Living in Oklahoma City, with myself having a full-time job which is currently in the middle of busy season, and Alisha having a job and finishing her last semester of law school, we are often pressed for time. When we do get out its often for a weekend at a time or a trip coincides with an event, such as our upcoming trips to Southern California and Costa Rica which are also trips to friends’ weddings. Weekend trips combined with our location means our range is usually limited.
One place that has been on our list for a long time is Hot Springs National Park which lies about 30 minutes west of Little Rock in Arkansas. Hot Springs is America’s smallest national park and is also its most urban park, being almost completely surrounded by the town of Hot Springs, Arkansas. It also holds the distinction of being the first piece of land to be set aside by the federal government for the purpose of recreation when the Jackson Administration set aside the Hot Springs Reservation on April 10, 1832. This was done to protect the legendary, and allegedly medicinal, waters that sprang from the ground in the area that was then Arkansas Territory (and would become the State of Arkansas in 1836).
Hot Springs in 1893
The town of Hot Springs was incorporated in 1851 and quickly became a prominent resort and spa town. Over the years countless health and recreational tourists have flooded the town and it was previously the scene of baseball spring training and a popular getaway for the Chicago mob including Al Capone. Due to its eastern location and urban setting it is one of the most accessible parks in the country and therefore one of the most visited since early days. As a result, it is also one of the most modified parks in the system. The springs used to flow from the western side of Hot Springs Mountain but increased public use as Arkansas was settled, and rail lines connected the town to the rest of America, necessitated extensive closing and piping of the springs to protect the waters from contamination. The controlled springs are now extensively protected and piped into the many grand bathhouses that line Bathhouse Row. These bathhouses are open to this day and tickets can be purchased for bathers to enjoy the springs as countless other have for thousands of years.
Because the park protects the springs and not an extensive area of wilderness it is one of the most unique parks in the system. It is also very easy to see this park and this isolated town, and all of its history, in a short amount of time.
Hot Springs is Alisha and myself’s third national park. It was also our first national park to visit with friends instead of just ourselves. We left Friday after work later than usual because everyone is in busy season and that’s how life goes. Our Airbnb was located an additional 40 minutes from the park and it meant that the fastest way to get to it on Friday night was to take the interstate from Oklahoma City to Little Rock and then veer down like you are headed to Texas. This meant that, since we left OKC at 7:00, we would be arriving between midnight and one in the morning. Our host told us the doors would be unlocked and we anticipated being able to drive up and pass out. After driving through several wildfires burning in eastern Oklahoma and passing through Little Rock we arrived in the middle of nowhe…I mean Leola, Arkansas around 1:00 a.m.
You are probably wondering why we decided to pick an Airbnb in Leola, Arkansas of all places. This is because of one major issue that any traveler to Hot Springs should be aware of, Airbnb prices are expensive for the area. Hot Springs Village is full of lakehouses and nice homes that people rent out almost year-round but they aren’t cheap. If you are like us and you are getting an Airbnb as a place to basically sleep and put your stuff while you are out and about, it can be an added expense. Plan ahead and find the steals because waiting too long can be an additional $50-$100 per night penalty.
So we pulled up to the address in Leola, to the farmhouse we would be staying in, and nothing matched up. At 1:30 a.m. Just off the Civil War Heritage Trail, 40 minutes from the nearest town, and likely five minutes away from the nearest methlab. Our farmhouse was supposed to be on a circle drive in a neighborhood. We were on a gravel road that had about five homes on it, none of which looked like farmhouses and one of which looked like the type of place you’d find militia members stock piling munitions and writing manifestos. It turns out the host never actually sent us an address and the google maps pull up from the app itself was following GPS coordinates to I’m Not Sure Where, Arkansas. At 2:00 a.m. we audibled away from deliverance country and checked in to an Econolodge in Benton, Arkansas that featured a mannequin, missing an arm, with a spinning sign advertising for an attached bar.
