Hot Springs: Our first National Park (Unit)

Filling up on mineral water in Hot Springs.

I had no idea that Hot Springs National Park would be just that – a National Park that centers on the hot springs alone. It’s the smallest of the National Parks, and perhaps the oddest, as the park originated to protect the spring’s waters, and the park’s lands are surrounded by the charmingly preserved resort town of Hot Springs, Arkansas. There are many hot springs, but these magical springs are intensely hot (at 150 degrees), incredibly pure (the water used now fell as rain during the time when Egyptians built pyramids), and delightfully odorless (not being volcanic springs, there is no sulphur, and no rotten egg smell). To top it all off, their slow journey from rainfall 4000 years ago through 1 mile of mineral-rich rock has given this mineral water enviable health properties.

The charmingly old-school Buckstaff Baths, which has been in business since 1912.

The history of human use of these springs is long, with evidence of Native American usage for thousands of years, and European explorers and settlers have come to bathe, swim, drink and breath in the healing properties of these Springs since it was discovered in the 1500s. Thomas Jefferson himself sent a team to explore these springs right after the Louisiana Purchase made the area American land. Word of the healing properties of these mineral-rich waters spread fast, and people flocked to Hot Springs. With all the many private parties interested in exploiting these springs for profit, the leaders in the territory pushed hard for federal protection of these waters to preserve and protect them against exploitation. Thus in 1832, Hot Springs became the first federally protected reservation, making it the oldest unit of the National Parks unit – beating Yellowstone by about 40 years.

Thermal pools of 104 degrees and a skylight

The thermal baths at QuapawThe natural springs are not accessible by the public – they are much too hot at the source – so the only way to enjoy this National Park is to fork over some bucks and go to the public bathhouses.Spa row is reminiscent of European-style spa houses from a century ago, a sight unexpected in the middle of Arkansas and worth a look regardless of how you feel about baths.  (I recommend the communal pools at Quapaw  – for $20/person you get to soak as long you want, and it’s a much better deal than the private scrub and steam at Buckstaff).

Bathhouse row, as it used to look in the 1800s

But while you need to pay to sit in these historic spas, the water itself is free and available to the public. While bathing in the natural spring headwaters is not allowed, there are multiple public fountains in town, where any can fill up their water jugs with the mineral-rich crystal spring waters of Hot Spring National Park. And the amazing thing is seeing how many locals came to the fountains. Some come daily, with a few gallon milk jugs, others we saw had a few crates with dozens of empty bottles to fill. We promptly filled up our two 5-gallon jugs, and even contemplated just hooking it up to the Airstream to give ourselves a few fancy mineral showers (we didn’t).

It was a bit puzzling at first, trying to rectify how enjoying this National Park consisted of paying to sit inside a privately-owned spa instead of hiking through the wilderness, but essentially, that’s what makes this park so interesting. This is America’s first federally protected natural resource. Way before a true conservation ethic exists, this was deemed to be a special, limited resource that ought to be protected so it can be managed and shared with the American people for generations to come.

Dogwoods on display in the national forests surrounding Hot Springs.

I like this more expansive view of the National Park system, where the categories of environment we should protect and preserve for recreation should not be limited to just land and wilderness areas, but can include natural resources like water. Having lived in China for a decade, you see what happens when nothing is protected, and how impossible it becomes to recover something once its gone. I can only imagine how wonderful it would be if the fresh mountain air and wild oceans could have been similarly protected in the 1800s for the enjoyment of tomorrow’s generations.

Lake Ouchita reservoir, another water resource in Arkansas we enjoyed.

One natural resource that we’ve been seeing in the parks that is being actively worked on is Dark Skies.  There’s an International Dark Sky Association, and freedom from light pollution is something we’ve seen a number of parks and cities working on. It’s a new concept to me, but it makes a world of sense – not only are we able to better appreciate the beauties of the night sky, but many animals (and even plants) rely on natural darkness for survival.

For city folks like me who haven’t had much chance to sit out under the stars, the night sky is just uniquely startling in its beauty (check out the videos for some examples) and makes me understand why there’s a new movement to preserve these views for future generations. Meanwhile, I’ll finish by saying I thoroughly enjoyed our few days of soaking in Hot Springs, and a week of our free mineral water.

Hot Springs, our very classy and citified National Park #11.



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