162. Hot Springs, Arkansas

Hot Springs, Arkansas: Never been to Arkansas? That’s understandable. But here’s a town that inspires a stop even in the dead of winter. Perhaps especially in the dead of winter.

We love hot springs, so the name of this town raises expectations to impossible levels. And I’m not necessarily a Bill Clinton fanatic, but I am a sentimental Democrat, so it was a nice bonus to roll into town and see the large sign that declares Hot Springs to be the “boyhood home of William Jefferson Clinton.” Hot Springs is not, however, the birthplace of Bill Clinton, as announced by an even larger sign posted just down the road, at the edge of Hope, Arkansas. Though we did buy a terrific Bill Clinton magnet from a gift shop downtown, the roots of the 42nd president were not the reason for our visit. The hot springs were.

The hot springs we’re accustomed to in the western U.S. are mostly unpolished and amazing. They are roiling hot water, cut and poured into a rough limestone pool in the wilderness, across some open field, desert or dense pine forest, identifiable only by the columns of steam rising in the distance.

In Hot Springs, Arkansas, the geothermally heated spring waters beneath the town are piped into elaborate, high society bathhouses built in the 1920s, for Americans seeking treatment for sypphilis, typhoid, arthritis or simple exhaustion. Most of the original bathhouses are no longer in use, but the National Parks Service still operates one (above) very much in the same way it’s been operated for the last 100 years. The hot mineral water is also surprisingly potable and even more surprisingly made available free of charge to the public – we availed of one of the many faucets scattered around town. Locals line up here to fill five gallon jugs with free spring water (inset), undoubtedly the best tasting public water you’ll ever have.

The bathhouse process itself is fascinating, from the changing rooms to the individual whirlpool baths that are agitated by an ancient appliance resembling a milkshake blender. Marble walls and porcelain everything, this place is the closest you’ll come to a Turkish bath in the U.S., exoticism in your own backyard.

In these bathhouses, the bather is escorted by an attendant through each step of the bathing process . The 20 minute superheated whirlpool mineral bath is the main attraction, but the oddities that follow are well worth the $16 price of admission. After the whirlpool there is an odd little sitting tub called the Sitz Bath, meant to sooth lower back problems. Then a medieval steam chamber, resembling a glass greenhouse and locked from the outside, in which you are left just long enough to confess your most recent sins. Next a hot mineral wrap with towels and sheets, falling asleep and being jolted awake by an attendant pushing you into a shower chamber that pummels the body with some 50 jet streams. Amy opted for a 20 minute massage to top this all off, I chose instead to lay down in the “cooling room” where a nice man swaddled me, a little too enthusiastically, in something he called a “Chinese diaper.” All too soon we were clean, hot, sleepy and ejected back out into the frigid cold of Arkansas’ February. Onward then to even warmer waters in Texas, where the sky starts to get bigger and the steaks get cheaper.

 

  1. Krista says:

    Hot Springs is gorgeous! In all the times I’ve been there, and been inside the baths, I’ve never actually *had* one. Next time there will be no excuse…

  2. Sloan says:

    It is a beautiful place, though I’d love to see it in summer because it was a bit bare when we were there.