After a good nights sleep in our rooms that have probably seen a fare share of prostitution and general tragedy, and spot of Waffle House (because when in Rome!), we hit the road for Hot Springs. On the way we actually figured out that we were about five minutes away from the Airbnb farmhouse and our hosts were extremely apologetic. Shit happens and it’s no big deal. I know I just spent the above paragraph shitting on Leola but I’m sure most of the people are just fine and if you ever find yourself out there I’m sure you can have a wonderful time in the country. Just avoid going to rundown militia houses at the end of gravel roads and make sure to see the Econolodge mannequin. We did decide to audible to a new place to stay simply because we didn’t want to spend all of our time commuting from Hot Springs to an Airbnb and back. We choose to spend the extra money and stay in the Park Hotel which is just off Bathhouse Row in the middle of Hot Springs. On the plus side, the Park Hotel was able to accommodate us at the last minute, its service was great and its a beautiful building from the town’s heyday of the 1920’s and 1930’s. On the downside, it’s an old building so the walls are paper-thin, the bathrooms are tiny and for whatever reason our windowsills appeared to be the scene of a ladybug genocide. But hey, a beds a bed and it was located across the street from the park and not along the Civil War Heritage Trail in Leola so we were #blessed as far as I’m concerned.
We arrived in Hot Springs around 11 in the morning in time for a pro-Trump rally.
I can’t escape politics even on my getaways.
Aside from Making America Great Again, a few things stand out when you pull up to the center of the town’s main drag. Firstly, the town looks like something from the Guilded Age with brick paved streets, its turn of the century buildings and fountains everywhere you turn. Second, there are some massive buildings in the thick of everything. The Arlington Resort sits at the corner of Fountain St. and Central Ave. and dominates the north side of the drag. The south side of the drag is dominated by a similar looking building that looks like some kind of creepy 1930’s hospital out of American Horror Story. This is the old Army/Navy Hospital that was built in the 1930’s so it makes sense that it looks like a creepy 30’s hospital because it sort of is.
ACTI/Hot Springs Rehabilitation Center/Old Army/Navy Hospital
Now that we’ve had a good laugh at the creepy hospital, let’s all feel bad by realizing the great mission this, still very much in use, building provides. The hospital was instrumental in rehabilitating and redeploying soldiers fighting in World War II before becoming the Hot Springs Rehabilitation Center, owned by the State of Arkansas. It currently acts as the Arkansas Career Training Institute. According to Arkansas.gov this location is:
“A comprehensive rehabilitation center, one of eight in the United States and the only one west of the Mississippi River. ACTI is a 24-hour, 7-day-a-week residential facility with the capacity to accommodate up to 320 residential students. Serving over 500 students per year, ACTI is the 3rd largest Vocational Rehabilitation Center in the country whose mission it is to provide vocational training and employment opportunities to adult clients with disabilities.”
So yeah, the creepy building you will take pictures of and make fun of on social media actually has been an instrumental site for good for almost a century.
We immediately hit the shops along the main drag and it didn’t take long for us to realize this was not a typical national park trip but far closer to boozy road trip. The first stop was Spa City Tropical Winery which doesn’t sell typical wine but instead wines made from fruits and other wine-like concoctions. Having begun to drink before noon in the middle of a Trump rally in Arkansas we decided to lean into it. We hit a few more of the boutiques around town, made plans to check out Ohio Club later that night (while grabbing some beers for good measure), and decided to hit the park.
The park itself can be broken down into three sections. The most visible section is Bathhouse Row which flanks Central Ave. opposite of the shops and boutiques. Behind the Bathhouses is the western face of Hot Springs Mountain which features most of the contained springs and a brick paved trail known as the Grand Promenade. The more “rugged” section of the park (which is not the right word considering Alisha lost toenails on our last national park trip) is the remainder of Hot Springs Mountain, the flanking mountain behind the shops and boutiques and many of the forests and hills on the northern side of the town. Considering we only had a half day and we were eager to see the bathhouses, we hiked about 30 minutes to the top of Hot Springs Mountain and then headed to Bathhouse Row.
