A Brief History of Hot Springs, Arkansas
Let me start out by saying Hot Springs is one of the strangest places we’ve ever been. The city is riddled with a checkered history dating back to civil war times and even earlier.
Did you know it was run by gangsters and the Las Vegas strip was modeled after Hot Springs of the early 1900s? There was even a feud between Hot Springs Police and the Garland County Sheriff’s Department over which law enforcement agency would get what kickbacks from the illegal gambling activities in Hot Springs. The feud eventually lead to an all out gunfight between the two police groups in 1899. Illegal gambling continued well into the 1930s.
Not impressed by illegal gambling? How about moonshine? Al Capone ran a massive moonshine distillery out of an old dairy just outside of Hot Springs. He bottled the moonshine in Mountain Valley Spring Water bottles, just with the label upside down. He smuggled the bootleg moonshine all over the country via the rail lines.
Oh, baseball you say. Yes baseball’s spring training did not start out in Florida, it started in, drum roll…Hot Springs. Babe Ruth hit a ball over 500 feet during an exhibition game, the ball landing in the still operating Arkansas Alligator Farm. Of course the athletes soothed sore muscles at the bathhouses. You can even take a drive down the Historic Baseball Trail with a cell phone tour.
Let us not forget the Civil War…when the north captured Little Rock, they moved the entire capital to Hot Springs. Union scouts were attacked right on Central Avenue.
We haven’t even talked about how the whole town is covered in springs that pump 140 degree water, or how humans have been bathing in those springs for centuries. Originally the hot springs were a neutral ground for Native American tribes, including the Quapaw. Many believed the waters to be healing and strengthening.
In 1832, 40 years before the first national park and 4 years before Arkansas was a state, President Andrew Jackson declared Hot Springs the first Federal Reservation. Between 1892 and 1923 eight elaborate bathhouse were built and Hot Springs became America’s first resort. It didn’t actually reach national park status until 1921, and the bathhouses themselves were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974 and later became part of the National Park itself.
I think we also need to cover the bathhouses themselves. In essence the natural hot springs water, at all of 140 degrees, is piped from the springs into large, what I assume are ceramic, bathtubs. There are also vapor cabinets, sitz bath, hot packs, and a needle shower involved. In the earlier days, you needed a prescription from a doctor to utilize the baths. Later they became the place to be seen, a luxury of the time.
Of the eight bathhouses on the row, only two actually offer bathing; The Buckstaff and the Quapaw. The Buckstaff sticks to the very traditional bathing experience, which I experience and will get to shortly, it was definitely an event. The Quapaw offers large shared thermal pools (think large hot tubs) as well as private baths in more modern tubs. The remaining 6 bathhouses serve as the National Park Headquarters, a museum and even a brewhouse (with beer made from the spring water of course).
How to See Everything There is to See in Hot Springs, AR
Before adventuring to Hot Springs, it’s important to wrap your brain around the idea that Hot Springs National Park is basically wrapped around, and part of the town. Most everything there is to see of the town and the history is within a 2 mile stretch. Hot Springs is the smallest of all the National Park, so it’s a good one to get your feet wet with if you’re new to the National Park scene.
Bathhouse Row is a short 0.4 mile stretch from end to end along Central Ave. There is a free parking garage on Exchange Street and Bath, just off Central Ave. We parked there and walked up and down to wherever we needed to go. On the East side of the street are the bathhouses, which are part of the National Park and are technically federal land. The West side of the street is lined with shops, museums, restaurants, and bars.
If you’re into shopping you will have a lot to do on the west side of Central Ave. We enjoyed Bathhouse Soapery, Fat Bottomed Girl’s Cupcake Shoppe (the sock store next to it is amazing), Historic District Antiques (they have a VERY cool old music box that’s worth checking out), and Rocket Fizz a vintage candy shop.
The Nature in Hot Springs National Park
Just north of Bathhouse Row are the North Mountain and the West Mountain. There are trails of all difficulty levels on both Mountains. Unfortunately we didn’t get in much hiking as I was still recovering from a sinus infection. We did hike a very small section of Sunset Trail on the West Mountain at sunset and it was absolutely beautiful.
If hiking is not your thing, you can drive up both mountains and each offer absolutely stunning views. I recommend doing both.
We saw deer, squirrels, foxes, coyote, rabbits and even a skunk on this trip. We did not see a black bear, however they are known to inhabit the park.
