From Hope to Hot Springs

Hot Springs Arkansas National Park Visitor Center

Anyone who has been to Texas can tell you that it’s hard to road-trip out of this state- in some directions you can drive for 10 hours and still be in Texas! For our long MLK weekend we were looking for a road trip to a place we hadn’t been to, out of Texas, and on the way to DC. Bonus points if we could tag a national park! We settled on Hot Springs, Arkansas.

After an overnight visit with friends in DFW (thanks Ken and Kristina for the hospitality!), we drove to Hope, Arkansas- which is the birthplace of our 42nd president, Bill Clinton. His childhood home, where he lived with his mother and grandparents for his early years, has been preserved by the National Park Service, and is open to visitors daily, with a tour every hour.

Birthplace of William Jefferson Clinton

From Hope, it was just a couple more hours driving to get to Hot Springs, Arkansas. A light snow was falling, and the visitor’s center was about to close, so we popped in quickly to get some info about the area (visitor’s centers staff always have great suggestions). We had dinner at Picante’s Mexican Grill and then checked into our motel for the night, Dame Fortune’s Cottages (yes, I picked it solely for the name).

Formerly Fordyce Bathhouse (est.1915), now the Hot Springs National Park Visitor Center

The next morning, we were up early to get in line at the public bathhouse. As of January 2022, the only open bathhouse is the Quapaw, which dates back to 1922. Visitors can book for private baths, massages, and other spa services, or for $20, can access their four public thermal pools, each at a different temperature. The thermal waters that flow into the Hot Springs area have been carbon-dated back to 4000 years ago- meaning that, the waters we were bathing in there had fallen as rain in 2000 BC- as old as the pyramids in Egypt. The water is high in minerals such as silica, calcium, magnesium, free carbon dioxide, bicarbonate, and sulfate. For centuries, these waters have been famed for their healing properties. If you do visit the Quapaw, be sure to bring your own shower shoes, and get there early- they do not take reservations for the public pools- and they are closed on Tuesdays.

Chris and Deah, inside the Quapaw Bathhouse

After spending a couple of hours in the baths, we showered, dressed, and got ready to explore the rest of the town. First off, a fabulous lunch and craft beers at Superior Brewery, formerly Superior Bathhouse. The main street of the town of Hot Springs is also the national park- in fact, it is the first national lands set aside in the United States (not to be confused with Yellowstone, which sometimes claims that title). The waters and area around Hot Springs were designated national lands as far back as 1832, when President Andrew Jackson set aside the lands as a public reservation. It wasn’t until 1872 that the area really came under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Interior, and by then, several families and businesses had settled and built structures there. After several fires in the wooden bathhouses, the row of Victorian, fire-resistant brick buildings that we see today were built between 1912 and 1932. In 1921, Hot Springs officially became our 18th National Park.

The Quapaw Bathhouse, est. 1922

The row of bathhouses thrived during the first half of the 20th century, but by the 1950s, many of the buildings were in decline. Every one of them except the Buckstaff (still in existence but temporarily closed due to Covid) had closed by 1985. A campaign started to revitalize the area, and various other businesses were allowed to purchase and marginally renovate the eight Victorian bathhouses along Bathtub Row. Now, the buildings have been repurposed into Superior Brewery, the Hale Hotel, the Maurice Bathhouse (currently vacant and available for leasing), the Fordyce, which is now the park’s official visitor’s center, the Quapaw Bathhouse, the Ozark, which houses the Hot Springs National Park Cultural Center, and the Buckstaff. The last building on Bathtub Row, the Lamar Bathhouse, includes a small national parks store, as well as a research library and the park archives.

Buckstaff Baths (est 1912)
Superior Baths (1916)- now Superior Brewery

The National Park’s Visitor Center, housed in the old Fordyce Bathhouse, is definitely worth a visit. All three floors are open to visitors, and you can see the old changing rooms, gymnasium, baths, massage rooms, and resting rooms that the clients of the bathhouse using in the Roaring 20’s. If you go down to the basement, you can see where the hot spring actually comes out of the ground. Original Art Deco stained glass windows and other embellishments are still in most of the buildings along Bathtub Row.

The gymnasium at the Fordyce- available to male clients only when it was open
Fountains, marble dressing rooms, and stained glass windows added luxury to the services

After visiting the town of Hot Springs, and driving out into the park a little- the Hot Springs Mountain Tower has an observation deck from which you can view the surrounding valleys- we wended our way toward Little Rock. I needed to catch a flight back home, while Chris needed to keep driving to DC. We stopped at the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site and learned about the civil rights events of 1957. The school is still a functioning high school, and there is a Visitor’s Center across the street with videos, images, and articles about the turbulent fight to desegregate schools in the south. If you’re in Little Rock, I definitely suggest you spent a couple of hours here. It was the perfect way to end our 3-day weekend and think about the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr, and other civil rights activists.

Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
Little Rock Central High School

Oklahoma, where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain

Deah and Chris standing in front of Welcome to Oklahoma Border sign

Oklahoma is OK!

With school about to start just around the corner, Chris and I (Deah) wanted to get out of town for a few days and go camping and see some (socially distanced) sights. We packed up our car and headed north.

Broken Bow Lake

We stayed the first night at Broken Bow Lake, at the Beaver’s Bend State Park campground. At just $16 a spot, this campground was the perfect chance for us to get out into some nature. Since it was the end of July, it was plenty hot, but we cooled off in the Mountain Fork River, which was surprisingly cold. In the evening as we ate our dinner, we saw a fox stroll by, and with an early start the next morning, we saw families of deer and families of fishermen out enjoying the cool morning.