Behold the promenade in all of its grandeur
There are eight bathhouses on the row and many are in their third or fourth iterations stemming from the turn of the century or early twentieth century designs. Only two continue to operate as bathhouses and one, Fordyce Bathhouse, operates as the national park’s visitor center. Buckstaff Bathhouse operates under national park regulations and still provides mineral baths and spa treatments. Lamar Bathhouse acts as the park’s gift shop. Allegedly, Hale Bathhouse was converted to a theater in the 1980’s but we didn’t go in to check it out. The Maurice and Ozark Bathhouses both closed in the 1970’s and it doesn’t look like much happens in them anymore.
Buckstaff Bathhouse and Quapaw Bathhouse are the only two function bathhouses left on Bathhouse Row
The bathhouse we used was Quapaw Bathhouse which still functions as a bathhouse and spa (the only functional bathhouse along with Buckstaff).
Let’s be honest here, the statement “I’m going to a national park to take a bath in a pool that has been used since 1922” is a weird statement. It is even weirder when the bulk of the purpose of a friends trip is to all go take a bath together (friends that bathe together treat their rheumatoid arthritis better?).
This was actually a blast. The bathhouse was very clean and the staff had the process down to a science. Here is that process so you know and it might not be as intimidating. Also I’m not sure the process at Buckstaff but I imagine its similar.
Firstly, tickets. You can reserve your bath in advance by calling the bathhouse but some of the older hotels have deals with the bathhouses. You can walk up but there is no guarantee of room. For example, a bath is $20 per person but because we were staying at the Park Hotel, we did not have to have a reservation and our tickets were $11 per person. We bought our tickets at the Park Hotel and just walked up to the Quapaw and they accommodated us with no wait.
Fordyce Bathhouse acts as the Park’s visitor center
Guys and girls go into their own locker rooms to shower off and change. Take a bathing suit because this is not that type of bath. You can buy a bathing suit at the bathhouse if you’re the type of goon who things “bathhouse” mean “40 naked people swimming around in a spring.” The only kitties and twigs and berries you are going to see are your own and perhaps maybe some 70 year old’s in the locker room who changes by stripping naked because they no longer have a care in the world.
You leave the locker room and enter the baths themselves which are closer to small pools each at a different temperature. The main pool, and the hottest, is at a constant and natural 104 degrees while the “cold pool” is a constant and natural 96 degrees. This isn’t an all day thing either, you’ll get everything you need out of this in less than an hour. It’s also amazing how 96 degree water legitimately seems cold after ten minutes in the 104 degree pool. We were in the 104 degree pool for about ten minutes, moved up to the 96 degree pool for about ten minutes, went back to the 104 degree pool for about five minutes and then decided to call it a day.
After detoxing we decided to retox by heading to the Superior Bathhouse Brewery for beers and a late lunch. After sitting unused for 30 years Superior Bathhouse became a brewery that utilizes the hot springs water in its brewing. It is also the first brewery in a U.S. National Park. If you are a craft beer lover this place is a must visit. Not only does it have a cool vibe in its own right, I haven’t tasted a beer quite like theirs which probably traces back to the spring water they use.
From Superior the group got ready for the evening and we hit one of the top destinations in the town: the Ohio Club.
The Ohio Club is a remnant of Hot Springs gangster-era legacy when a number of illegal casinos and speakeasies operated in the remote Ouachita mountain town. The Ohio Club opened in 1905 and has more or less operated continuously since then. During Prohibition a false wall was raised to hide the bar and the name was changed to Ohio Cigar Store. During the town’s heyday as a getaway for the Chicago mob and as an early MLB spring training location, the Club hosted names like Al Jolson, Sammy Davis Jr., Babe Ruth, Teddy Roosevelt, Al Capone, Frank Costello, Lucky Luciano, Bugsy Segal and Owney Madden. Madden, who owned the Cotton Club in New York City, provided live wire services for horse races and sporting events across the country from the back of the Ohio Club.
