This Arkansas treasure spotlights America’s earliest spa destination
Like other National Park Service lands across the country, the mountainous chunk of real estate in southwest Arkansas offers lush scenery, hiking trails and other ways to commune with the great outdoors. But Hot Springs National Park is a bit quirky and, for many travelers, more about nostalgia than nature. It’s a trip back to the days when the town of Hot Springs played host to gangsters and bootleggers, movie stars and baseball legends, to times when people thought taking thermal waters in a resort setting would cure their ailments.
Indeed, Hot Springs National Park—a curious blend of civilization and wilderness—enshrines a colorful chapter in the nation’s wellness and public health history. Nowhere else provides a similar window to the past.
Urban meets wild in this one-of-a-kind national park, which consists of 5,500 forested acres surrounding downtown Hot Springs. Nicknamed the “Spa City,” the community of 39,000 is situated in the Ouachita Mountains, about 50 miles southwest of Little Rock. (Ouachita is pronounced “WASH-i-taw.”)
For history lovers, the park’s centerpiece is Bathhouse Row, a block-long ensemble of eight architecturally unique bathhouses built for vacationers who came to soak up the supposed healing powers of the natural, mineral-rich waters that erupt from the ground at 143 degrees. Two bathhouses still function in their original capacity, while others have been repurposed.
A spa destination long before modern spas came onto the scene, Hot Springs is known as “America’s First Resort.”
While Yellowstone became the country’s first official national park in 1872, Hot Springs was the first federally reserved land, a four-acre tract set aside by Congress in 1832 to protect the hot water for public use. The preserve was called Hot Springs Reservation, as the national parks system did not yet exist. Hot Springs, though it’s the oldest unit in the system and thus technically the first national park, wouldn’t get the actual title until 1921.
Landmark Bathhouses: Temples for the Cure
The bathhouses along Central Avenue, the town’s main artery, attracted people from across the nation and were especially popular between the 1880s and 1930s. For 10 or 15 minutes at a time, visitors would bath in the thermal water two or three times a day. They also received massages and other therapies. Before modern advancements in medicine, hydrotherapies such as whirlpool baths were offered as treatments for conditions like arthritis and rheumatism. Doctors who prescribed treatments had their offices in buildings across the street. Entrepreneurs promoted Hot Springs as a place “where crutches are thrown away.”
The Fordyce Bathhouse, built in 1915 with marble walls, terra cotta fountains, stained-glass panels, fancy windows and a copper-framed glass marquee, catered to the elite and clearly was the most elegant establishment. Today the ornate Renaissance Revival building has museum exhibits and serves as the national park’s visitor center. A ranger-led tour reveals a well-appointed gym with antique exercise equipment and includes the men’s bath hall, an impressive court with marble benches and a domed, stained-glass ceiling depicting mermaids, dolphins and fish in swirling water. Visitors see the old tubs, sinks and contraptions like the vapor cabinet, which was used to “stimulate skin secretions,” according to the information panel in the steam cabinet room. A vapor bath, in which the patient’s head protruded from a metal chamber enclosing his or her body, produced steam as hot as 140 degrees. Such a bath “caused profuse sweating, rapid pulse and higher body temperature” and was used to treat “rheumatism, advanced syphilis, jaundice and obesity.”
The bathhouses started to close in the 1960s, but today’s “patients” at the 1912 Buckstaff Bathhouse—a stately landmark notable for its blue-and-white-striped awnings and Tuscan columns that divide the facade into seven bays—still receive the full traditional experience using the original bathtubs and equipment. A typical treatment includes a whirlpool mineral bath, loofa mitt and 20-minute full-body massage. You can wear a swimsuit, but it’s optional.
The row’s other still-operational bathhouse—the 1922 Quapaw Baths & Spa—has four large soaking pools with thermal mineral water that ranges in temperature from 95 to 104 degrees. Guests need to wear a swimsuit and can stay in as long as they like. A private bathing area is also available. Modern day spa services include massages and facials. With its tiled, Moorish-style dome and Spanish Colonial Revival-style architecture, Quapaw is the most photogenic of the eight bathhouses.
Another way to take the waters is to bring a cup or large container to the “jug fountain” at the southern end of Bathhouse Row and drink to one’s health, just as people have been doing for generations.
Mountain Valley Spring Water, a Hot Springs company that has been bottling the Ouachita Mountains mineral water since 1871, maintains a museum and store on Central Avenue. Known for its green glass bottles, the firm once advertised its product as a natural aid for kidney trouble.
Beer That’s Pure
Visitors can imbibe another type of elixir at the smallest and most modest Bathhouse Row establishment, which has been transformed into Superior Bathhouse Brewery. Superior is the only brewery in a national park and the only brewery in the world to use thermal spring water as the main ingredient in its beers.
