathhouse Row remain open for bathing enjoyment. They are the previously mentioned Quapaw and the Buckstaff, which has been in continuous operation since 1912.
The others have different uses. The Superior is a restaurant and brewery that uses thermal spring water, the first brewery inside a national park. The 1892 Hale Bathhouse now is the nine-suite Hotel Hale that opened in 2019. The Fordyce Bathhouse, which Franklin Roosevelt visited, is the national park’s visitor center, the Lamar Bathhouse serves as the Bathhouse Emporium retail store, and the Ozark Bathhouse is the Hot Springs National Park Cultural Center.
Bathhouse Row blends so seamlessly with locations that are not part of the national park that it sometimes puzzles visitors.
“One of the most frequent questions I hear is ‘Where is the national park?’” said Bill Solleder, marketing director for Visit Hot Springs, noting that he sometimes can answer by telling the person to take a step to the left or a step to the right to enter or exit park property.
“Our national park simply blends in with the city,” he said, explaining why there is no entrance gate or tollbooth.
Both Solleder and Waymouth quickly note an aspect of Hot Springs National Park that many people don’t expect. Just as with many other national parks, this one is a back-to-nature destination with 26 miles of trails. Downtown itself is effectively one big trailhead, according to Solleder.
Two routes that are easy to reach are the Hot Springs Trail and the North Mountain Trail. Access is up Stephen’s Balustrade (grand staircase) right behind the Fordyce Bathhouse. The 10-mile Sunset Trail is the park’s longest. The destination for many hikers is the Hot Springs Mountain Tower, operated by a concessionaire inside the park. It rises 216 feet to an elevation of 1,256 feet and offers a view of the entire park and expanses of the Ouachita Mountains.
BIRTHPLACE OF SPRING TRAINING
Solleder points to another kind of trail that showcases a different piece of Hot Springs history.
It’s the Hot Springs Baseball Trail, which exists here because Hot Springs gave birth to baseball’s spring training. Points on the trail explain how the legends of early baseball got ready for a new season and enjoyed the city’s therapeutic springs, casinos, horse tracks, and other attractions.
A 160-foot-long mural highlights Honus Wagner, Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige, and Lefty Grove. Visitors often find the spot where Ruth launched baseball’s first 500-foot-plus home run, which measured 573 feet and landed on the fly inside an alligator farm attraction.
For at least two decades before the national park was created, horse racing was big in central Arkansas at multiple tracks, but by 1920, Oaklawn in Hot Springs was the sole survivor. Its glass-enclosed and heated grandstand could seat 1,500. Its architect later designed Wrigley Field in Chicago.
HOTEL AT OAKLAWN – A COMPLETE RESORT
Thoroughbred racing remains a significant visitor draw for Hot Springs. More than a million fans a year visit Oaklawn for the race season that stretches from late January to early May. The big race is the Arkansas Derby every April.
Oaklawn’s racing heritage dates to 1904. A casino later enhanced its appeal, and 2021 saw a major addition with the opening of a 198-room luxury hotel and spa. The formal name is the Hotel at Oaklawn, but its tagline could be “complete resort” because racing, gaming, lodging, spa therapy, and fine dining are all in one place. Check out the Bugler for an excellent meal overlooking the racetrack and infield. Along with the hotel addition came a 1,500-seat event center, which will host concerts.
If anyone needs an antidote to the shouting and adrenalin of a horse race, visit Garvan Woodland Gardens, a 210-acre oasis of beauty and quiet at the edge of the city and along 4.5 miles of Lake Hamilton. Its attributes include 160 types of azaleas, a 4-acre Asian garden, photogenic bridges, and Anthony Chapel, a stunning wedding venue.
Looking beyond the beauty of Garvan Woodland Gardens, Oaklawn General Manager Wayne Smith encourages visitors to explore the area’s lakes, golf courses, mountain biking trails, and panoramic vistas.
“People constantly tell me how surprised they are with all that Hot Springs has to offer,” he said.
That’s a fact that has been true for centuries.