Nestled comfortably in the Ouachita Mountains, Hot Springs was born from 47 natural mineral springs that gave this city a place on the map. Bathing in the springs dates back to the late 1700’s and early 1800’s when the Native American Indians bathed in the springs. The traces of minerals and hot temperature of the spring water (143 degrees F) led people to believe there were therapeutic benefits to bathing in the water and for thousands of years people have been coming to Hot Springs to bath in the spring waters.
|Our dog pack - Cosmo, Leroy, Spirit and Bee.|
|Our camp site on the lake|
We rolled into town and parked at Catherine’s Landing – an RVC Outdoor Destination. The large park sits on 400 acres with a mile waterfront along Lake Catherine and lots of amenities that would make a kid's head spin (can you say zipline and oversized pool). This park turned out to be great for our friends and us who had dogs that needed daily walks and lucky for us the park has a good three miles of trails and a decent size dog park.
Once settled into the campground, we set our sights on visiting the town's tourist attractions. The first place we went to was the Hot Springs Mountain Tower where at 1,256 feet above sea level you get great panoramic mountain views accompanied with a little history and gusty winds. The tower is located within Hot Springs National Park – the smallest of all America’s National Parks. This park may be small at less than 6,000 acres but there is a lot packed into it and the tower was just our start.
Hot Springs National Park calls itself the "oldest area in the national park system" because in 1832, 40 years before Yellowstone became the first national park, President Andrew Jackson set aside the hot springs as a special reservation. The federal land was designated a “National Park” in 1921. By then Hot Springs had long been famous as a spa where people "took the waters," seeking relief from bunions, rheumatism, and other afflictions.
The park’s visitor center is located downtown on Bathhouse Row in the restored Fordyce Bathhouse. The self-guided tour starts with a short film and then you are free to wander through 23 rooms. Exhibits in the rooms interpret the story of the hot springs and the functions of the rooms that appear as they would have back in their heyday.
The bathhouses were quite elaborate and an elegant way to spend an entire day. (Which was quite the contrast to the early bathhouses made of canvas and lumber.) Marble, stained glass, and bronze statues adorned the building. In addition to the tubs and steam chambers were a gymnasium, beauty parlor, chiropody, music room, dressing rooms, and an area for sun bathing.
The 1950’s began to see the decline in visitation to the bathhouses. Advances in modern medicine led to a rapid decline in the use of water therapies to treat illnesses and ailments. Also, automobiles meant people were free to visit multiple places on vacation which replaced traveling by train to a single destination. One by one, the businesses failed and doors began to close. Only one, the Buckstaff has been in continuous operation.
Today, bathing continues to be popular and Hot Springs is still a draw for those wanting to bath in the hot mineral waters. Modern spa services meld with traditional practices of relaxing in warm waters or steam baths in historic buildings. Today, the springs are capped and locked for safety reasons and the hot water is pumped from them into the bathhouses.
Wanting to know more about the seedy side of Hot Springs (well maybe not the prostitution part) we ventured over to The Gangster Museum of America for an in depth explanation. The museum takes you back to the gangster heyday of the 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s when some of the most notorious gangsters walked the city’s streets and mingled with the population. Numerous halls with interpretive exhibits and short films give you an idea of who was here and what it was like.
One of Hot Springs famous historic sites is the Ohio Club – the only remaining saloon that housed illegal gambling that is still open and a great place for lunch. The famous club once was hidden behind a fake storefront during prohibition and the name changed from the Ohio Club Bar to Ohio Cigar Store to conceal the illegal drinking and gambling. Many famous people – gangsters and celebrities – are rumored to have visited this establishment including Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Owney Madden, Mae West, Tony Bennett, Babe Ruth and Bill Clinton.
Hot Springs was a pleasant surprise to us and we found the town a great mix of interesting historical sites mixed with natural beauty. We found time to hike some of the many miles of trails in the park, stroll through the quaint downtown shops, fill up on some spring water, and find interesting and yummy places to eat.
Our trip was made all the more fun since our friends Kelly and T (and their dogs) joined us. Thanks girls and pups!