Hot Springs is not a typical national park filled with looming mountain ranges or vast deserts. In fact, it may be one of the most unique parks in the system in that it resembles a typical gateway town full of restaurants, gift shops, and hotels.
The history of the town illuminates the evolution of this park. I was surprised to learn that while Yellowstone became the first national park in 1872, Hot Springs was brought under federal protection 40 years earlier. In 1832, Hot Springs became a Federal Reservation to preserve the natural springs from development. Of course American Indians had been frequent visitors and stewards of the region for thousands of years.
These hot springs are different from others I have visited in the past. They are not the result of volcanic activity near the surface, but form from faults through with the water rises rapidly from nearly 8000 feet below. The water percolates slowly to those depths and the drops that emerge from taps today fell as rain more than 4000 years before. At that depth the water heats due to the geothermal gradient of the the earth’s core so that it emerges at an average temperature of 143 degrees. Most of the pools are pleasantly hot to the touch, once they have a few moments to mingle with cool air, especially on a foggy November day.
We only had a day to explore the park as a stopover to visit friends in the Texas Hill Country. Unfortunately, our day was also the day after Thanksgiving, so we were not the only ones who chose to #optoutside. The morning was quite peaceful and we were able to find on street parking.
We began our day at the visitor center within the old Fordyce Bath House. The house is a well-preserved museum that highlights the features of the bathing-for-health-and-status culture that was prominent for nearly a century. While I definitely prefer antibiotics and steroids, the Edwardian costumes and decor featured were very whimsical.
Two bathhouses still provide a bathing experience. The Quapaw and Buckstaff both allow visitors to soak in the hot waters. The Quapaw takes reservations for private baths, but the communal pool and the Buckstaff are first-come-first-served. The lines were a bit too long for our desire to cram everything into one day, so we postponed it until another visit.
Early physicians prescribed a healthy routine of walking to fill time between the medical baths, so the region features many short trails in the hills surrounding the town. We spent the afternoon enjoying the short scenic drive around Hot Springs Mountain to the Mountain Tower and exploring some of the trails.
We finished off our day at happy hour at the Superior Brewery. The patio was dog-friendly and staff even outfitted Blue with a snazzy bandana. We heard the beers were brewed with the fresh spring water. Can’t say that I could taste the difference, but the beer and hot pretzel were yummy as we enjoyed the holiday lights coming on.
We checked out the official national park campground, Gulpha Gorge and it would definitely be a target destination for any future trips. But that was booked when I looked. We ended at the Hot Springs KOA instead. As a connoisseur of KOAs I will say this one was rather nice. All KOAs have incredibly cramped sites and are near the highway. But this KOA has nice sites that are very convenient to get in and out of.
We thoroughly enjoyed our day. I would highly recommend it for a layover such as ours, but its proximity to other attractions in the area such as Petit Jean and Craters of Diamond mean one could likely spend a full week in the region with plenty to do. So it may be a future lengthier trip.