To be honest I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect from Hot Springs National Park so Lee and I drove to the area for recon prior to our visit. I am glad we did because even off season it is very crowded on the weekends and I decided to take a Thursday off and see it. As we often do we drove down early and arrived around 9am and after finding parking started to walk bathhouse row. It is a very unusual National park because it is a sliver of a working town and right across the street are lots of open shops. Even many of the bathhouses themselves are businesses which is also very unusual. The good news is all but one were open to the public (at least the lobby area).
As I am writing this I am trying to figure out where to begin the post. It’s tough to get oriented because where you start is largely driven by where you park. For the purposes of this post I will just take you through as we saw it, but really it can be seen in any order. The first building we came to was the Lamar bathhouse. This is actually the gift shop for the National Park service that is run by a third party. This is the only one there is so don’t make the mistake we made and skip it and have to circle back. They did have the coolest National Park Towels and robes but they were super pricey so I didn’t buy one.
The bathhouses are all right next to each other and the next one was the Buckstaff. This one was actually my favorite from the outside. This is still a working bathhouse and I thought about going in for some services, but ultimately decided against it.
Next up is the Florence bathhouse which is the Visitor Center of the National Park. If you can only do one thing in Hot Springs I absolutely recommend touring this facility as it is a bathhouse in its original state. It was extremely interesting and absolutely beautiful on the inside. In particular the stain glass was gorgeous. It is a self guided tour on three different floors and an area in the basement that shows the stream. Make sure you see every nook and cranny because it was all very special.
As I mentioned before the stain glass windows were amazing. They are kind of everywhere so don’t forget to look up as you walk around.
The bathhouse was completely segregated between men and women so most of the facilities are duplicated on separate sides of the building. It was also segregated from people of color who could work there but not bathe there. The park service has done a wonderful job of calling out the people of color who worked there and the struggle for desegregation.
You may wonder why so many people came to the springs (I did), but at the time the hot waters with minerals in them were very helpful. This was a time before cortisone shots or many of the anti inflammatory we have today so the minerals and hot water did help with relief. I was shocked to find out though that the water is hot because it flows through uranium! Don’t worry there are only trace amounts in the water that reaches people but that was pretty crazy.
The facility wasn’t just about the baths, they also had a beautiful gym and the examples of old workout equipment were fascinating. There were several items I had never seen before and the gym itself was very beautiful. I almost missed it because it was tucked in a corner on the third floor so make sure you don’t miss it.
One of the most popular forms of treatment was a massage, but this practice was highly controversial. The National Park service tried to ban it on several occasions, but since it was the most popular (and profitable) of services provided it managed to continue existing. I have to wonder how many of the attendants experienced mercury poison from giving these massages.
When you are finished with the second and third floor don’t forget to see the basement mainly for a peek into the spring that runs under the bathhouse. In particular the crystal all around the spring were really cool.
Once we finished the tour there was more to see. Right behind the Visitors Center is a short walk to a hot spring pool where you can touch the water. It’s touchable but it is hot! We also walked up to the bandstand area are saw the former Navy Hospital that existed in town for soldiers and saw a beautiful hot springs waterfall. They also have a couple of places anyone can get free water and we saw several people filling up jugs! It was a beautiful day and I enjoyed the walk immensely. If you like you can even walk up the mountain but we stopped at the bandstand area
At the end of the row there was a beautiful waterfall and public park. Cool watching a waterflow steam because it was hot water.
From the park you can see the absolutely beautiful Arlington hotel. Although this is not technically part of the National Park I do recommend walking across the street and taking a look. We were able to look around the morning we went. It is a working hotel, but if you act like you belong people generally wont stop you 🙂
Really great day but again I totally recommend going early on a weekday if you can swing it. This is one of the most unique National Parks we have been in and I am so glad we could enjoy it without large crowds.
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