Before closing in 1983, the 1916 Superior Bathhouse claimed the longest continuous operation of all Hot Springs spa buildings. It sat vacant for 30 years until entrepreneur Rose Schweikhart entered into a public-private partnership with the National Park Service to lease and fix up the deteriorating space.
Patrons can order a flight of four, 4-oz. Superior beers; for truly ambitious beer tasters, the Beer Bath ($35), served on a long, slotted wooden paddle, offers a sample of all 18 beers on tap. Superior also makes a root beer with thermal water. Its food menu lists a variety of salads and sandwiches. The delicious sweet potato salad, for example, combines bacon, spinach, craisins, pumpkin seeds and pickled onion with Asian carrot vinaigrette.
Next door, the 1892 Hale, the oldest standing bathhouse, has been converted into the Hotel Hale, which features nine guest rooms, each with a mineral water tub, plus an upscale restaurant. Its neighbor, the 1912 Maurice, is for sale, while the 1923 Lamar is a National Park Service gift shop/bookstore and the 1922 Ozark a cultural center.
From the Grand Promenade, a wide, half-mile brick path behind the bathhouses, you get good views of downtown and see the bubbling springs themselves. Several mountain trails begin along the Grand Promenade. The park’s densely wooded trails range from easy to strenuous.
Playground for Gangsters, Celebrities and Ballplayers
Also worth a look during a Central Avenue stroll is the Arlington Resort Hotel & Spa, a grand old Southern hotel that offers spa treatments and baths using thermal waters. With almost 500 guest rooms, it is the largest hotel in Arkansas.
In the 1930s, notorious gangster Al Capone would routinely rent Arlington’s entire fourth floor to accommodate his entourage. Entertainers like Will Rogers, George Raft, Kate Smith and Jane Morgan made Arlington their hotel of choice. The original wooden structure, built in 1875, was replaced in 1893 with a larger brick building, which burned in 1923. The current Arlington, with its twin towers and wraparound verandas, dates from 1924 and is undergoing a massive renovation. Curiosity-seekers take time to view the magnificent lobby, elegantly appointed Venetian Dining Room (famed for its Sunday brunch and Friday Night Seafood Fest), and displays of memorabilia, including tableware, menus, postcards and brochures. Across the street from the hotel, on Arlington Lawn, is Hot Water Cascade, the largest visible spring in the national park.
Downtown’s Central Avenue abounds with shops, galleries, restaurants and bars. One of the most storied places is the Ohio Club, Arkansas’ oldest bar. In business since 1905, the Ohio Club thrived as a speakeasy/gambling den during Prohibition and over the years welcomed the likes of Al Capone, Lucky Luciano (head of the New York crime syndicate), Babe Ruth, George Raft and Mae West. Al Jolson performed there in 1915. Soak in the vibe at the elaborately carved mahogany back bar or on the upper level, where bands play from Thursday to Sunday. The Al Capone cocktail mixes rye whiskey, Grand Marnier, bitters and a dash of soda.
Down the street, you might catch some racier entertainment, perhaps strip karaoke or a drag queen show, at Maxine’s, a night spot and Italian eatery named after Maxine Jones (1915-1997), queen of the madams in Hot Springs’ raucous days. Her first brothel was located right above the bar.
Jones is one of several personalities showcased at The Gangster Museum of America. Situated on Central Avenue opposite Bathhouse Row, the attraction provides an insightful overview of Hot Springs’ history as a hangout for infamous mobsters from Chicago and New York. Particularly in the 1930s, Capone and other vice lords came to partake in the town’s flourishing gambling and bootlegging scene. They indulged in the nightlife, prostitution and thermal waters.
Guided museum tours take visitors through rooms with artifacts, videos and vintage photographs. Videos include interviews with Capone’s grandniece and other relatives of gangsters and outlaws. In the Capone Gallery, you learn the Chicago mobster took bathhouse treatments for his syphilis, the venereal disease that eventually killed him. Wide-open, illegal gambling in Hot Springs, which had been tolerated and even supported by government and police officials, was not shut down for good until the 1960s.
Exhibits at The Gangster Museum of America also chronicle the Hollywood celebrities and baseball players who frequented Hot Springs. In the late 19th century and early 20th centuries, five major league teams—the Chicago Cubs, Pittsburgh Pirates, Brooklyn Nationals, Chicago White Stockings and Boston Red Sox—held spring training in town. Babe Ruth trained here nine times, first visiting as a pitcher with the Red Sox, and returned often for baths, gambling and rounds of golf. The Historic Baseball Trail features a series of plaques throughout town and a smartphone-guided tour (with 32 stops) that illuminate Hot Springs’ connection to America’s pastime.
