Spending the Labor Day weekend at Hot Springs National Park was a mini-vacation I approached with a fair amount of trepidation as the time grew closer. Hot Springs was one of my favorite parks back when I worked for NPS, and I was a little worried that maybe talking it up to the Younger Daughter was a mistake. We had agreed to meet there for the weekend, and I'd sent her some links for typical Hot Springs activities (e.g., the thermal baths). I also booked us into one of the historic hotels downtown, the Arlington, and it began to worry me that maybe she wouldn't be as charmed by its aura of faded grandeur as I was.
I worried for nothing. We had a great time. Our room in the Arlington was lovely; we were on the 7th floor so the outdoor mountainside pool was just a short walk away. We were also right across the street from Arlington Lawn, part of the national park. We were ambling distance from both Bathhouse Row and all the commercial stuff that might interest us (e.g., restaurants) The national park was even nicer than I remembered--park management does a superb job on maintenance--and the ambience overall was Hot Springs at its liveliest. I think the city would have been bustling anyway because of Labor Day weekend, but the Blues Festival happening that weekend probably added to the crowds and fun. One of the great things about Hot Springs is you can go from enjoying the outdoors--the National Park includes several thousand acres of woodland with miles of hiking trails of varying difficulty--to enjoying the nightlife without much of a break in between. Personally, I'm not much of a clubber, but I can certainly see the attraction for people who do enjoy partying.
Hot Springs is, of course, famous for its hot springs, and there are several venues where it is possible to enjoy a traditional thermal bath. One of the historic bathhouses on Bathhouse Row, the Buckstaff, has been providing traditional thermal baths for many years. The traditional experience included a hot soak followed by massage, but could turn into a long, elaborate ritual with steam cabinets, cold cabinets, hot packs, cold packs, and multiple soaks in the thermal mineral water. It's been considerably abbreviated in recent decades. I always kind of wonder about the Buckstaff because it's strictly walk-in--no advance reservations--but I'm told that it truly provides the traditional Hot Springs experience (and that in turn evokes images of burly peasant women beating the crap out of the massage victim while reassuring him or her that being kneaded like a loaf of pumpernickel will cure whatever ails them; maybe on a return trip I'll have the courage to find out).
Another of the bathhouses, the Quapaw (the domed building in the photo above) was renovated fairly recently and offers both a thermal waters experience and a more typical modern spa experience (i.e., your choice of massages, like hot stone or Swedish, and the ever-popular "couples massage."). For a mere $18, a person can soak in a large communal pool, basically an oversized (and gorgeously tiled) hot tub filled with the mineral water from the springs, or they can spend more money and have a more private experience at the Quapaw. In addition to the bathhouses right on Bathhouse Row, several hotels have thermal baths that allow a person to indulge in the traditional soak in remarkably hot mineral water, as well as offering massages and other spa services.
I was really happy to see the Quapaw operating. Another of the bathhouses, the Ozark, has been renovated for adaptive re-use as an art museum, and a third that had been totally vacant the last time I was in Hot Springs now has a cafe and small specialized bookstore. The bathhouses are nifty structures, with each one done in a different style than the others, and a few have some really over-the-top architectural details, so I hope the park superintendent can manage to find some other suitable tenants to help with the maintenance costs for these gorgeous money pits.
In short, a great park, a fun place to visit, and definitely worth multiple return visits.