Some say Al Capone never left
When you first walk into Ohio Club you’re going to notice two things. Firstly, it’s small. It definitely feels like a turn of the century saloon and you’re going to realize where the phrase “rub shoulders with” comes from because you’re going to run into some people there trying to order drinks or get a table. Just be glad it’s mostly tourists these days and not some Capone goon who will pistol whip you for looking at the boss the wrong way. Secondly, you’re going to notice to immense and ornately carved bar back. This massive thing has its own crazy history having been hand carved out of mahogany sometimes in the 1870’s or 1880’s. It originally hung in a bar in Cincinnati, was floated down the Mississippi by barge to Memphis and then carried by train to the nearby town of Malvern where a special cart had to be built just to drag this thing to Hot Springs where it has stood in Ohio Club ever since. Also because the entire bottom portion is one giant section, it was necessary to remove the front of the building to get it into the bar.
The food is solid and the drinks are good, it’s definitely a place where its signature “thing” is the ambiance and history of the bar itself. For lunch you can generally get a seat whenever but it fills up quickly for dinner. If you want to be there for the nightly show you need to think about arriving around 5:00-7:00 at the latest or you will be waiting a long time. There are only about 10 tables upstairs and the people that grab them tend to park for the rest of the night. For us we were able to get a table and posted up for a local live band. After several beers, about a pound of ground beef, and an ill-advised switch to rum and coke, the show started and then things got weird. Just before the start a bachelorette party of 40-something blondes invaded the upstairs area, hijacked a table where some AARP member in a fedora was holding court, and began dancing immediately once the music began. This was not a small bachelorette party and the upstairs portion of the Club is even more cramped that the downstairs bar area. The drunken gaggle of flirty forties quickly drove off the nice 70-something couple that was eating dinner near us. One of the gaggle began picking a fight with Alisha for a reason that still remains a mystery to us all. While we were debating if it was worth grabbing the check and getting out, one of the gaggle got into an actual fight with another couple who were dancing by the band. Allegedly someone in all of this was “an ex-Navy SEAL who was going to fuck a bitch up”. Not wanting to get pinched and go under glass with the rest of these stoolies, decided we needed to get out of there before the Johns raided the speakeasy.
We really could have used this as a getaway vehicle
It’s a fair walk but we made our way to the Copper Penny Pub a block or two north of bathhouse row. Copper Penny is an Irish pub and is more like a typical bar than the century old saloon style of Ohio Club. There was a live band there as well but the 40-something bachelorettes were replaced by 21-year olds binge drinking. I’m not sure if we happened to catch everyone home from UA for the weekend, if Arkansas has an early spring break week, or if the youth of Hot Springs have a higher fake ID rate than other places, but we went from “youngest people in the crowd” at Ohio Club to “oldest people in the crowd” at Copper Penny. Either way it was a solid bar, it got us where we needed to go and we decided to close it down after a busy day.
Needing to get back a little earlier on Sunday, we didn’t stick around long the next day. We pretty much grabbed some coffee and snacks at Kollective Coffee and Tea and hit the road.
For anyone looking for more, I’d recommend diving into the outdoors. There are several nearby lakes that allegedly are good fishing and boating locations and a few more trails on more secluded sides of the park. The National Park is 20 minutes away from Ouachita National Forest which has its own set of trails, campsites and lakes. Little Rock is an hour up the road and there are six sites in the state managed by the National Park Service. There is also just a ton of history packed into the little town. I mentioned earlier that Hot Springs used to be a chief location for early baseball players and spring training. At various points in its history the town hosted Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Walter Johnson, Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron, Mel Ott, Roger Hornsby, Stan Musial and Tris Speaker. The old Eastman Hotel, located roughly where the current convention center stands, was actually the site where Ruth flipped a coin to settle a salary dispute with the Yankees in 1921. In fact there is an entire historical baseball trail that you can follow while you work your way around the town.
Ultimately, we packed everything for Hot Springs into one afternoon and evening. This was because of time constraints and the desire to do Hot Springs for cheap. There is a lot more going on than just what we did, though I feel like we really got everything we needed out of the trip.