Despite what the hipsters in Arkansas might tell you, the hottest town in the state isn’t Little Rock. The hottest town is actually one of its oldest and remains a hotspot today. You get it yet? The appropriately named Hot Springs is still the place for tourists and locals alike thanks to the 147 degree springs upon which it is founded.
Of course Native Americans knew about it, understood its healing properties, but they failed to exploit it as effectively as the Europeans did beginning in the early 1800s once they’d run the Indians off.
Resourceful businessmen and hucksters alike quickly realized these wonderful springs brought more than just steam to the surface, they brought money and lots of it. In a short period dozens of rudimentary shelters were built along the mountainside, where, for a fee the wealthy could enjoy the wonderful healing powers of the springs. Later, as it became clear that other services would be highly prized by these affluent visitors (and the original shanties were deemed dangerous) the famous “bath house row” was built along Main Street.
In 1921, the buildings and the street were established for permanent posterity as Hot Springs National Park.
Even today, there are still a few bath houses open for business. The state park has restored the Fordyce bath house into a museum for visitors to see and learn what it was like to visit in the early 20th century. We stopped there to walk the old marble floors and sit in the tubs that were used in the old bath houses. Of course, back then, women and men were separated and there was only one area where they could mingle – fully clothed and non-sweaty.
These visits, though pretty opulent at the time were thought to be more medicinal than frivolous as most believed the hot mineral water had the power to heal a variety of ailments from skin disorders to arthritis and even obesity.
After checking out the museum, we walked down to dip our toes in the open spring at the edge of bathhouse row, or at least we tried. I love hot baths, but this was scalding. The funniest part is that the spring is open to the public and free for anyone to fall or trip into, which scared us a little. We then headed back to the Quapaw Bathhouse for our scheduled 20-minute soak – one of the two operating bath houses in the city. It was a modern two-person tub with lots of jets, but at least the water was authentic – so authentic in fact that they had to cool it off.
We hopped in and the quiet bath was very rejuvenating. Quapaw has tried to maintain the as much of the history while updating it for the twentieth century – we can respect that!
After our soak, we visited the shops along the main drag that at one time hosted some of the world’s most dangerous gangsters, gamblers and even a few of the country’s most well-known celebrities like Babe Ruth, Sammy Davis Jr and more.
The town also has a cool kiosk with a dozen of faucets where locals and visitors alike can bottle the spring water to drink – for free as long as you bring your own container. We bought a souvenir bottle and filled it for later.