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.
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).
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.
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 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.
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.
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.