NATIONAL PARKS GUIDES: HOT SPRINGS

History and Stats

What is now known as Hot Springs was known as the Valley of the Vapors by natives well before Spanish explorers first visited the region in 1542. The area was considered neutral ground by local tribes so that all could enjoy the healing waters. The area was claimed for France in the 17th century, then ceded to Spain in the 18th, then back to France, and finally made a part of the United States with the Louisiana Purchase in the early part of the 19th century.

On August 24, 1818, the local Quapaw Indians were forced off of their ancestral land and eventually sent to Indian Territory in the 1830s (which would later become the state of Oklahoma, uprooting the original inhabitants of the continent yet again). An early act of the newly formed Arkansas legislature was to set aside the area as a Federal Reservation. Twelve years later, in 1832, the federal government made the distinction formal.

While the city of Hot Springs was incorporated in 1851, many of the improvements to the city, including a series of stone arches built over the natural stream (upon which a road would be built) and removal of squatters, occurred in 1877, under the auspices of the Federal government. The city of Hot Springs itself has a lush history and is well worth exploring. The intersection with frontier living, public health, and organized crime is only the beginning.

Date Founded: Declared Hot Springs National Reservation on April 20, 1832, later renamed Hot Springs National Park in 1921 by an act of Congress.

Size: 5,550 acres

Elevation: Highest Point: Music Mountain; 1418ft, Visitors’ Center; 597ft

Rainfall: 54in, 3in of snow

Visitors: Over 1.5 million a year

Open: The park is open year-round, and the Fordyce Bathhouse is open 9-5. While the park itself is open year round, the facilities are closed on January 1st, November 24th, and December 25th.

Fees: As the park itself is inside and around the city of Hot Springs, entrance is free, as are tours of the grounds and the park headquarters at Fordyce Bathhouse.

Mission

“To preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the national park system for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.”

The focus of this park is unabashedly the history of the region and the importance it played in the transformation of medicine at the time. The tours offered at the Fordyce Bathhouse are dripping with historical trivia, and walking through the building offers an incredible view into a time capsule of the United States during the Victorian-era.

The trails offered are undoubtedly a wonderful view on a truly quintessential part of Americana, however, there is much to be said for exploring the dark underbelly of the city at places like the Gangster Museum and others which are not a part of the NPS, but still a part of the narrative of the region.

Facilities

The Visitor Center is housed in the historic Fordyce Bathhouse, and its Victorian-era facilities, stained glass and much of the apparatus from the period are part of an enlightening tour. The building serves as both the headquarters for the park and a museum, with educational displays and exhibits throughout. There is also a film on the history of the region.

The park gift and bookshop is located within the Lamar Bathhouse, which is open 9 to 5, with the exception of weekdays from October to March, when it opens at 10.

Though not managed by the NPS, the Hot Springs Mountain Tower, which is inside the park, offers a gift shop and a unique view from over 1,200ft. More information can be found here.

Closest Civilization

Hot Springs has one of the more unique distinctions in the Park Service as being directly within a city, similar to Cuyahoga Valley in Ohio, or the Missions of San Antonio. Even the trailheads on the mountains are just a quick drive away from town.

Hot Springs NPS.jpg

Lodging

Gulpha Gorge Campsite, roughly two miles from town, can accommodate both tents and RVs, and amenities include freshwater and modern bathrooms. Fees are $30/night, though this is discounted to $15 with an America the Beautiful Pass. Additional campsites with more extensive amenities are also in the immediate area.

As the park is in the middle of a city, there are no shortages of lodging options, from AirBnBs to historic hotels.

Camping Level

Newbie to Novice, depending on how much you intend on hiking.

Seasonal Programs

Free; Ranger-led tours of the Fordyce Bathhouse and the surrounding area are available. The outdoor tours are relegated to the summer months, but the park headquarters at the Fordyce Bathhouse is open year round.

Our experience

Hot Springs was one of our favorite experiences and a very unique one. The rich history of the region and modern medicine as a whole was captivating. If you’re a history buff, you’ll fall in love with what the park and city have to offer. The Rangers are a wealth of information, and the time capsule of Fordyce Bathhouse was incredible. The scenery and trails on the mountain were a lovely counterpoint to the buzz of the small town below.

Things we’d like to try next time

We would definitely try the full treatment at the Buckstaff Baths, and conquer the hike we didn’t have time for. There is no shortage of entertainment in the city, from live music to magic shows, and we would definitely enjoy seeing more of what the actual city. More information on what the area has to offer can be found here.

Special Note:

  • The Ranger-led tours are definitely the best way to experience the Fordyce Bathhouse, but as the museum is free, you can be your own tour guide.
  • If the subject of Victorian-era health is of interest, TC Boyle’s novel, “The Road to Wellville” offers a unique historical fiction twist on the subject. The book was also made into a movie.
  • Water from the springs is free to the public and available at public water fountains throughout the city. We highly recommend filling up. It’s some of the best water you’ll ever have.
  • The springs are incredibly productive, with a flow of over half a million gallons a day.
  • Hot Springs is the oldest National Park in the country, as it was set aside as a National Reservation in 1832.
  • Though Bathhouse Row is still very much intact, only two of the historic structures offer baths, Buckstaff and Quapaw. Buckstaff’s services are much the same as they were 100 years ago, while Quapaw is more in line with modern spas.
Fordyce Bathhouse, Hot Springs, AR
Fordyce Bathhouse, Hot Springs, AR

What was your favorite bit of trivia about the region and park? What was your favorite example of medical technology from the early 20th century? Did you take one of the famed baths, and if so, which bathhouse did you go to?

Official NPS Site

Read more about our experience at Hot Springs National Park here.

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