Hot Springs: smallest national park, historic spa setting

buckstaff-sitz-steamThe average spa treatment in this country involves low lights, soothing music, a heated massage table and complete privacy (unless booking a massage for two). The more celebrated the facility, the more likely that services command three-digit prices, plus a tip for the therapist.

Buckstaff Bathhouse, open since 1912, breaks all those rules. The location, in the valley of Hot Springs National Park in central Arkansas, is unique too. No national park is smaller or contains anything like Bathhouse Row, a one-third-mile strip on Central Avenue downtown where the Buckstaff and seven other architecturally grand thermal spa buildings remain.

Fordyce Bathhouse was converted into a visitors center. Superior Bathhouse is a craft brewery that serves food and beer made with water from the springs. The long-dormant QuaPaw Bathhouse reopened in 2008 as a modern spa.

At the Buckstaff, business proceeds much as it did 100 years ago, in bare-bones surroundings that resemble a stark institution more than a plush oasis for pampering. Think “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” for décor, or lack of it.

The lack of accoutrements is why you should go, just as Babe Ruth and Al Capone did long ago.

Indulging in the basic, $33 whirlpool mineral bath means setting aside at least an hour. The service begins with a 20-minute bath in 100-degree water, then the application of hot packs for 20 minutes, sitting in a sitz bath for 10 minutes, sweating in a steamy vapor cabinet for up to five minutes and two-minute needle shower rinse.

The bath hall for ladies is on a separate floor from the men’s. Reservations are not accepted. Hours are 8-11:45 a.m. and 1:30-3 p.m. Closed on most Sundays.

The opposite side of Central Avenue is not national park property but a mishmash of bars, restaurants, gift shops, antique shops, a wax museum, winery, gangster museum and ticket booths for ghost or other tours. The Ohio Club books live music seven nights a week.

The park’s patchwork of boundaries envelops 5,550 acres, extending into the wooded Ouachita Mountains, with 26 miles of hiking trails and 47 hot springs. Liver Spring, Kidney Spring and a few other call-’em-like-you-see-’em names were based on what people thought the thermal waters healed.

Modern visitors fill milk jugs or other containers with free thermal water that spouts at six locations. The unfiltered water, whose safety is tested monthly, is high in calcium, potassium, sodium and magnesium.

“Temperature changes have an effect on our body – it is the same with these waters,” says Lisa Allen, National Park Service ranger. Back in the day, she says it was not unusual to get a prescription to “quaff the elixir” (drink the thermal water) or take 21 baths in two weeks.

Explorer Hunter Dunbar discovered the boiling springs during a Louisiana Purchase expedition for Thomas Jefferson in 1804. By 1832, it was declared a protected area. Then word got around about the springs’ therapeutic properties, purported to ease gout to gastric dyspepsia, chronic diarrhea to skin diseases. The hopeless and hopeful arrived via train in droves.

“Not a week passes but some remarkable cures are effected where all hopes of recovery had been abandoned before a visit to these springs had been concluded upon,” literature from the era declared.

A brick promenade “let everybody see who was going to the baths,” Lisa notes, the walkway remains a part of the park today.

For more about Hot Springs National Park:, 501-620-6715. For more about Hot Springs, the community:, 501-321-2835.

Are you exploring parks and monuments during this centennial birthday year of the National Park Service? Count these guides about the newest available to help plan an adventure and build lifelong memories.

National Parks Coast to Coast: 100 Best Hikes by Ted Alvarez (Falcon Guides, $26) presents easy day hikes to challenging multi-day treks, based on Backpacker Magazine staff recommendations. “The parks are for everyone,” writes the author, “and accordingly there’s an adventure here for everyone.”

National Geographic Guide to National Parks (National Geographic Society, $28) is a 498-page and eighth edition of a comprehensive compendium that contains new photos, maps and updates. “When to go” and “how to visit” advice is succinct; recommendations include camping and other lodging ideas.

National Geographic Kids National Parks Guide U.S.A. (National Geographic Society, $15) in 178 snappy pages shares fast facts and unique stops in many, but not all, national parks. A “my checklist” feature cuts to the chase, clearly and quickly advising all ages about can’t-miss highlights and experiences.

Add the Junior Ranger Activity Book (National Geographic Society, $15) to sneak in a few factoids while keeping kids occupied with puzzles and other games en route to a national park.