Other Attractions in Hot Springs and Environs
Hot Springs Trolley Tours also provides a good orientation for first-time visitors. The narrated tour goes into historic neighborhoods with gracious homes and up into the mountains for views of the valley. Groups can charter a trolley.
Today’s big gambling hotspot is Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort, a time-honored horse racing facility that recently completed a $100 million-plus expansion. The project yielded a 198-room luxury hotel, event center and an enlarged gaming area. Open 24/7, the casino offers more than 1,500 slot machines and 30 table games, plus video poker and sports betting. The hotel has an outdoor swimming pool, high-tech fitness center and world-class spa. Oaklawn, where people have played the ponies since 1904, also added The Bugler, a fine dining restaurant with views of the track where Thoroughbred racing takes place from December to May. Guest rooms are decorated with racing art and many look out onto the track.
To take in the beauty of Hot Springs National Park, visitors have a choice of two scenic drives, both with plenty of overlooks and with entry points along Central Avenue. One route goes up and around Hot Springs Mountain, another up West Mountain. An elevator takes sightseers to the observation deck atop Hot Springs Mountain Tower, which offers panoramic views of the Ouachita Mountains, town of Hot Springs and Diamond Lakes area.
Garvan Woodland Gardens, located on Lake Hamilton, dazzles visitors with botanical splendor. Lavishly landscaped with flower beds, streams, waterfalls, boulders and bridges, the horticultural showcase is ablaze in spring with tulips and azaleas, daffodils and hyacinths, redbuds and dogwoods. Seasonal displays also include summer annuals and fall chrysanthemums. More than 200 weddings a year take place at Anthony Chapel, a soaring architectural marvel with skylights and 55-foot-high windows.
Farther afield, groups can try their hand at crystal mining at Fisher Mountain, 30 miles west of Hot Springs. Avant Mining issues permits to dig for crystal-studded rocks in the mountain’s walls and mounds of red earth. Fisher Mountain is part of a narrow belt in the Ouachita Mountains (30 miles wide and 170 miles long) that boasts some of the world’s largest deposits of quartz crystals. Serious rockhounds come to Avant’s dig sites with hammers, shovels and pails to unearth treasures they can take home. (A friendly TSA agent at the Little Rock airport asked about the sharp, heavy rocks when she looked inside our group members’ carry-on luggage. When we told her about our mining adventure, she expressed interest in doing a dig herself.)
Good Eats in Hot Springs
The Pancake Shop, a Hot Springs institution, has been serving up irresistible pancakes since 1940. It has occupied the same Central Avenue location, diagonally across from the Arlington Hotel, since the 1950s. Because the huge cakes cover the entire plate, waitresses advise newcomers to make a whole in the middle for pouring on the warm, homemade syrup; otherwise, the syrup slides over the edges and drips onto the floor and your shoes. Serving breakfast exclusively, the restaurant has been run for the last 66 years by the same family, which also owns The Savory Pantry specialty foods store next door.
McClard’s Bar-B-Q has been in the same whitewashed stucco building for 70 years and dates back even further. Folks come from miles around for the hickory-smoked beef, pork and other meats bathed in McClard’s secret barbecue sauce, the recipe for which is kept in a safe deposit box, says Scott McClard, who represents the fourth generation of his family to work there. Plates and sandwiches are accompanied by sides like baked beans, mac and cheese, potato salad and fries. Some customers seek out the tamales. The Whole Spread Tamale Plate consists of two tamales topped with Fritos, beans, chopped beef, shredded cheese, barbecue sauce and onions. Desserts include pecan pie, carrot cake, Italian cream cake and peach cobbler.
President Bill Clinton, who grew up in Hot Springs, ate at McClard’s as a boy and had the barbecue fare served on Air Force One. A photo of Clinton is among the many historical and celebrity photos that decorate the walls. On the first night of their honeymoon, Bill and Hillary Clinton dined in a booth at McClard’s.
A Hot Springs visit is not complete without a visit to nationally acclaimed Deluca’s Pizzeria, the dream-come-true of Brooklyn native Tony Valinoti, who wanted to replicate the New York-style, thin-crust pizza he grew up with. Most famous for its brick-oven pizza, Deluca’s also turns out scrumptious pasta dishes and garlic bread, not to mention Italian desserts like cannolis and tiramisu. But one local told me, “Forget the pizza, have the hamburger.” Indeed, the burger, smothered in a decadent cheese sauce, was probably the best I’ve ever had.
For tourism information on Hot Springs, log on to the Visit Hot Springs website or call 800-543-2284.
Additional Arkansas travel ideas can be found in Leisure Group Travel’s Arkansas Group Travel Guide.
—By Randy Mink, Senior Editor
Lead photo courtesy of Visit Hot Springs