Hot Springs National Park is one of the most unusual National Parks that we’ve visited so far. Instead of a remote setting, this park is located smack-dab in the city downtown area! The reason for the park is, of course, the natural hot springs.
In this area, water bubbles up from the depths of the earth, emerging at a temperature of around 143 degrees Fahrenheit. The springs produce over a million gallons of hot water per day! For centuries, the Native Americans used the mineral-laden water for medicinal purposes. The first bath houses built to take advantage of this hot water supply were essentially huts or log cabins built over rough excavations in the rocks. Over time, however, much more elaborate structures were constructed, some which are still in use today. Andrew Jackson designated this area the first Federal Reservation in 1832, 40 years before Yellowstone became the first National Park. When Congress established the National Park Service, Hot Springs Reservation became Hot Springs National Park in 1921.
The highlight of the Park is Bathhouse Row, a street lined with Golden Age era structures. Many have been converted to other purposes (dining, shopping, lodging), but two still operate as bathhouses. The Buckstaff provides a private traditional bathhouse experience (bath/massage) while the Quapaw (named after the local Native American tribe) offers a public mineral pools experience along with traditional spa services.
We elected to visit the Quapaw to experience the mineral pools for the nominal fee of $20 per person. The pools are available on a first-come-first-serve basis only, no reservations taken. Due to COVID, occupancy of the pools area is limited to 30 people, to allow for social distancing. We queued up on a busy Saturday morning and were #10 and #11 on the waiting list. Before entering, we were health checked with a questionnaire and temperature screen. We had to stay on property, but passed the time easily in the onsite cafe, enjoying hot beverages and a light snack during our wait. After an hour or so, we were called to the front, were given locker keys and escorted to the dressing rooms. Masks were required at all times, unless actually in the pools area.
There are four pools to choose from, at temperatures of 95, 98, 102 and 104 degrees Fahrenheit. The room was beautiful too, with a gorgeous barrel-vaulted ceiling and tiled pools. Everything was immaculately clean. Pool attendants provided an unlimited supply of iced mineral water and towels, as needed. The room was large enough that we never felt crowded, and had no trouble maintaining adequate distancing. The changing room had showers, lockers, and a swimsuit spinner that centrifuged my bathing suit almost dry! It was a great way to spend a few hours on a cold October day.
We soaked ourselves limp, then exited to explore the shops along the street. The National Park visitor center building was closed, but park literature and the passport stamp station was available just outside. Along the row, there are several public hot springs fountain dispensers where anyone can take home their own supply of water — just bring containers!
Unlike Missouri, Arkansas does impose COVID controls, so we felt much more comfortable exploring the area. Unfortunately, the weather did not cooperate. It rained (and was COLD) during virtually all of our stay which restricted our usual outdoor activities. Jeff did manage to slip out between rain showers to mountain bike once. Still, we managed to explore the Park a bit, dined out a couple of times, and definitely enjoyed our hot springs soak.
We continue to head south and west, next stop — Carlsbad, NM!