Jewels of Arkansas

2/26/2016

Spring 2016

Hidden Gems Await Your Discovery Beyond Hot Springs National Park

Ready for a treasure hunt? If you’ve enjoyed the bounty of Hot Springs National Park, it’s time to see what other gems can be found around this popular destination. Sure, those special thermal-heated, mineral-laden waters are a major draw but there are some other jewels to add even more sparkle to a central Arkansas visit.

Follow the Hot Springs Baseball Trail

Start off with a driving tour of a sporty kind of diamond, the sort used in the design of ballparks. A little-known part of Hot Springs history is that early 20th-century baseball teams came to the Arkansas area for spring training. “Teams would come to Hot Springs to ‘boil out’ after the off-season in the bathhouses, and many of them would hike the mountains to get back in shape for the coming season,” says Steve Arrison, CEO of Visit Hot Springs. As early as 1886, Cap Anson brought his Chicago White Stockings (now the Cubs) to Hot Springs. Eventually, five baseball fields were built, and each spring as many as 250 players would come here to train, including legends of the game. The immortal Babe Ruth smashed a 573-foot home run while training in Hot Springs.

In 2012, when a group of baseball historians became interested in Hot Springs as the birthplace of spring baseball, the Hot Springs Baseball Trail was born. Now visitors can stand where legends of the game brushed the rust off their skills, where records were set, and in one of the key places where “America’s Pastime” was shaped. The trail offers 29 stops, and visitors can pick up a map at the Hot Springs Visitor Center to guide them on their way. “Plaques are located all around town, many of them in the downtown area where people who might not know about the history of baseball in Hot Springs can learn more about our rich legacy,” Arrison says. “It’s very common to see people reading the plaques, and having their photo taken with their favorites.” One popular spot, for example, is where pitcher Cy Young was welcomed with a triumphant reception upon his return to “Spa City.” Young, who won 511 games as a pitcher and holds a Major League record that still stands, trained in Hot Springs many times. Another plaque marks the site of St. Mary’s of the Springs Catholic Church where Hall of Fame sluggers Stan “The Man” Musial and Al Simmons attended services when they were in the city.

Hot Springs Baseball Trail Marker
Babe Ruth enjoys a game of golf in Hot Springs
A Hot Springs Baseball Trail marker commemorates the spot
where Cy Young made a triumphant return for spring training.
Babe Ruth enjoys a game of golf in Hot Springs.

Explore Garvan Woodland Gardens

After you’ve made a home run through the Baseball Trail, head six miles out of town to the natural treasures of Garvan Woodland Gardens. Owned by the University of Arkansas, the 210-acre botanical garden was a gift to the people of Arkansas and the world from Verna Garvan, owner of the property situated on a peaceful peninsula surrounded by scenic Lake Hamilton. “We have more than five miles of walking trails that include stone bridges and waterfalls,” says Marketing Director Sherre Freeman. “You can walk through serene and beautifully landscaped gardens and visit our world-famous Anthony Chapel.” Standing nearly six stories tall with floor-to-ceiling windows and huge wooden trusses, Anthony Chapel hosts more than 200 weddings a year and is often booked a year in advance, Freeman says.

Anthony Chapel stands nearly six stories tall.
Photos by: Jackie Sheckler Finch
 

From Garvan Woodland Gardens, take a leisurely drive along Highway 270 west for about 25 miles to Mountain Harbor Resort & Spa on Lake Ouachita. Watch for the Mountain Harbor sign at the Valero filling station just past the township of Joplin. Turn right at the sign onto Mountain Harbor Road and travel about two miles. Mountain Harbor Resort is composed of 950 acres of pristine Ouachita wilderness nestled against a lake shoreline and is a wonderful place to stay a night or two as you explore the area. The resort offers horseback riding, rental boats, fishing guides, hiking and biking, three swimming pools, tennis courts, basketball courts, volleyball, playground, and more. Cabins and lodge rooms are clean, nicely decorated, and well maintained. The Lodge Restaurant offers delicious cuisine to go along with lovely lake views. “Chicken fried steak is what we are known for. This is the South, after all, but we do have a well-rounded menu,” says Adriane Barnes. Her husband Chris Barnes’ family has owned and operated the resort for six decades. “It’s a family business, and you can tell we take pride in it, and want our guests to enjoy their stay.”

Garvan Woodland Gardens has more than 5 miles of walking
trails. Cabins are individually decorated and well maintained.
Photos by: Jackie Sheckler Finch
Cabins are individually decorated and well maintained.

The resort also has Turtle Cove Spa, which features a unique local treatment, Crystal Energy Balance Therapy, purported to balance the seven energy centers of the body. Done on a fibro-acoustic sound table, the massage uses locally mined crystals that have been polished smooth and heated. Soothing music selected by the masseuse vibrates through the sound table to provide a double massage. During the treatment, guests are given a personal crystal to hold, and the crystal is later wrapped in a velvet bag for the guests to take home with them afterward.

Dig Crater of Diamonds State Park 

When your energy centers are duly balanced and you are fed and rested, load up the Subaru for a one-hour drive to Murfreesboro to try your luck at finding the real thing – actual diamonds at Crater of Diamonds State Park. It is one of the only diamond mines in the world where guests can actually dig for diamonds and precious stones – to keep. “We call it our field of dreams,” says park interpreter Margi Jenks. “The first diamond was found here in 1906 by John Huddleston, the farmer who owned the property at the time. Now more than 70,000 diamonds have been uncovered. Today, visitors find diamonds in every corner of our 37.5-acre search field.”

Visitors access the search field through the Diamond Discovery Center where they can learn about the field, some of the fantastic finds uncovered there, and get a quick tutorial in the proper way to hunt for diamonds. Diamonds are here, Jenks says, because the field is the eroded surface of an ancient, gem-bearing volcanic crater. The field has sun shelters and washing pavilions where diamond hunters search through the dirt for the gems, which are typically smooth and well-rounded and have a metallic luster.

Crater of Diamonds State Park is one of the only diamond
mines in the world where guests can dig for and keep
diamonds. Photos by: Jackie Sheckler Finch
Visitors of all ages have their own ways of diamond searching.

“When you find a diamond, you just bring it back in here and we will give you free identification and certification of what you’ve found,” Jenks says. The largest diamond found since the founding of the park was the white 16.37-carat Amarillo Starlight discovered in 1975 by W.W. Johnson of Texas. One of the most recent big finds was an 8.52-carat white diamond discovered June 24, 2015, by Bobbie Oskarson of Colorado. Clear white and icicle shaped, the gem is the fifth largest diamond found by a park visitor since the park was established in 1972. Oskarson uncovered the diamond 30 minutes into her search in a couple scoops of dirt and named her gem Esperanza. “You never know what you are going to find or if you are going to find anything,” Jenks says. “That’s part of the thrill of it. But it’s also fun just to get out there and look. People of all ages do it.”

When your diamond adventure is complete, circle back to Hot Springs and indulge in one more spa treatment to celebrate the conclusion of your treasure hunt, and contemplate the rich veins of history that you’ve traced in your exploration of this beautiful region.