Beaver Bend State Park
Getting back to nature

Fort Smith Arkansas

Okay, to tell the truth, we had forgotten a crucial part of our camping gear, so we had to call it a night after just one night and head to a city. We weren’t too far from Fort Smith, Arkansas, so we drove that way to learn about this town which was once the border between Arkansas and Indian Territory. Between the hanging deaths of 86 men by “Hanging Judge” Parker, and the years the town legalized prostitution, Fort Smith has an interesting history. They also have some delicious craft beers.

The border between Arkansas and Indian Territory
Fort Smith National Historic Park

Tahlequah, OK

From Fort Smith, we headed back into Tahlequah to explore a little bit of the Cherokee history of the area. Although the Cherokee Supreme Court Museum and the Cherokee Prison Museum were both temporarily closed, we did a self-guided walking tour through town to learn about the founding of the town. Northeastern State University has a beautiful campus there and it’s just a beautiful area all around.

Sequoyah, creator of the Cherokee Syllabary

Tulsa, OK

We arrived in Tulsa in a rain storm and had to sit out a bit before doing our sightseeing. Always happy to try some Mexican food, we chose El Rancho Grande, featured in this list of the 9 Best Restaurants in Tulsa (it was delicious). Later, we did enjoy the “Cathedral District” of the city with it’s massive churches, as well as the huge park called The Gathering Place along the Arkansas River. On the following day, we spent a few hours at the Gilcrease Museum, full of art and artifacts from the American West and Native Americans. Both their indoor spaces and their grounds (as well as the stunning views from some of their back areas) were a treat to walk around and take in.

Chris visiting The Golden Driller in Tulsa
Frederic Remington’s “The Bronco Buster”

Stillwater, OK

A trip to Oklahoma never seems complete without a stop at Stillwater’s Eskimo Joe’s Jumpin’ Jukejoint. We sat at the bar and had a chopped beef burger and tried a local beer. The bartender suggested we stop off at Pop’s in Arcadia on our way to the capital, so we did.

Not the best food, but great marketing

Oklahoma City, OK

Oklahoma City is a sprawling city with a vibrant downtown area. We headed first to the Centennial Land Run Monument, commemorating the date when over 50,000 people from all over the country came to claim their own corner of two million acres of land. We also visited the haunting memorial to the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, an event I remember all too well. The memorial, and the museum next to it, is worth visiting.

Centennial Land Run Monument
Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial

We also visited the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, a sprawling museum that would take days to properly see. Right now the entrants for the Prix de West art exhibition are on display, and wow, I don’t know how the judges can tell who’s winning. They are all stunning pieces of art. In addition, there are dozens of exhibits ranging from a full size rodeo, art of the American west, an entire western town named Prosperity Junction, and Native American art. And that’s just the inside! Outside the building, you can find and play in life-size replicas of a Kiowa tipi, a Pueblo cliff dwelling, a Chickasaw Council House, a train Depot, and more. There were simply not enough hours in the day to fully explore this museum (formerly known as the Cowboy Hall of Fame).

2002 Prix de West winner: Teller of Tales by Martin Grelle

Lake Texoma

To conclude our trip, I wanted one more night near a lake, but we had to settle for a cabin rather than camp. After a fantastic lunch at Bedlam BBQ, we headed to the lake that straddles the border between Texas and Oklahoma, and found Willow Springs Marina. They have cabins, cottages, and RV sites there, as well as a marina. We had just taken a dip in the lake when suddenly the temperature dropped 14 degrees, a wind blew in, and the skies opened. We made it back to our cabin and watched the storm for a few hours. By the next morning, the sun was out and the lake was calm again. A perfect end to our week away.

A summer storm blows in

Have you been to Oklahoma? There’s a surprising amount to see there- this list is by no means comprehensive! What’s your favorite thing to see in the state?

A Quick Trip through Houston and Galveston Island, Texas

Last week we visited Galveston Island for a couple of days, followed by a weekend in Houston. Whether you’re there for a week or just a few days, both cities have lots of fun and off-the-beaten-path things to do that won’t break your budget! Whether you’re a NASA fan or love lying on the beach, this area has you covered.

Johnson Space Center, Houston

Galveston Island

The Beach

Of course most people come to Galveston Island to have fun on the beach, and the good news is that most of Galveston’s beaches are free! Of the 32 miles of soft, sandy beaches, only Stewart Beach and East Beach charge a Continue reading “A Quick Trip through Houston and Galveston Island, Texas”

Big Bend National Park

I am originally from Texas, but moved away in 2003. Last year we returned to live in Texas, so we decided to go to Big Bend National Park over my Spring Break. With some reports of the Covid-19 contagion coming in, we decided to pack our own food for the trip and to camp, so as to be able to isolate ourselves as much as possible. We left the Austin area and drove across the beautiful central hill country, where the sides of the highways and byways are carpeted with bluebonnets during the month of March.

Ever since Lady Bird Johnson was First Lady, the Texas Department of Transportation has sown more than 30,000 pounds of bluebonnet seeds around the state annually.

Continue reading “Big Bend National Park”

Christmas on the Coast: the Gulf Seashores of Mississippi

If you’re dreaming of a white Christmas, but don’t like snow- then I suggest a trip to the US Gulf Coast. Stretching from Florida to Texas, the white sand beaches and quaint coastal towns, coupled with 70 degree days, are a delight in the off-peak winter months.

A “sandman” greets us at Christian Pass, Mississippi

The Gulf Coast isn’t complete without a ‘Pascagoula Run’, so avoid I-10 and take Highway 90 instead to Pascagoula. Are you a Parrothead? Look for the Buffet Bridge near Buffet Beach, a 2015 honor for local-boy-made-good Continue reading “Christmas on the Coast: the Gulf Seashores of Mississippi”