Day Trips: Hot Springs NP, Ark.
Oldest national nature preserve still a hot destination
Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas holds a unique spot among the special places in the National Park Service's inventory. Set aside as a nature reserve in 1832, Hot Springs was a park before the park service was established.
Contrary to popular myth, Native Americans came to the forest-covered mountains in south central Arkansas more for the rocks that made excellent tools than for the healing waters, says Tom Hill, the park's museum curator.
The U.S. obtained the area in the Louisiana Purchase and settlers weren't far behind. At first, the "baths" were nothing more than mud pits dug out of the side of Hot Springs Mountain. The federal government took control in the nation's first effort to protect a natural resource. It became the 18th national park in 1921 and is the second smallest at 5,548 acres.
At its peak, more than 50 privately owned bathhouses lined the creek that is now Central Avenue. Advances in medicine killed the bathhouse business, Hill says. Of the eight NPS-owned former bathhouses along the historic Bathhouse Row, only two offer hot mineral water baths. The former Superior Bathhouse is the only brewery in a national park and only brewery using thermal spring water.
Hot Springs National Park is in Hot Springs, Ark., about two hours northeast of Texarkana. To get a sense of the opulence of the bathhouses, take a tour of the Fordyce Bathhouse, once the most luxurious of the spas. Don't miss a chance to ride the elevator to the top of the 216-foot Hot Springs Mountain Tower for a panoramic view of the Ouachita Mountains. Then explore some of the 25 miles of trails in the park.
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