Containing portions of downtown Hot Springs, Ark., this national park is regarded as one of the most easily accessible in the country. Over the years, the land here has been considered the source of healing and medicinal legends from both Native American tribes and Victorian era doctors. It was set aside by an act of Congress that helped pave the way for the National Park System and soon developed into a successful spa town, treating everyone from military veterans to Al Capone. The smallest national park by area, it is also the oldest park maintained by the park service. Hot Springs National Park and the city around it tell a unique story from American history, one about a hunt for miracle cures, prohibition, early vacationers and geothermal wonders.
By 1807, the first American settlers had come to the area. Manuel Prudhomme built a cabin on the hot springs and was soon followed by John Perciful and Isaac Cates. The United States government still considered the land around the hot springs to be part of the Quapaw Indian nation and officially maintained that these men had no legal claim to the land. However, an act of Congress in 1815 allowed residents of Missouri who had been displaced by the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-2 to resettle on the Quapaw land. By 1818, the tribe had ceded the land around the hot springs to the government and in 1819, the area was given the new name of the Arkansas Territory.
Though the National Park Service wouldn’t exist for 94 years and the first national park designation wouldn’t be authorized until the creation of Yellowstone in 1832, Hot Springs has the distinction of being the first land set aside as a “federal reservation.” Somewhat of a precursors to the national parks program, Congress - on the behest of the Arkansas Territorial Legislature - formed the national reservation as a way to grant federal protection to the thermal waters and surrounding natural beauty. The Hot Springs Reservation was officially set aside as a public park space in 1880, though it wouldn’t become a national park until several decades later.
In 1854, the Hale Bathhouse became the first building constructed on what would become Bathhouse Row. The city of Hot Springs would become Arkansas state capitol for two months in 1862, and when Union troops arrived in 1864, the burned most of the city including the original Hale Bathhouse. Another bathhouse would be built following the war as would a streetcar service, but the second bathhouse also burned in 1872. By 1875, the city contained five bathhouses known as the Rector, Old Hale, Palace, the Weir, the George and the Huffman & Hamilton. None of these bathhouses remain today, though their locations are still the site of bathhouses. The original Arlington Hotel opened in April of that year and the luxury hotel would become a fixture of Bathhouse Row. Today, it is located within the national park boundaries.
Due to a large number of lawsuits between original Hot Springs settlers and those coming in to cater to its burgeoning tourist industry, Congress commissioned the Hot Springs Commission to survey the land settle disputes. Benjamin Kelley was appointed as the first superintendent of Hot Springs Reservation, as it was then known, and had to send for federal troops to stop homesteaders from trying to claim the land. As a response, would-be homesteaders set up a shantytown on the reserve's borders they named Kelleytown. He also established the first regulations for bathing in the thermal pools, which were also unpopular.
The first Army-Navy Hospital in Hot Springs opened in 1887 and the following year, Bathhouse Row as it is seen today began to take shape. The original Lamar Bathhouse was built in 1888, but its current renovations date from 1923 featuring a writing room, massage rooms, a gymnasium, dressing rooms, and sun parlors. The railroad and the opening of a government free bathhouse that same year prompted the rise in new bathhouses in the area. The third incarnation of the Hale Bathhouse was constructed in 1892 and still stands today. Considered to be one of the most lavish, this Victorian bathhouse underwent extreme renovations in 1910 when regulations were again changed. Those visiting the Hale enjoyed treatments like needle baths, vapor baths, hot baths, cooling rooms, and a sweat room.
Visitors such as Williams Jennings Bryant came to lecture during the summers in Hot Springs and beginning in 1901, the Pittsburgh Pirates became the first of many professional baseball teams to institute spring training in the resort town. The Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox would follow in 1909, the Cincinatti Reds and Brooklyn Dodgers in 1910, the St. Louis Browns in 1911, and the Philadelphia Phillies in 1912. A fourth fire in 1905 destroyed much of the downtown business district, including several hotels and the government free bathhouse. The Hale was spared though the Lamar suffered damage and was thoroughly renovated.
