Our first stop on our road trip took us to Hot Springs National Park in central Arkansas.
Although Yellowstone was technically established as the first National Park in 1872, many still consider Hot Springs to be the oldest park in the National Park System.
In 1832 the United States established this small area one hour west of Little Rock as the Hot Springs Reservation. This would be the first time that a parcel of land would be set aside by the federal government in order to preserve it for public use (the concept of a national park didn’t exist at the time).
The reservation was formerly established as a national park on March 4, 1921.
Earlier this year, as recognition for being the oldest, Hot Springs was the first national park represented in the “America the Beautiful” quarters program.
The park is a little odd in that the town of Hot Springs grew up around it. On one side of the main drag through town is the national park, and on the other are private businesses. Actually, the town is very similar to that of Gatlinburg, including gridlock traffic, crowded sidewalks, pancake houses, wax museums, and shops hawking all kinds of kitsch.
Today the National Park Service protects 47 springs which emerge from an estimated maximum depth of around 8000 feet - having fallen as rain over 4000 years ago!
The main portion of the park consists of touring the old bathhouses and peeking into a view of America from the early and mid 20th century. The ornate architecture of the bathhouses is quite beautiful.
The hot springs were sought after for relief of rheumatism and arthritis as early as the late 1700s. By the mid 1800s bathhouses were being built around the springs.
Bathing at Hot Springs peaked in the mid-1940s when nearly 1 million baths were given per year. However, as modern medicines became available, demand for therapeutic baths declined.
Today the focal point of the park is at the historic Fordyce Bathhouse, which also contains the park visitor center. You can still take a traditional bath at the Buckstaff Baths, or you can enjoy a modern spa experience with co-ed pools at the Quapaw Baths and Spa – both are leased out by the park.
There are also roughly 26 miles of hiking trails that meander around the low lying mountains behind the town.
Although Hot Springs is the smallest unit in the NPS with only 5550 acres, it’s still worth a stop if you’re passing through and you have the time. However, I should say that I probably wouldn't make it a destination.
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