After our 2 nights in Nashville, we continued our drive across Tennessee, over the Mississippi River and into Arkansas on our 2016 road trip! We were trying to keep our driving days down to 5-6 hours maximum so that we had time to explore a little bit each day. The drive from Nashville to Hot Springs, Arkansas was about 6 hours. We checked into Catherine’s Landing, our campground for the next 2 nights. This was one of our favorite campgrounds on the entire road trip. The campground is located about 15 minutes from downtown Hot Springs on the Ouachita River. The setting is beautiful, the facilities were large and clean, and the heated pool was a favorite!
Downtown Hot Springs
After checking in, we made our first trip into downtown Hot Springs and Hot Springs National Park. When planning this cross-country trip route, I found Hot Springs to be right between two planned stops – Nashville and Oklahoma City. I had not considered stopping here previously, but we love our National Parks. The chance to stop at the smallest and the oldest park maintained by the National Park Service was very enticing to us! So, I added it to our itinerary.
After doing a little research on the area, I learned that my grandmother used to vacation to Hot Springs with her friends and family in the 1940s and 1950s. I had no idea! Since my grandmother grew up along the Gulf Coast beaches, I assumed that was where she vacationed. But, as we learned, the height of popularity for Hot Springs was in the 1940s.
Hot Springs History
Nestled in the Ouachita Mountain range, the hot springs flow from the western slope of Hot Springs Mountain. The hot springs water has been used for centuries, first by Native American tribes for medicinal purposes then by European settlers after. The first European explorer known to visit the area was Hernando de Soto in 1541. The water leaving Hot Springs Mountain is 143°F, therefore the water must be cooled for drinking and bathing. The springs were designated for federal protection in 1832 by President Andrew Jackson, and Hot Springs turned into a spa town. People came from all over to bathe in the hot springs for luxury and for healing ailments. It became a popular destination for wealthy patrons for three-week, six-week, or even several month-long stays.
As modern medicine began to improve, the popularity of the hot springs began to draw down in the 1950s. Slowly popular bathhouses began to close as the customers did not return. Today, bathhouse row is preserved as part of the Hot Springs National Park and looks much as it did during the height of its popularity. Several of the bathhouses still operate, more as modern spa-like facilities, but still offering traditional hot springs baths. The Fordyce Bathhouse is now the location of the National Park Visitor Center and has been restored with original furnishings for visitors to tour and learn about the traditional bathhouse services.
Hot Springs Mountain Tower
Our first stop in Hot Springs was the Hot Springs Mountain Tower. This observation tower, built on Hot Springs Mountain in the early 1980s, gives a fantastic overview of the Ouachita Mountains and surrounding areas. It was the perfect stop to get an overview of the area before exploring.
We paid the entrance fee, and took the elevator up 216 feet to the observation decks at the top of the tower. The first observation deck is an indoor facility with an extensive history of the hot springs and the town. Artifacts and photographs from the past are interesting and give a good glimpse into the past. I searched for my grandmother in all the photos! After learning about the history of Hot Springs, we continued up one more floor to the outdoor observation deck. While it was quite windy, the views of the area were amazing! One side offers views of downtown Hot Springs and Bathhouse Row. The other side includes views up to 140 miles in the distance of the National Forest and surrounding lakes.
After our drive back down Hot Springs Mountain, we spent the early evening strolling along the Bathhouse Row National Historic Landmark District. Bathhouse Row is at the base of Hot Springs Mountain and in the middle of downtown Hot Springs. The hot springs are located behind the bathhouses, and when they were all in use, the water was pumped into the bathhouses from the springs. The bathhouses are all beautifully preserved and show the true elegance of the Hot Springs experience when at the height of its popularity.
Because it was getting late, we just viewed all of the bathhouses from the outside and decided to save the rest of the exploring for the next day. We enjoyed dinner at La Hacienda Mexican restaurant and an evening swim in the campground pool.
On our first full day in Hot Springs, we made our way back to downtown Hot Springs and had a delicious breakfast at The Pancake Shop. This place is quite popular and it was very delicious! With full bellies, we set off to explore Bathhouse Row.
Fordyce Bathhouse National Park Visitor Center
We strolled along the historic bathhouses and began our day in the Fordyce Bathhouse, now home to the National Park Visitor Center. Here you can tour the once very swanky bathhouse and get a firsthand look at the step-by-step procedure followed for a traditional bath.
We explored the women’s and men’s bathhouses, showers, dressing rooms, procedure rooms, and private quarters. There are several videos and artifacts on display that give you the history of the procedures. The Fordyce Bathhouse was open from 1915-1962. Now it’s a museum of a once glamorous time. The kids loved exploring the showers and seeing the gymnasium and bowling alley! Next to the Visitor Center, you can also drink or touch the hot springs water flowing out of a fountain.
Traditional Bath Experience at Buckstaff Bathhouse
After our time exploring the Fordyce Bathhouse Visitors Center, we explored the Bathhouse Row Emporium in the Lamar Bathhouse. Here you can purchase National Park souvenirs, modern spa products, and pieces of history from the hot springs height of popularity. At this time, it was nearing lunchtime, so Todd made his way to Buckstaff Bathhouse for a traditional bath experience. Buckstaff Bathhouse is the only continuous running bathhouse that still offers traditional bath experiences. We nominated Todd for the experience because he’d been having back pain with all of our driving, so we figured it might do him some good! He checked in at the front desk and was whisked away for his traditional bath.
The Grand Promenade
The rest of us continued down bathhouse row and then ventured behind the bathhouses along the Grand Promenade. This was once a quiet strolling area for visitors to experience nature while staying in Hot Springs. The brick-paved walkway is a beautiful area to explore the origin of the hot springs. You can see all of the hot springs along this trail, but only one or two flow freely. The water is hot and steaming, but you can drink or touch it. We found the perfect spot for a picnic lunch by one of the springs and waited on pins and needles to hear about Todd’s traditional bath!
About an hour and a half later, Todd emerged renewed and refreshed from his traditional bath! He said it was unique and the warm water felt quite nice on his back, but he didn’t feel the touted medicinal qualities of the water would be particularly long-lasting. He said he sat in a hot bath filled with the hot springs water, took a very high pressure shower, enjoyed a short massage, and sat in the steam room for 30 minutes. Overall, he said it was a nice relaxing way to spend a few hours! If you’re opting for a more modern-day spa experience, the Quapaw Baths and Spa is the place for you! If only we’d had a little more time, I would’ve loved to take part in that!
After a very interesting day exploring Hot Springs National Park, the skies began to cloud up and our idea of a nice hike in the area began to go out the window. We made our way back to the campground as the rain was starting to clear up, and the kids were thrilled to spend some more time in the pool and enjoying the playground!
The chapel is free to visit, and we arrived just as they were closing for the evening. We couldn’t go in the chapel, but we enjoyed the view from the outside. If we had spent more time in Hot Springs, we hoped to visit the 210-acre botanical gardens located on Lake Hamilton.
We returned to the campground just in time for some evening fog on the river and a nice dinner after the kids worked up an appetite from all their swimming!
Although we didn’t know what to expect of our visit to Hot Springs, I can honestly say that we were amazed at the beauty of the area and hope to visit again one day! The next morning, we packed up and continued our journey west toward our next stop – Oklahoma City!