Visitors to my hometown of Hot Springs National Park are often surprised to discover that downtown is a national park. The nation’s smallest, the park surrounds the north end of the city of Hot Springs. The state slogan for Arkansas is ‘the natural state’ and Hot Springs offers an abundance of nature and beauty. I relish my time there where I find it easy to unwind, untethered from the hectic pace of my life in Los Angeles.
Water has long been the main attraction of Hot Springs. A bevy of underground springs located downtown flow from the western slope of Hot Springs Mountain; part of the Ouachita Mountain range. Ancient Indigenous peoples discovered the soothing thermal waters, and Native Americans dubbed the area “the Valley of the Vapors”. Long believed to possess rich minerals and medicinal properties, the springs were eventually capped and piped into buildings built along Central Avenue. Now a National Historic Landmark, Bathhouse Row consists of a stunning collection of Gilded Age architecture.
In the 1920’s, Hot Springs became known as the “The American Spa”, attracting visitors worldwide. Built in 1915, Fordyce Bathhouse is now the park’s visitor center. Today, The Superior Bathhouse is the first brewery in a National Park. Located at the south end of The Arlington Lawn, The Superior Bathhouse Brewery uses local spring waters to brew dozens of varieties of beer. The Buckstaff and Quapaw remain as operating bathhouses, and I highly recommend a massage and soak! Public fountains downtown offer the incredible spring water for free all hours of the day.
Famous for BBQ, the birth of Major League Baseball spring training, and the boyhood home of President Bill Clinton, Hot Springs has a colorful and storied past. By the 1930s, the town had earned a rowdy reputation from illegal gambling, infamous gangsters (Al Capone was a regular, often taking up residence on the entire 4th floor of the Arlington Hotel) and scores of brothels. Gangster activity experienced a heyday here until a federal crackdown in the 1960s put an end to what the government called, “the largest illegal gambling operation in the U.S.” Today, “Blue Laws” are still in effect, making it illegal to purchase alcohol on Sundays.
Juxtaposed against this interesting historical past, the town is a perfect place for idyllic luscious southern living. Some of my favorite memories include: lazy days spent water-skiing and boating the local lakes, kayaking and quartz crystal hunting; floating inner-tubes down the nearby Caddo River; catching fireflies; the buzzing and clicking of cicada insects, their cacophonous hum electrifying the night; humidity so thick you can almost taste it; early morning mist rolling across glassy Lake Hamilton; steam rising off asphalt after a sudden summer downpour; crisp autumnal walks on the Grand Promenade; hiking downtown trails as leaves from Hickory and Oak trees turn intense firey colors; skipping rocks at Gulpha Gorge Creek; losing myself in the quiet beauty of Stonebridge Falls; and attending the annual Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival. Held every October, the acclaimed festival is now in its 25th year.
Hot Springs is a quirky land where beer koozies and bottles of Mountain Valley mineral water share shelf space in shops. A Civil War museum is going in downtown, and only two miles away sits the rare mid-century Peter Dierks Joers House. Built in 1955, and listed on the national register of historic homes, the sprawling 5,500 square foot ranch style home has been lovingly and meticulously maintained, replete with many original furnishings.
Downtown Hot Springs is definitely a diamond in the rough. So many beautiful old buildings wait patiently for a second chance at life. I can’t wait to see how my hometown continues to transform.
Lisa Cole is a freelance filmmaker based in Los Angeles, whose work includes social issue and biography documentaries, and a narrative feature film project in the works. When not writing or directing, she can usually be found traveling and dabbling in various design and renovation projects.