Two parts hydrogen, one part oxygen. A seemingly simple compound, water is tasteless, odorless and colorless yet vital to life on Earth. We came from the water, our bodies are largely made of water and we need it to survive. It is one of our most important natural resources and, in Hot Springs, one of our most popular attractions.
It’s a long held belief that our geothermal springs are curative, even sacred. True or not, the water has certainly been a powerful force in this valley, creating a bustling tourist town where people have flocked for centuries to immerse themselves in the water and “quaff the elixir.”
Hot Springs National Park – which has been charged with protecting the springs since it was created, originally as a federal reserve, in 1832 – certifies that the water is safe to consume. Untreated and with a neutral pH, it’s about all I drink.
I was filling up several glass jugs at the fountain in front of the park’s administration building. A handsome Spanish Colonial Revival building painted a buttery yellow, it stands tall at the entrance to Bathhouse Row – a stretch of eight historic bathhouses built between 1892-1923. It was a sunny Saturday and downtown was bustling. Passersby slowed down and looked curiously at the fountain and me. I’ve become accustomed to this, so I smiled and said hello, inviting their questions… Yes, I drink it. Yes, it’s clean. Yes, it’s free.
I’m happy to talk with visitors about the water here. I like seeing their expressions of wonder as I explain that it fell as rain over 4,000 years ago and percolated through the earth to a depth of 6,500 to 8,000 feet. It was then forced back up to the surface where it emerges at an average temperature of 143 degrees. Eyebrows raised, they cautiously test the water. And it’s hot but by the time it reaches the fountains, it’s not quite that hot. The park collects water from 27 of the 47 active springs located at the base of Hot Springs Mountain. It is stored, cooled (only slightly) and distributed through an extensive network of pipes in the basement of the administration building. From there it is pumped to four hot water jug fountains, several bathhouses, and a handful of area hotels for use in their spas.
I point visitors towards Bathhouse Row with a slew of recommendations. To learn more about the geology and history of the springs, I suggest taking a free, self-guided tour of the Fordyce Bathhouse which serves as the park’s visitor center and museum with historically furnished rooms.
Of course, the best way to immerse yourself in Hot Springs’ bathing history is to immerse yourself in the water. Hot Springs flourished as a health resort from about 1880-1950, peaking in 1946 when over one million baths were taken. The development of modern medicine led to a decline in the bathing industry but plenty of people still tout the benefits of hydrotherapy and who can deny that a warm soak feels pretty great? It’s especially nice after a day of sightseeing or physical activity like hiking or mountain biking.
There are two bathhouses where you can indulge in this age-old tradition and they offer two very different experiences.The Buckstaff Bathhouse, which has operated continuously since it opened in 1912, offers traditional baths similar to those that were taken at the height of the bathing industry in Hot Springs.
“People coming here, they’re not wanting to go to a day spa,” said Buckstaff CEO Michael Branch. “They’re wanting the history and that’s what we’re trying to preserve, the historic aspect of bathing.”
Wrapped only in a sheet, you will be guided by your own personal bath attendant to a large tub where you will be scrubbed down with a loofah and left alone to relax in the swirling water for 15-20 minutes. Following the soak you will go through a series of stations – a hot towel wrap, a sitz bath, a steam cabinet, and an invigorating needle shower. For an additional fee, you can add a 20 minute massage.
A few doors down is Quapaw Baths & Spa. One of the most attractive bathhouses on the Row, it features a large mosaic tiled dome and a carving of a Native American face centered over its awnings. Inside are four large thermal pools ranging in temperature from 95-104 degrees. You can try the different pools to find the right one for you or take your time moving from one to the next. It’s a fun (and relaxing) way to spend time with friends and family. I once saw the members of a book club discussing their latest read while soaking together in the pools. Private and couples baths are also available, as well as a variety of spa treatments.
The park has made great use of the remaining bathhouses, leasing them out for alternative uses, such as a brewery (which uses the thermal waters in its beers), a boutique hotel (coming soon) and a gift shop, where you can purchase glass jugs to fill up some of that spring water to take back home.
Part of what makes the water so unique is that the park gives it away for free – it is actually mandated by the national park system to do so. But it’s not the only famed spring water flowing from the Ouachita Mountains.