Hot Springs Mountain Tower
On the North Mountain is Hot Springs Mountain Tower. The 216’ tower offers a 360 degree breathtaking views of the area. Not to worry, there is an elevator. There a fee to go up the tower, but if your 4th grader has their free National Park Pass, they get in free. I’m all for great views, so I’d have to say the tower is a must when you visit. There’s also an excellent gift shop at the base of the tower, worth a stop.
Seeing the Hot Springs in their Natural State
In an effort to keep them pure, most of the springs have been capped. The one exception to this lies at the north end of Bathhouse Row. Directly across the street from the famous Arlington Hotel (where Al Capone frequented) at the edge of the National Park is the Hot Water Cascade. On a cool day the steam coming off the water will be the giveaway for its location. You can sit at the base of the springs and touch the water in the pools. There are also stairs and ramps to go up the hill to the top where the water exits the ground.
Drinking from the Hot Springs
There are two opportunities to drink from the springs. Just before the start of Bathhouse Row at Center Street and Spring Street is the Hot Springs Visitor Center. Just along side it is a public fountain which pumps out the warm thermal water. Locals fill up here and anyone is welcome to fill containers.
The other location is a cold spring, just north of Bathhouse Row, on Fountain Street just left of the turn onto Hot Springs Mountain Drive which takes you to the Mountain Tower. The water flows at a steady 62 degrees.
Definitely bring along bottles to take samples of both water. We had a great time sampling from both springs and comparing the taste. If you let the water sit in a bottle with a little air in it the minerals will eventually start to calcify as they make contact with the air. Shake the water thats been sitting for a while and put the bottle on a light and the calcite will shine like glitter in the water.
Must See Museums in Hot Springs
The Fordyce Bathhouse
The Fordyce Bathhouse is now the National Park Visitor Center and museum. They’ve restored much of the Bathhouse to its original look and feel. Most of the building’s three main floors and basement serve as self walking tour museum. This is an absolute must see to get a full grasp on what the bathhouses meant to people when they were at their prime and the ingenuity that went into creating them. The Fordyce was the largest and more opulent bathhouses of the times, costing $200,000 to build in 1915, around $6.4 million today.
If you’re going with kids, make sure you stop here first so they can get their junior ranger book and fill it out along your trip. Once they return it a park ranger will swear them in as an official Junior Ranger of Hot Springs National Park. Bonus, the bathhouse, museum and junior ranger program are all free.
The Gangster Museum of America
I love a good kitschy museum, which is what I truly expected from this one. While it had its aspects of kitsch, it was by far the most comprehensive experience of the underground historical happenings of Hot Springs. The guide will take you room to room sharing the stories of Hot Springs gangster past, baseball past, and even a little about the bathhouses and how they played into the mix. The Gangster Museum is truly what made us fully grasp the grand amount of history in this old midwest town.
Cost is $15 for adults and $6 for kids. The tour is guided so they only happen at specific times. I recommend stopping by here first, getting tickets and then going to explore more of Bathhouse Row.
Food In Hot Springs
Someone asked me what the must have food in Arkansas is and I shrugged my shoulders and said, “squirrel?” There really is not anything that I know of. If I’m wrong, please feel free to let me know in the comments. We did have some good eats while in Hot Springs. I do have a very serious rule about not eating Mexican food in any state that does not boarder Mexico. So if you’re looking for Mexican food in Hot Springs, this is not the place.
We did get apps and drinks at the Arlington. It was cool to sit in the lobby after learning all the history that went down within its walls. Their fries were really good as was the shrimp bisque. It was a really nice stop after walking up and down the row all day.
The Argentinian Coffee & Wine Bar was good, but a little overpriced for what we ordered. They do have wine dispensers and an oxygen bar if you’re into that.
We had dinner at Grateful Head Pizza Oven and Beer Garden. Pizza was great and the house made ranch was awesome (which is saying something as a Texan). They even had gluten free crust which made Issa and I very happy. Even if the food wasn’t good, sitting outside on the side of a mountain with the National Park behind us was just amazing. Five stars for the ambiance alone.
We didn’t have time to check out Superior Bathhouse Brewery, but it’s definitely on the list for a return trip. It’s inside a bathhouse and they use the spring water to make their beer.
Bathing in the Hot Springs in Arkansas
Bathing in the Hot Springs is an absolute must if you want the FULL experience. I'm happy to say I did it and it was definitely a once in a lifetime thing, but that's for the next post.
We did everything including bathing in the springs in 48 hours. If you plan ahead, wear good shoes and go with the flow it's easy to see a lot of this strange, history filled town in a short amount of time.
If you have anything to add, thoughts, other things to see, or questions please leave them in the comments.