Oct. 31, 2022
Can a soak in Arkansas’ famed hot springs cure what ails me?
HOT SPRINGS, Ark. — For millennia, they’ve come for the water that gives this place its name.
Native Americans were first, building thatched grass lodges to bathe in the natural springs they believed had healing powers. Then white folks showed up, first in stagecoaches and later by train, assured by doctors that the mineral-rich thermal pools would cure whatever ailed them, from syphilis to paralysis.
Me? I just have a bad back.
And after five hours in a rental car, I was in serious discomfort and excited to hit Bathhouse Row, the main street in Hot Springs lined with eight ornate bathhouse buildings constructed between 1892 and 1923.
In its heyday, Hot Springs was a resort town — Congress designated the Hot Springs National Park in 1921 — and a favorite destination of, among others, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, boxer Jack Dempsey, actress Mary Pickford, and gangster Al Capone, who kept a suite at the Arlington Hotel down the street. (You can stay there for $398 a night.) Legend has it Tony Bennett first performed “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” here during a rehearsal at the Black Orchid Club, a once-hopping nightclub.
Those days have faded. The Black Orchid burned down 40 years ago. And perhaps because we know now that the 4,000-year-old spring water flowing from the Ouachita Mountains won’t miraculously restore your sight or heal your liver, just two of the eight original bathhouses — the Quapaw and the Buckstaff — remain open. But Hot Springs’s vivid history of gambling, bootlegging, and general debauchery continues to draw curious travelers. The Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort was doing brisk business while we were in town.
Before soaking, I wandered a few of the 26 miles of mountain trails behind Bathhouse Row, where you can see and, if you dare, touch, the spring water, which bubbles up at a scalding 147 degrees. I dared — and regretted it. Finally, I headed into the Quapaw, where, for $25, I got a towel, a locker, and unlimited time in four thermal pools that range in temperature from 96 to 104degrees. (The Quapaw’s thermal steam cave is closed due to COVID.)
The water was heavenly, and I’m a discerning bather. To the occasional consternation of my wife, I’ll spend two hours in the tub, reupping the water as needed to maintain a pleasant swelter.
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It was also nice to be among friends, fellow obsessives whose idea of fun is sitting in the bath — people like Merrill Lund, a native of Canada who reckons he’s been to at least 50 hot springs across the United States, Mexico, and Europe.
“When I was little, my father took us to Radium Hot Springs in British Columbia,” Lund told me, stretched on a wooden chaise between dips. “I guess that gave me the bug because I travel all over going to hot springs.”
Lund liked Quapaw, but admitted he prefers open-air hot springs, where you’re surrounded by nature, not tiled walls. He speculated that Hot Springs’s status as a national park might prohibit such a dramatic makeover.
But Grace Hutchison, an ER nurse, and her firefighter boyfriend, Brandon Fears, visiting from Memphis for the weekend, looked utterly relaxed as they moved from one pool to another.
“A lot of people try to stimulate themselves when they go on vacation. We try to do the exact opposite,” Fears said. “And even if this doesn’t heal you, there’s something therapeutic about a hot bath. It absolutely dilates your blood vessels and makes your blood pressure come down.”
If his blood pressure was elevated, it’s probably because he and Hutchison lost a few hundred bucks at the Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort the night before.
But would the hot springs ease my back pain? Temporarily, yes. As I stepped onto the porch of the Quapaw, arranged with wicker rocking chairs, I felt good — rested and restored. Then there was a commotion: Two men exploring an old, off-limits tunnel beneath the bathhouses had been overcome by the heat and needed help getting out.
As I walked quickly toward a firefighter to sort out what was happening, I felt that familiar ache coming on and slowed down. That’s OK, I thought, I’ll just have to soak again tomorrow.
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