Mountain Valley Spring Water comes from a source located about 12 miles north of downtown Hot Springs. The water has been bottled and sold since 1871 and was the first spring water to be distributed coast to coast. It was first served in the White House by Calvin Coolidge and is served in the U.S. Senate. It has been enjoyed by multiple presidents, and Frank Sinatra, Joe Louis, and Elvis Presley are all said to have been fans. The visitor center and headquarters is located in downtown Hot Springs in a bright white, Classical Revival building originally built in 1910.
Downtown Hot Springs boasts a number of charming, historic buildings with unique architecture, the majority of which house restaurants and shops. The area is also host to a variety of festivals, parades and other fun events. One of the quirkiest celebrates Hot Springs’ history as a bathing Mecca: The World Championship Running of the Tubs, a family-fun event held each summer. Businesses, organizations and other members of the community form teams and race customized bathtubs (on wheels) through downtown as cheering onlookers pelt them with water balloons and squirt them with water guns.
“It’s a lot of fun,” said Hot Springs Fire Department Chief Ed Davis. “It’s a great way to establish that summer is here in Hot Springs.”
The fire department has participated in the event since its inception and faces off each year against the Hot Springs Police Department in a special heat.
“It’s a time whenever adults can act like kids,” Davis added.
Hot Springs may be best known for the geothermal waters that gave the town its name and fame, but the area also has three lakes in its vicinity, making it an oasis for relaxation and a playground for outdoor fun.
A visit to Magic Springs Theme and Water Park is sure to make a splash with the kids. The water park features waterslides, a wave pool, a lazy river, and Splash Island, a four story water play complex. The park also has dozens of rides from hair-raising roller coasters and thrill rides like the 13 story high Brain Drain to family rides and kiddie rides. There is also a concert series and several other special events. For more information on upcoming concerts and events at Magic Springs, visit : www.magicsprings.com/
Lake Ouachita, Lake Hamilton and Lake Catherine – all created by dams along the Ouachita River – offer a wide range of activities, each with its own unique character and scenery. The northernmost is Lake Ouachita, nestled in the Ouachita National Forest. It’s the largest lake in Arkansas, with between 600-900 miles of shoreline (depending on the water level) and about 40,000 acres of water; and it’s one of the cleanest lakes in the nation. There is a restriction on commercial and residential building so both the lake and the scenery are uncompromised. Popular activities include bass and striper fishing, swimming, scuba diving, recreational boating, water skiing and other water sports. You will see all kinds of water craft on the lake from small kayaks and canoes to sailboats and houseboats. If you own or rent a boat, you can access the lake’s numerous uninhabited islands for free, primitive camping. (A favorite activity for my family and our friends.) There are also several marinas, campgrounds and day use areas along the shoreline, including Lake Ouachita State Park, located about 15 miles from Hot Springs. The park offers family-friendly programs year-round including boat and kayak tours during the summer and bald eagle watch tours during the winter.
Moving down stream, the waters from Lake Ouachita flow through Blakely Dam and into Lake Hamilton. The main body of water located right in town, on the south and west ends of Hot Springs. It is smaller, about one-sixth the size of Lake Ouachita, and is residentially and commercially developed, with grand houses, condos, restaurants and docks all along its shoreline. Consequently, it is a much busier lake with pleasure boaters out all summer long. Home to many species of gamefish, Lake Hamilton is popular for its abundant large mouth bass and also has good trout fishing in the cold water at the base of Blakely Dam. Boat rentals are available at a handful of marinas in town.
From Lake Hamilton, the water flows through Carpenter Dam and into Lake Catherine. Located just southwest of town, this lake is less developed than Lake Hamilton but not as pristine as Lake Ouachita. Still, there are good opportunities for swimming and boating, especially at Lake Catherine State Park, which has a nice swim beach, year-round boat rentals and the only full service marina on Lake Catherine. (There are also cabins, a campground, playgrounds and a hiking trail that leads to a pretty waterfall.)
With water flowing in, under and all around Hot Springs, a visit here is sure to quench your thirst… be it for outdoor adventure or rest and relaxation. So drink it up. You’ll be glad you did. And I’ll see you at the jug fountain.
Leslie Fisher is a media professional with a passion for travel and adventure. She has Covered Hot Springs and the surrounding areas for over a decade and enjoys being a tourist in her hometown.