The American Spa 

2/26/2016

Spring 2016

Get Rejuvenated at Arkansas’ Hot Springs National Park

“I need to keep you here for 21 days.”

At the sound of those words, I freeze, caught in the act of withdrawing a brochure from a rack in the lobby of what was once the Fordyce Bathhouse but is now the visitor center for Hot Springs National Park. I slowly turn toward the voice and manage a polite, “Excuse me?” Jack Thorp, a volunteering retiree, sits behind the counter. With a hint of a smile, he says, “Twenty-one days. For your treatment.” Thorp then launches into a description of what that might have entailed back in the early 20th century. The Fordyce Bathhouse, one of eight in historic Bathhouse Row, promised healing, and visitors came by the trainload. While Hot Springs National Park has much to offer the visitor – hiking trails, scenic mountain drives, the city of Hot Springs – it’s the historic baths that make the park unique.

First and Foremost

A stained glass skylight is viewable from inside the Fordyce Bathhouse.
A stained glass skylight is viewable from
inside the Fordyce Bathhouse. Photo: Zack Frank / Shutterstock.com

In the men’s bath hall of the Fordyce, beneath a spectacular stained-glass skylight featuring fish and mermaids, stands a fountain statue of Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto, long thought to be the first European to lay eyes on the springs in 1541. The official stance of the national park, however, is that de Soto's route never passed through here, and that the association with the conquistador was more of a marketing ploy by John Fordyce to promote the region and in turn the Fordyce Bathhouse. The topic still ruffles feathers with some locals, and the park ranger who told me about it – whom I am granting anonymity – did so behind a cupped hand.

What is not contested is that the 1804 Dunbar-Hunter Expedition, commissioned by Thomas Jefferson, first brought important attention to the allegedly medicinal hot springs. An act of Congress in 1832 made “Hot Springs Reservation” the first lands ever preserved by the federal government for public recreation. Despite this protection, people settled among the springs and set up treatment facilities – first in rudimentary cabins and much later in finer bathhouses. “The American Spa” was born. The arrival of the railroad in 1874 rapidly increased the number of visitors, and the bathhouses were booming. But a fire in 1878 forced the community to start over and enter an age of nicer wooden bathhouses. These too were phased out in favor of fire-resistant brick and stucco operations by 1923, and eight of those bathhouses remain. The springs’ reputation grew, and visitors ranged from the famous, such as Franklin D. Roosevelt, to the infamous, like Al Capone, whose favorite suite, overlooking the park, bears his name in the historic Arlington Hotel.

 A Park within a City

On a map, Hot Springs National Park – the smallest national park by area in the United States – resembles a misshapen donut; the green mountains of the park surround a small circle of residences and businesses, while the whole park is surrounded by the rest of the city. Central Avenue, lined with aging magnolia trees, passes from outside to inside, a narrow strip with historic baths on one side and local businesses on the other. But the physical border between park and private is fuzzy. In keeping with their mission to preserve and protect national parks, the National Park Service has been restoring the bathhouses to their former architectural glory and returning them to public service by leasing. The Quapaw Bathhouse combines its historical communal pools with modern spa facilities; the Superior Bathhouse is a brewpub, brewing beer with thermal water; and the Hale is transformed into a bed-and-breakfast.

Drinking the Waters of History

At the north end of Bathhouse Row is nothing but green grass on an empty corner lot. Set back from the street at the foot of the mountain is a hot pool with a steaming cascade tumbling down through rock and foliage to fill it. I climb steps and follow the hot stream up the slope into the forest where a dirt path continues into the park and a surprising promenade opens up to my right: the Grand Promenade. The wide lane of decorative brick traverses the hillside, high enough to offer views of the bathhouse rooftops.

Photo: © Michael Snell / Alamy Stock Photo

The Full Treatment

Only two bathhouses are in operation: Buckstaff, which opened in 1912 and still offers a needle shower (a shower that directs fine, stimulating streams of water around the entire torso), private tubs, steam cabinets, and paraffin treatments; and the reopened Quapaw, with its large common pools, private baths, and a steam cave along with an assortment of modern spa treatments. The attendant at the Quapaw gives me a locker key and runs through instructions, and 10 minutes later I am soaking in a “cool” pool of 102 degrees, contemplating my move up to the 104-degree pool. But my appointment time arrives and I am escorted to a private bath where I soak for 20 minutes. For another 20 minutes I sweat in a basement cave partly dug into the mountainside, the steam provided entirely by rushing spring water in a shallow well in the corner. An elderly woman lowers herself gingerly into the pool. I see the telltale red circles on her back that show she’s received cupping therapy, an ancient alternative medical practice that uses suction to increase blood flow. I wonder if she has medicinal expectations for the baths as well.

The Quapaw Baths & Spa is one of two bathhouses that still offer spa services. Photo: Kevin Revolinski

Road and Trail

“Exercise was part of the treatment as well,” says Nalissala “Lisa” Allen, a park ranger. She shows me some trail maps and the birding checklist she made for the park before I set off into the mountains for the afternoon. While the Grand Promenade and Central Avenue are lovely for strolling, dirt paths over the mountains and through the woods offer a bit more of a workout. Serious hikers can circumnavigate the park on the 10-mile Sunset Trail, stopping at Balanced Rock along the way. And if hours of trekking leaves you sore, you haven’t far to go to soak your muscles.

As the day wanes, I decide to spend the balance of it on a relaxing drive that connects many of the park’s tree-lined mountain roads, stopping at several scenic overlooks along the way. On Hot Springs Mountain, I park and take an elevator to the top of the 216-foot observation tower where interpretive signs chronicle history, trivia, and the science of the springs, along with an outdoor viewing platform that reveals the city within a park within a city. To the north, the verdant forest cover shines pale blue and gray as the last of the light washes across the rows of mountains fading into the horizon.

One of several volunteers, Shirley Goff waits to guide her next tour group through the Fordyce Bathhouse.
One of several volunteers, Shirley Goff waits to guide
her next tour group through the Fordyce Bathhouse.
Photo: Kevin Revolinski

It Works for Shirley

Shirley Goff is nearly 90 years of age and has long enjoyed “taking the waters” at the park. Since she retired 25 years ago, she’s been volunteering as a tour guide at the Fordyce. Charming as a Southern belle and as sharp as a tack, she has a lifetime of world travel behind her. Now the world comes to her, and she is all too happy to talk to visitors about her park. She wears a second-hand vintage dress and hat reminiscent of the bathhouse’s heyday and is eagerly awaiting her tour group. “What am I going to do now that I'm retired? I can't sit around and play cards all day!“ Whether you soak in them or not, the springs do have a way of keeping one rejuvenated.

Plan your own Hot Springs experience.