In 1921, Hot Springs officially changed from being Hot Springs Reservation and became Hot Springs National Park, gaining more than 900 acres in the deal. The country had ended what was called the “gold age of bathing” with mineral, salt water and other types of baths claimed to heal a variety of ailments. Swimming pools, tennis courts, auto camps, electricity, expansive parks with pagodas and other amenities were added to cater to the wealthy patrons of the town and bathhouses. Despite the Great Depression, the park still thrived in the 1930s as CCC workers made new trails, paved roads and the Army-Navy hospital kept the area busy.
While Bathhouse Row is one of the most famous parts of the park, Hot Springs is also home to 5,550 acres of land, including a public park, 26 miles of hiking trails, scenic mountain drives, and camping sites. The park averages 1.4 million visitors a year with that number predicted to be on the increase as more people learn about the park and its amenities. Visitors come not only to visit the park but also the city of Hot Springs, which boasts historic hotels, a botanical garden, two reservoir lake, a racetrack in operation since 1904 and the famed Arkansas Alligator Farm and Petting Zoo. Arkansas’ only national park remains a massive tourist draw more than 180 years after the first visitors came here.
Science and Miracle Waters
While the perceived healing powers of the water in Hot Springs has been considered a miracle by many, modern science has uncovered how the geology of the region and the geothermal activity of the hot springs work. While some of the so-called healings at Hot Springs may be part of the placebo effect or power of suggestion, there is scientific evidence that bathing in the hot waters here can have a positive impact on one’s health. To learn how the hot springs work, one must first learn how they were created.
The sedimentary rocks visible around the thermal springs give clues to the area’s geological history, containing shale, chert, novaculite, sandstone and conglomerate. The oldest of these rock formations is the Womble Shale, which is black hard and argillaceous. Above that is the Bigfork Chert, which is brittle and fractured from the folding of tectonic plates. The Polk Creek Shale and Missouri Mountain Shale are next, containing quartzitic sandstone. The Polk Shale is black, fissile and graphitic while the Missouri Mountain Shale is softer and varies in color.
From ancient times, many believed the hot springs could treat diseases ranging from tuberculosis to nervous affections, rheumatism, lung diseases, and diseases of the skin and blood. Relaxing in the hot springs and inhaling their vapors were attributed to healing or curing these diseases as was drinking the waters. While not all doctors believe in the “miracle cure” of the hot springs, there is some modern scientific evidence that the hot springs could contribute to improvement of some diseases.
Mineral baths have been known to benefit patients with arthritis, rheumatism and other bone and joint diseases because - similarly to hydrotherapy - the water allows them to move with less resistance. Doctors have also said the opening of pores by hot waters and the fact the water better dissolves dead skin may be why those with skin diseases like eczema and psoriasis feel better after taking a hot spring soak. Hot water is also known to help as a pain reliever, like how a hot water bottle can help with a head cold or a hot soak helps after a rough workout.
The most visited part of the park is Bathhouse Row with the park’s visitors center at the Fordyce, the gift shop at at the Lamar and the the active Buckstaff next to that. Visitors also tour the five other bathhouses and often stop to take pictures of the Hot Springs Rehabilitation Center (the former Army-Navy Hospital) and the Arlington Hotel. Visitors also stop to see the Arlington Lawn and its gazebo, DeSoto Rock and Hot Water Cascade. This historic area also offers a few short walking tours and some visible thermal fountains and heat exchanges. Those wanting to learn about the city of Hot Springs and what it has to offer aren't far from the city's visitors center when they come to Bathhouse Row.
The main campsite in the park is also the main campground site at Gulpha Gorge. This area is accessible through a long hike but can also be visited via Highway 7, which takes visitors into the northeastern most area of the park where Hot Springs Mountain, Indian Mountain and North Mountain form the gorge. Continuing on the highway to DeSoto Park, visitors can take Sleepy Valley Road toward Sleepy Valley Lake or take a left onto Stonebridge Road and cut through part a part Hot Springs surrounded by the park on their way to the park’s western boundary.
