One of my recent work trips took me to Hot Springs, Arkansas. I’d been to Arkansas before, but only for about 20 minutes. We were close by on a family vacation years ago and took a short detour just long enough to take some pictures and grab drinks at a gas station just to cross the state off of our list. It took me almost another fifteen years to come back.
Hot Springs National Park
I’m a huge fan of National Parks and would love to have the time and money to visit them all someday. For this trip, I was actually going to be working inside of a National Park, and I was super excited.
Hot Springs NP is headquartered in one of the old bath houses that made Hot Springs famous back in the day. Only a couple of them are in operation these days, and (at least in November) there were no evening appointments available, so I had to rule out actually visiting one of the baths. Plus, I’m not entirely sure that it would be my kind of thing.
The park visitor center also closed at 5pm, which presented a challenge because I wanted to run in and grab a brochure and passport stamp at some point. A solution presented itself one day during lunch with my coworkers. We happened to pick a place directly across the street from it, so after ordering food, I ran over and toured as much of the building as I could in the ten minutes I’d allotted myself.
I power walked through all three floors and managed to at least peek into all of the rooms that are accessible to visitors. I wouldn’t recommend it as a strategy for someone who actually wants to learn something, but when you only have ten minutes to see something, you do what you can.
I especially liked the stained glass ceiling in the men’s bath area (the women’s baths had nothing in the way of décor) and the upper level lounge area. I’m not sure that I would’ve been into the whole bath thing, but it was an interesting part of the local culture that has kind of faded over time.
Outside the building, I found a fountain where hot spring water straight from the mountain was steaming in the chilly November air and somehow managed to get it all over my coat while reaching in to get a feel for the temperature. I don’t regret it. The water comes out at a perfect bathwater temp. Over the next couple of days, I noticed a few other fountains like this scattered through the downtown area.
There wasn’t much daylight left after work, so one day, my co-worker and I plotted to get a taste of the mountains during lunch. We grabbed sandwiches and chips from the Subway in town and then drove up one of the mountain loops to eat at a picnic area. We had a decent view overlooking the town, but there were still a lot of trees in our way. Once we finished eating, we continued on the one-way loop and less than a quarter mile later, we found a gazebo with a gorgeous panoramic view over the area. Oops. There’s also an observation tower on top of one of the mountains, but we didn’t have time to visit it during lunch.
Other Things to See and Do
Some of the locals recommended a place called the Ohio Club for dinner. It has a huge carved wood bar that’s over 100 years old and was a speakeasy during Prohibition. I loved reading about the history of the place on the back of the menu. It was evidently founded by the gangster who is speculated to have been the inspiration for Jay Gatsby in F. Scot Fitzgerald’s novel. I don’t order burgers very often, but theirs sounded good so I went for it. I was not disappointed.
On our last night in town, I tried to visit a quirky-looking Star Wars museum called The Galaxy Connection that displays the owner’s extensive collection of memorabilia. As a big Star Wars nerd and lover of all things kitschy, I was pretty excited even though I knew I wouldn’t get a lot of time to visit. The website and door both said that it was open until six, but when I showed up at 5:10, the doors were locked and there was an employee attempting to hide behind the counter so I couldn’t see her. She did not do a great job of it.
I was a little annoyed, but salvaged the evening by taking a walk through the Christmas lights set up in a couple of parks along Bathhouse Row. There were some nice light displays, including a tree that “danced” to music. I liked the cute little downtown area, and it seems like it would have a fun atmosphere during busier tourist times.
I’d seen people filling up water jugs at public water dispensers throughout the week and I decided that I couldn’t leave Hot Springs without sampling some of the famous water. I retrieved my trusty travel water bottle from the car and filled it up with the fresh, hot water. I was pretty sure it was safe to drink immediately, but since I had Google in my pocket, I figured I’d double check before chugging it. The NPS site encourages drinking the water, so I went for it. It’s not great hot, but after tossing it in the hotel fridge overnight, it was much better. I was expecting hints of sulfur, but it really didn’t taste all that different from the tap water in most places. This is definitely something you need to try if you’re in town. How many places can you drink groundwater like that from public taps? I was sorry that I hadn’t tried it earlier in the week because then I could’ve made multiple trips.