Hot Springs, Arkansas

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I didn’t quite make it to Hot Springs before dark, but that’s okay.  The town is just as beautiful at night as it is in the day.

Coming from the south, Route 7 cuts across the middle of Lake Hamilton, before entering the city of Hot Springs.  For anyone interested in boating, fishing, or just lounging around by the edge of a mountain lake, Lake Hamilton would be a great stop.  I caught this view out my car window, as I drove across the water.

On the north side of Lake Hamilton, Hot Springs’ commercial sprawl begins.  After spending an entire day in small towns, it was comforting to once again see shopping malls, fast food restaurants, and all the comforts of big-city life.  I didn’t stop, though, since I was on my way to the town’s historic bath house district, which is now partially protected as a National Park.

Eight bathhouses are lined up, side by side, along Central Avenue (Route 7).  Most of them, like the Ozark (built in 1922) are no longer in use, but are being preserved by the National Park Service.

The Buckstaff Bathhouse is one of two bathhouses that is still in use, as a bathhouse (the other is Quapaw Baths & Spa, which re-opened in 2008).  Anyone can take a mineral bath and a massage here.

The Fordyce Bathhouse now serves as the park’s visitor center, as well as a museum that explains how the old bathhouses operated.  I visited the Fordyce at the start of Day 5, and I’ll tell you more about it on the next page.

At the northern end of Bathhouse Row, Central Avenue curves to the left, and Fountain Street curves to the right.  In the middle of the “Y” is the impressive Arlington Hotel.  While many of the hotels along Central Avenue are closed, the Arlington is still in business — and surprisingly, rooms start at a reasonable price: around $79.

The current Arlington Hotel building dates back to 1924, however, there were two other hotels on the property previously.  The first was built in 1875, the second in 1893.  The second Arlington was destroyed by fire in 1923.  The current structure has 560 rooms, a ballroom, and a bathhouse. You can find out more about its history, here.

Central Avenue is well-lit at night, and plenty of people were strolling along the sidewalks.  All the stores were closed, though, so after admiring some of the old ghost signs and the now-empty hotels, I headed back to my hotel.

Park Hotel

The Park Hotel is located on Fountain Street, about a two-minute walk from Central.  It’s an old hotel, and it definitely has some rough edges, but it also has a lot of charm.

The Park Hotel’s lobby is probably its most beautiful attribute.  Blue lights give the lobby a cool, peaceful feeling.  There’s a hand-operated elevator that dates back to 1929.  (During my visit, the manual elevator was the only one that was working, so I had to wait for an employee to operate it.  Most of the time, I took the steps, which wasn’t a big deal, since I was only on the third floor.)

There was only one person working at the front desk, which meant a long wait at check-in.  I had booked my room online, and hadn’t noticed that the hotel’s website says there’s an “energy fee” charged for each room.  I didn’t want to have to fight about that, but thankfully, I didn’t need to.  They didn’t charge me the extra fee, and they even upgraded me to a room with a tub (instead of just a shower) for free.

My room was basic.  It had a bed, and a TV, and a few miscellaneous pieces of furniture.  It wasn’t anything special, but it all appeared clean and comfortable.

From some of the reviews I’ve read about the Park Hotel, people either love it or hate it.  Some people complain about the air conditioning, which arrives in your room through the vent above the doorway. It’s always on, but there’s a remote knob to turn that opens or closes the vent.  My room was comfortable the entire time.  Other people have complained about the blinds on the windows.  Yes, they are cheap venetian blinds that provide privacy, but don’t block a lot of light.  Make sure you don’t get a room with a bright light outside (notice the picture I took outside the hotel — there’s one bright streetlight that really needs to be removed altogether).  The windows are also “vintage” — no screens, and they swing out, meaning a child could potentially climb out the window.

Here’s the thing: it’s an old hotel.  It hasn’t been converted into a 4-star property, so it’s not going to be perfect.  I was worried what I would find, after reading the online reviews, but I would stay here again.  If you can’t appreciate the charm that comes along with older, historic buildings, you won’t enjoy your stay, but if you can, you will.

The Park Hotel is located across the street from the end of The Grand Promenade, a half-mile trail that parallels Central Avenue. It’s also just down the street from the start of the scenic road up Hot Springs Mountain, and a public fountain where you can fill your water bottles with spring water. We’ll explore both on the next page. [next]

Driving Tour of Hot Springs National Park

Hot Springs National Park isn’t quite like most of the other national parks in America.  There’s no giant hole to look down into or mountain to climb up.  Instead, there are a couple of hills, and a row of historic buildings.  Even though this park is different, and small, there are several ways to enjoy it.

There are 26 miles of hiking trails in the park.  One of the most popular, the Grand Promenade, parallels Central Avenue, just a bit uphill, behind the historic bathhouses.  The brick-paved path is only a half-mile long, and provides a nice way to loop back around, after you’ve passed by the bath houses.

The Grand Promenade stretches from Fountain Street to Reserve Street.  If you take the time to walk a bit further up Fountain Street…

… you’ll find Happy Hollow Spring, a public fountain (one of several around town) where the perfectly-pure water from the local springs is piped in, and available free of charge.  Fortunately, my car was full of empty water bottles, so I filled them all.

In case you’re wondering, the water tastes good, but it definitely has a particular flavor — one that I hadn’t tasted before.  It’s not bad, but it is unique, and it takes a while to get used to it.

There are several dozen springs currently producing water in Hot Springs National Park.  None of them flow naturally — they’ve all been covered with concrete and tapped by pipes.  When the water reaches the collection system, it has completed a 4,000 year journey — almost all of that time is spent filtering down through the mountain.  The water goes down as far as 7,500 feet, is heated by the earth, then shoots back up through faults.  The return trip to the surface only takes about one year.

How pure is the water from Hot Springs?  It’s completely free of bacteria, which is why NASA used it to store moon rocks, while examining them for signs of life.

At the end of Fountain Street, turn onto the twisty scenic road that climbs up Hot Springs Mountain.

When you’re near the top, there’s a pavilion at an overlook.

You can see parts of Hot Springs from here, but on the day I visited, the view wasn’t exactly spectacular.

The cloudy, and occasionally rainy weather is the reason I didn’t go up in Hot Springs Mountain Tower.  I did, however, visit the gift shop, where t-shirts are surprisingly cheap.

This is the third observation tower to stand atop Hot Springs Mountain.  The first one was 75 feet tall, the second was 165 feet, and the current structure is 216 feet tall.

At the top of Hot Springs Mountain, the road loops around, and passes a couple more viewpoints, before returning to Fountain Street.

Drivelapse Video

Here’s the dash-cam time-lapse video of my drive around Hot Springs National Park, including the drive up Hot Springs Mountain.

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