Flora and Fauna
Mammals tend to be the largest of the park’s animals, though they range in size. Some of the smaller creatures here include shrews, moles, chipmunks, squirrels, woodchucks, rabbitts rats, mice, voles, skunks, otters, foxes, raccoons and minks. Larger animals found here include the gray fox, coyote, bobcat, American black bear and deer. Many visitors hope to catch a glimpse of the bears as well as species like the Southern flying squirrel and armadillos, The park is also home to 10 species of bat.
Hot Springs is home to dozens of varieties of birds, which are counted every year around Christmas. Water birds that call the park home include four types of heron, snow geese, Canada geese, green winged teal, and muscovy ducks. Birds of prey including vultures, hawks, Golden Eagles, nighthawks, three types of owls, and American Kestrels are also found in the park. Game birds like wild turkey and Bobwhites also live here. Visitors can get the park’s official bird list to see if they can spy the varieties that live here including plovers, lapwings, sandpipers, pigeons, doves, swallows, flycatchers, jays, crows, kingfishers, hummingbirds, chickadees, nuthatches, creepers, wrens, warblers, thrushes, mockingbirds, starlings, vireos, finches and sparrows.
Things to Do
These baths can be a welcome way to relax after a day hiking the 26 miles of trail that cover the park. Hot Springs has plenty of options for those who want a short hike with most of the parks trails coming in at a mile or less. The large majority of the parks walks are around Hot Springs and the North Mountain area, but there are a few for those who want to get off the beaten path in the West Mountain area as well. Those who want to circumnavigate the entire park and try the longest trail in the park, the 10-mile Sunset Trail.
The brick-paved half mile Grand Promenade has been a popular place to see and be seen for generation while the half mile of dirt composing the Honeysuckle Trail is a nice walk in the woods. The Lower Dogwood Trail, Peak Trail and Gulpha Gorge Trail also come in at under a mile in this area of the park. Those looking for something more strenuous might want to try the one-mile Upper Dogwood Trail, 1.4 mile Dead Chief Trail or 1.7 mile Hot Springs Mountain trail, all of which are very popular.
Of course, the Sunset Trail is reserved for the park’s most adventurous and experienced hikers. While the first section across West Mountain is fairly busy, the third and second sections are more quiet and also offer some of the most scenic views of the park. Visitors to these two sections will cross Sugarloaf Mountain and see structures and outcroppings like Balanced Rock. The third part of the trail goes near Stonebridge Road and land that was once the estate of the area’s famed Fordyce Family. Two spurs off this trail include the Balanced Rock Trail and Fordyce Peaks Trail.
- Hot Springs National Park (U.S. National Park Service) - Water. That's what first attracted people, and they have been coming here ever since to use these soothing thermal waters to heal and relax. Rich and poor alike came for the baths, and a thriving city built up around the hot springs. Together nicknamed "The American Spa," Hot Springs National Park today surrounds the north end of the city of Hot Springs, Arkansas. Come discover it for yourself.
- Hot Springs National Park | National Geographic - Most national parks cover hundreds of thousands of acres, are far from city streets, and keep natural resources away from commercial users … but not Hot Springs. This smallest of national parks borders a city that has made an industry out of tapping and dispensing the park's major resource: mineral-rich waters of hot springs.
- Hot Springs National Park | National Park Foundation - Originally established by Congress as Hot Springs Reservation in 1832 and later becoming a national park in 1921, Hot Springs National Park represents the oldest protected area in the National Park System. The park surrounds the north end of the city of Hot Springs, Arkansas, and includes over 40 hot springs which flow from the western slope of Hot Springs Mountain. In addition to the hot springs, the park encompasses a wilderness area with over 20 miles of trails and a campground.
- Hot Springs, Arkansas - The boyhood home of former U.S. President Bill Clinton, Hot Springs is located in Garland County. Along with the national park it is home base to live thoroughbred racing and gaming at Oaklawn, Magic Springs/Crystal Falls theme and water parks, the 210-acre Garvan Woodland Gardens, The Gangster Museum of America, and a renowned arts community. The city is home to about 35,000 people. Hot Springs, Arkansas, is also known for many annual local events.