Health seekers have come to “take the waters” here since 1832 when Congress created Hot Springs Reservation. Unlike the nation’s Indian reservations, it was created solely to protect the land — 40 years before the establishment of Yellowstone, America’s first National Park. The name was changed to Hot Springs National Park in 1921, making it the 18th national park.
In the early years, Hot Springs was no luxury destination. It had only a few crude, ill-equipped bathhouses, but during the Golden Age of Bathing (1880-1950), the resort town became known as “the American Spa” and became home to many elegant bathhouses that attracted an affluent clientele afflicted with maladies that included everything from rheumatism to syphilis.
It was just what the doctor ordered. Literally. Physicians prescribed the number of baths patients should take a week and outlined other aspects of their health plan in Hot Springs.
By the mid-20th century, effective modern medications were widely available, so bathing for health reasons went out of fashion. Many bathhouses were shuttered in the ’60s and ’70s and remained vacant for many years.
Eight of these architectural gems still stand on Bathhouse Row, a National Historic Landmark on magnolia-lined Central Avenue in downtown Hot Springs. The Park Service repurposed most of the structures, but the blue-awninged Buckstaff Bathhouse and the Quapaw still operate as bathhouses.
Unlike the Quapaw, which closed in 1968 and reopened 40 years later as a modern spa, the Buckstaff has never closed, remaining a park fixture since 1912 where traditional baths in sterile surroundings that feel like a medical facility are still offered.
At the Buckstaff, attendants escort bathers to private tubs where they soak in the thermal mineral water for about 20 minutes. Next, soothing hot packs are applied. That’s followed by a sitz bath, a few sweaty minutes in a vapor cabinet and an energizing needle shower. The experience is much as it was a century ago.
A statue depicts explorer Hernando de Soto receiving water from an indigenous American Indian woman in the men's bath hall at the Fordyce bathhouse in Hot Springs National Park.
Courtesy of Wesley K.H. Teo
During the pandemic, Buckstaff is only offering its traditional bathing package, plus manicures and pedicures at this time. Staff members and guests must pass temperature checks upon entrance, and everyone must wear a mask.
The Fordyce, a Renaissance Revival-style bathhouse opened in 1915, serves as the park visitors center. Back in the day, only the very wealthy saw inside this palace of wellness because its customized treatments cost five times as much as neighboring bathhouses. Now it’s a free museum. The guided tour begins in the lobby, resplendent with Italian marble walls and patterned tile floors. Even those accustomed to having the best of everything must have been impressed. According to guide Nalissala Allen, the Fordyce was much more than a medical facility.
“It was like a country club where you could be seen by other elites and rub elbows,” Allen said. “By coming here, you could better your mind, body and soul, and maybe make a business deal or two.”
In the men’s bath hall, sunlight filters through a stained-glass skylight depicting Neptune’s daughters. Beneath it stands a statue of 16th-century explorer Hernando de Soto receiving a drink of water from a kneeling indigenous American woman.
The surroundings are grand, but some of the quirky devices used in the massage rooms look more like instruments of torture than healing. Among them are bizarre vibrating apparatuses, a violet ray machine that tingled the skin and an electric massage device that worked by applying electrodes on the body.
“Most of the treatments at the Fordyce were unusual,” Allen said. “But if you compare them to modern treatments, the bathhouse was ahead of the times. For example, alternating your time in the sunray cabinet and the freeze box is like putting a hot pack then an ice pack on an injured muscle to reduce swelling.”
Fordyce was frequented by baseball players in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, who liked to train in the state-of-the-art gymnasium. Some were hard-drinkers and believed they could “boil out” the alcohol in their system by soaking in the mineral-rich water.
Unfortunately, Fordyce is temporarily closed during the recent spike in the number of COVID-19 infections.
A decanter of fresh spring water is provided to diners at Eden, a restaurant in Hotel Hale in Hot Springs National Park.
Courtesy of Wesley K.H. Teo
Constructed in 1892, the oldest building still standing on Bathhouse Row is the former Hale Bath House, a Mission-style building that was vacant for decades. In 2019 it was transformed into a nine-suite boutique hotel with an upscale restaurant called Eden.
Specialties include Australian rack of lamb, grilled to perfection and drizzled with a demi-glace the color of maple syrup and served with braised collard greens and a dollop of sweet carrot puree. The earthy gaminess of the lamb is complemented by the smoky, fruit-forward notes of the Mer Soleil 2017 reserve pinot noir from the small but noteworthy wine list.
Seafood offerings include shrimp and grits or pan-seared Hawaiian sea bass served with creamy mushroom risotto. All the water in the hotel is pumped in from the hot springs, and each table has its own decanter.
For a more laid-back dining experience, grab a bite and a brew at the Superior Bathhouse Brewery, where the beer is made with thermal spring water. The menu is an eclectic offering of comfort foods from burgers to pulled pork tacos to Vietnamese soup.
There are 18 beers on tap. For a light, crisp brew, sample the refreshing Hitchcock Spring, or go to the dark side with the Goat Rock Bock, a German-style beer named for a popular park hiking trail.
Hot Springs National Park is no longer the haven of healing it was in its heyday, but as it celebrates its centennial and looks to the future, the repurposed bathhouses continue to make a splash. Today, nobody claims the remaining bathhouses are a panacea for all that ails you, but the relaxing environment at the Quapaw washed my stress away, and that was enough for me.
IF YOU GO
Hot Springs, Arkansas, is 580 miles west of Atlanta.
What to see
Buckstaff Bathhouse. Whirlpool mineral bath, $32. Spa services extra. 509 Central Ave., Hot Springs, Arkansas. 501-623-2308, www.buckstaffbaths.com
Quapaw Baths & Spa. $20 for thermal pools. Spa services extra. 413 Central Ave. Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas. 501-609-9822, www.quawpawbaths.com
Fordyce Bathhouse National Park Visitor Center. Temporarily closed. Free. 369 Central Ave. Hot Springs, Arkansas. 501-620-6715, www.nps.gov/hosp/index.htm
Where to eat
Eden. Entrees $12-$34. Hotel Hale, 341 Central Ave., Hot Springs, Arkansas. 501-760-9010, www.hotelhale.com
Superior Bathhouse Brewery. Entrees $7-$14. 329 Central Ave., Hot Springs, Arkansas. 501-624-2337, www.superiorbathhouse.com
Where to stay
The Waters. $120-$250. Across the street from Bathhouse Row. 340 Central Ave., Hot Springs, Arkansas. 501-321-0001, www.thewatershs.com
The Hotel Hot Springs. $129-$149. Within walking distance of Bathhouse Row. 305 Malvern Ave. Hot Springs, Arkansas. 501-623-6600, www.hotelhotsprings.org
Visit Hot Springs. 134 Convention Blvd., Hot Springs, Arkansas. 1-800-772-2489, www.hotsprings.org