“Now lean forward, and I’ll scrub your back,” Sarah said.
I am sitting half naked in a century old bathtub filled with natural spring water. I lean forward and Sarah scrubs my back with a loofah I purchased at the Buckstaff Bathhouse front desk at Hot Springs National Park.
I had no idea Arkansas had a national park until I was well into my Arkansas trip planning. I was on Google maps, just looking around at anything green and discovered Hot Springs National Park. I was so surprised, I looked up a list of national parks and, sure enough, there it was.
We drove the 13 hours to Hot Springs National Park from Michigan because it was actually easier than flying to Denver, then Memphis, then driving for 8 hours.
We actually camped at Lake Catherine State Park, which was about 20 miles out of the way.
This park was beautiful and had a lot of tent camping sites, but they were close together. We woke up in the middle of the nice to growling and shined a flashlight out the tent. We were being robbed! About five raccoons had broken into our tote of food and destroyed our oatmeal. It was the single-serve kind in packets. You know, the ones with a lot of sugar. Every single one of them had been opened and eaten.
I went out there and packed everything up and put the tote in the car. Later, we heard them in the back of our truck, trying to open the cooler, but they were unsuccessful. There were muddy paw prints all over the place.
Hot Springs, Arkansas
Hot Springs is both the name of the town and the national park. The national park is actually quite small and, honestly, one of the strangest national parks we’ve ever been to.
First of all, there is ample free parking. So, automatically, that’s awesome. It was in a parking structure with a huge letters spelling out FREE PARKING. You can’t miss it.
Hot Springs National Park exists because the government demanded that the spring water be shared. It was a way to protect the water, which has nutrients and, some say, healing properties.
The main part of the Hot Springs National Park exists on a stretch of road called Bathhouse Row. The spring water used to flow where the road is. Now, the river flows underneath the road, which actually causes a lot of flooding problems.
Back in the “olden days,” bathhouses set up on one side of the road and hotels set up on the other. The bathhouses still exist. One is now an art museum, one is the visitors center for the national park, and two are spas.
Oh man, do I recommend the visitors center. First of all, the rangers are incredibly knowledgeable. You start with a video and then you can walk around what used to be a bathhouse. It’s less of a visitors center and more of a museum.
TIP: bring a sweater. Since it is technically a museum, it is COLD inside.
In the basement, you can actually see the natural spring behind some glass.
The hot springs were touted as a health center. They not only did spring water baths but also massages, exercises, stretches, and whatever chiropody is. Something with feet, I guess.
The entire place was decadent. There were elaborate changing rooms and lounges. Stained glass and crisp, white sheets.
But it wasn’t only for the rich, although they did come in droves. People traveled for hundreds of miles in horse-drawn carriages to get to the hot springs. For some, it was their last hope to cure them of whatever illness they had.
Part of the reason it became a national park was so that all people could experience their healing powers.
Bathers got punch cards and could buy different services. The attendants were not just faceless drones. They had fans and people who asked for them specifically. Later on, we will leave tips for our attendants after our baths at the Buckstaff Bathhouse.
To get paralyzed people in and out of the bathtub.
I love these signs because it shows that people have always been hooligans and isn’t the result of video games or the downfall of society or something else like that.
The Grand Promenade
There is a walkway outside called the Grand Promenade where the old-timey people used to walk. There are open hot springs that pulse with heat.
There are fountains where you can get spring water. What’s interesting is there is cold and hot spring water. Hot spring water is not filtered because the bacteria are killed by the heat. The cold spring water IS filtered, and some say, not as good as the hot spring water for that very reason.
Everywhere you look there are green trap doors in the ground. These are actually where the hot springs were. They are now sealed off to protect them from vandals and contamination.
When they were open, people used to wade right in or soak their feet. In fact, there was a bit of a scandal when both men and women were soaking their feet at the same time. Gasp! So times were set up. Women in the morning, men in the evening.
If you want to take home hot spring water, you can get it for free at the jug fountains. There is a map of them at the visitors center. We filled up a jug and the water was HOT! We waited until it cooled down and drank it on our drive back home to Michigan.
Hot Springs Mountain Tower
There is an observation tower where you can look over Hot Springs, Arkansas. We hiked to the top instead of driving. As far as hikes go, it wasn’t all that interesting. You are in the forest, and there isn’t much to see besides trees and plants.
Once you get to the tower, you have to buy tokens to get to the top. If you have your National Park Pass, it is 50% off. We left ours in the car and had to pay full price. $8 each.
I don’t recommend the Mountain Tower overlook. Hot Springs looks just like any town surrounded by trees. It wasn’t worth the hike or the money in my opinion.
The Ohio Club
We ate at The Ohio Club, which is where the gangsters and famous people used to hang out. The place is full of history and has countless photos and newspaper clippings on the walls. There are no pictures because it was also dark as hell in there.
We are both vegan and the food was actually surprisingly good. Highly recommend. Especially if you like gangsters.
There is also a gangster museum in Hot Springs but we did not go to it. We looked in the window and saw a lot of fedoras, though.
There are two bathhouses that are still in operation today. The Quapaw is more modern and the Buckstaff offers a traditional bathing experience.
We decided to go with the traditional bathing experience at the Buckstaff. Let me tell you, there was a lot of should-we or shouldn’t-we going back and forth. I mean, it is weird and not something we would typically do. I’ve never been to a spa, let alone an old-fashioned one.
Man, am I glad we did.
We opted for the Whirlpool Mineral Bath for $33 and the loofah for $4 extra, each. I thought it seemed like a lot of money for a bath but there is so much more than just a bath.
First you are led to an ancient elevator with a lever that an attendant has to slide into the right position. We went up to the women’s floor and were greeted by another attendant who led us into the changing room. My mom went naked. I kept my bathing suit bottoms on.
Then you are wrapped in a white sheet and your bathing attendant leads you to your century old bathtub with a personal whirlpool agitator that looks like a fifties’ version of a futuristic industrial hair dryer. You sit for 20 minutes in hot spring water and then she scrubs your arms and legs and back with the loofah you bought.
Then you are wrapped in the sheet again and led through a series of different services. There is the sitz bath where you sit in basically a porcelain bucket of hot spring water for 10 minutes.
There is a sauna where your head sticks out and your body steams. There is a table where they wrap you in hot wet towels with a cold towel on your head. And the last thing is the needle shower, which feels weird, and I want one. The whole time you are drinking cold spring water so you get cleansed inside and out.
My skin has never felt smoother. Seriously. All those people getting body wraps and stuff should just go to the Buckstaff and let a stranger loofah their back.
We got dressed, tipped our attendants using secret envelopes, and got in our car, relaxed.
We only spent a day at Hot Springs National Park and we did everything there was to do. But I know there are some people who still use the hot spring water as part of their healing regimen, and stay for weeks.
Hot Springs National Park is the strangest national park you will ever go to, but it is a key part of American history, and I am so glad I went. I HIGHLY RECOMMEND.