It’s raining. And not a cutesy little sprinkling that’s like kitten kisses on a summer morn. We’re talking a downpour with a 10-degree temperature drop. And I—having anxiously anticipated a day breezing by bathhouses and trekking along trails at Hot Springs National Park—am dressed in a pair of capris, a light jacket and some comfortable, grip-sole slip-on shoes. After all, I’d thought earlier this morning, we’ll have a lot of walking to do, and those springs the park is named after are, well, hot.
It’s the National Park Service’s centennial this year, and with all the celebration that such a milestone invites, it seemed an ideal time to get an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at our state’s national-park claim to fame. (While there are eight properties under the Park Service’s purview in Arkansas—including the Buffalo National River, Little Rock Central High School and the President William Jefferson Clinton Birthplace Home—Hot Springs is our state’s only national park.) But Mother Nature has other plans. As I pull up to the park’s administration building, I realize I’m going to have to make a run for the little yellow stucco building to meet my guide, Mike Kusch, chief of resource management and visitor services of Hot Springs National Park.
Mike’s waiting for me at the front desk as I sprint into the park’s administration building at the end of Bathhouse Row on Central Avenue. He smiles as I shake the pooling water off my thin jacket. “Heather?” he asks, extending his hand. As a good park ranger should be, he is prepared: His Park Service uniform of khaki button-down shirt and forest-green pants are ironed sharp. His straw hat (which some folks refer to as a “lemon-squeezer” because of the way the hat’s apex is pinched into four quadrants—but most just recognize from Smokey the Bear fame) is fitted with a specially designed plastic cover to protect it from the elements.
“When these hats get wet, they get crazy-looking,” he informs me. “You should see some of the shapes we have laying around here.” I don’t see any crazily shaped hats, but I do see that he wears a badge that declares him a “PARK RANGER” and a holster on his belt … that holds a cellphone. “You ready to go?” he asks, and I am. I may be sweet, but I’m not made of sugar, so I won’t melt. It’s just a bit of rain.
Except that it’s not. By the time Mike ushers me to the Fordyce Bathhouse, which is now the Hot Springs National Park Visitor Center, my shoes are so full of water they slosh when I step. But that doesn’t inhibit the awe inspired by the architecture of this fine building constructed in 1915.
Wait—1915? That’s a full year before the Park Service was created.
“Hot Springs actually became a Federal Reserve in [April] 1832,” Mike explains, sensing my confusion. “The Arkansas Territorial Legislature requested it. It was the Territorial Legislature because Arkansas wasn’t even a state yet.”
It turns out that the Hot Springs area was way ahead of its time in many ways. All the way back in 1804, President Thomas Jefferson sent the Dunbar-Hunter Expedition to explore the Hot Springs area, since it was in the southern reaches of his Louisiana Purchase. After the 47 naturally occurring thermal springs were discovered, folks began seeking out the legendary healing powers of the water, and a bustling town grew around this natural resource. By 1820, the Territorial Legislature was asking the federal government to help conserve the springs for the future enjoyment of the public. And in 1832, the federal government finally granted the request, making Hot Springs, for all intents and purposes, the first national park—a full 84 years before the National Park Service even existed (older even than Yellowstone National Park by 40 years).
But just what kinds of healing can water really provide? I mean, I’m here today, soaked to the bone, and if anything, I’m feeling worse rather than better.
“They treated everything from arthritis to diabetes to venereal disease—you name it,” Mike explains as he begins to walk me through the Fordyce Bathhouse. “What they were doing was complementing the natural resource of the water with walking and hiking and horseback riding—so they believed in a holistic approach. To live clean from the inside out. … These doctors had tapped into something, and a lot of doctors today are just starting to re-engage the fact that we have to look at the patient as a whole, as opposed to just a body.”
As Mike ushers me into the men’s bathroom, he issues a warning: “Keep in mind that services between men and women were equal in all respects.”
And I tell him straight up, “I don’t trust you for a minute. You have a twinkle in your eye.”
We enter a room with a stunning stained-glass ceiling with circling mermaids hanging above an intricately carved statue of DeSoto receiving a gift from an American Indian maiden. Mike tells me that “in 1915, men were the targeted audience. Men enjoyed their facials. They enjoyed their manicures, pedicures—all the spa treatments that women enjoy today. So the men’s bath halls all tended to be more elaborate than the women’s. If it was designed today, this would be the women’s side.”
These days, however, you won’t find either gender taking the waters here. As Hot Springs changed from a rough and tumble town to a spa city, each generation of private spas was larger and more elegant than the last. In 1916, the National Park Service was established by an act of Congress. But though the reserve was placed under the park service’s jurisdiction, it wasn’t until 1921 that it officially became the country’s 18th national park. This change in status spurred the final and most extravagant phase of construction, which resulted in the Bathhouse Row we love today. But by the 1960s, healing spas were becoming a thing of the past, and the Fordyce—the most elegant spa on the strip—was the first to close. By 1985, the Buckstaff was the only one still operating. (Though it should be noted, the Quapaw Baths & Spa re-opened in 2008.)
The Fordyce now serves as the park’s visitor center. The former ladies’ cooling room on the second floor—where female clients would cool down after taking steaming hot baths drawn from the local natural springs—now serves as Mike’s office, where he supervises his scant staff of 30 employees. With about 5,000 acres of park, 26 miles of trails on five mountains and the Gulpha Gorge Campground with its 30 full RV hookups and 10 tent campsites, Mike is one busy man.
Last but not least, Mike shows me the Fordyce Spring, encased in glass at the base of the Fordyce Bathhouse so it can be viewed by the public. This is the true heart of the Fordyce, the park and the city that grew up around it, the healing waters that travel close to a mile though the earth’s crust only to end their journey here on an Arkansas mountainside. Around this rocky hole lie some beautiful rose-colored crystals. Quartz, maybe? But before I can get too excited about them, Mike informs me they were just carted in from another location in order to create “atmosphere.”
As we leave, Mike snags us umbrellas before we venture back out into the rain. We head north along Central Avenue, and I see a wide promenade, flanked by stone pillars topped with eagles and, just below and to the outside edge of them, round fountains spurting steaming water. It reminds me somewhat of the gardens of Versailles. “That’s actually the official entry into the park,” Mike informs me. “That leads up to the Tufa Terrace Trail.”
And more than anything, in my sloshing shoes, I wish we could hike one of Hot Springs National Park’s more than a dozen trails. Instead, I follow Mike down to Arlington Lawn, a nice little gathering area at the north end of Bathhouse Row. There, you can catch a concert at a small amphitheater or gather at the gazebo or dip your hands in a pool that collects the water falling from the Hot Water Cascade. And on a day like today, this sounds like the greatest idea I’ve ever heard. I dangle my fingers into the water, and it is, indeed, hot.
“We control the temperature of the water through pressure systems,” Mike tells me, smiling. “The tourists like it hot.”
They must; the park gets 4.3 million visitors every year. I myself would love to come back another time—when it’s sunny—and pitch a tent up at Gulpha Gorge, watch the sun set on Music Mountain and quench my tourist thirst with a beer at the microbrewery located in the old Superior Bathhouse. Now that’s the way to toast the National Park Service’s 100 years.