Hot Springs National Park is a spot that my mom had on her bucket list for a long time. She was curious to visit the spot where gangsters like Al Capone and Lucky Luciano once roamed. I think it was a bit like her fascination with old Las Vegas (and, of course, the tunnels beneath downtown Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan where bootleggers were once rumored to hide out with their wares.)
Yes, back in the 1930s (and earlier according to their website) Hot Springs was a safe, secluded spot for these and other gangsters to hang out thus turning it into “the site of the largest illegal gambling operation in the U.S,” according to the government. This all came to an end in the 1960s with the federal crackdown on these illegal activities. You can visit The Gangster Museum of America in downtown Hot Springs to see some of the gambling equipment and learn more about this period in the park’s history.
Visiting Hot Springs today and wandering through the National Park Visitor Center I felt myself being pulled back into the history of the place, imagining the rooms filled with bustling attendants and society folks there to “take the waters”. Certainly different from our last visit to Radium Hot Springs in the Rocky Mountains where children bounced inflatable balls while seniors sat near the edge reading popular novels.
I have to admit the women’s changing rooms, while larger in Arkansas, were not a lot different from those at Radium. Of course, the men’s did not boast the amazing tile work and the stained glass window in the ceiling that delights visitors in the Hot Springs NP Visitor Center.
Back in its heyday, Bathhouse Row was lined with luxurious spots designed after the finest spas in Europe for visitors that included reading rooms and beauty salons. The Fordyce even had a bowling alley! Today, folks can soak in individual tubs at the Buckstaff Bathhouse or in a pool of hot spring water at the Quapaw for a fee. We haven’t tried it out but we do enjoy soaking in the ones closer to home so it’s certainly something on my list for a future trip.
I really enjoyed my visit to Hot Springs NP. The park staff were knowledgeable and friendly and made sure to point out the things I should make sure to see. Sady, when hubby and I visited in January of this year it was during the government shut down so we weren’t able to tour the visitor center or visit the gift shop.
When visiting with children be sure to check out the Junior Ranger program. There is a booklet to complete that teaches kids about the water cycle and how the water is heated for the hot springs in this area. Once they have completed the activities they will be sworn in as a junior ranger and receive a badge. EJ has enjoyed earing these badges at several national parks and they have been a terrific way to help him learn about the places we visit.
There is a lot to see and do in Hot Springs NP and the surrounding area. We took several scenic drives during both of our visits, enjoying breathtaking views of the valley. You can also take the scenic drive or hike the 1 and 1/2 mile trail to the Hot Springs Mountain Tower that rises 216 feet from the top of the mountain (1256 feet above sea level). This provides you with an amazing view of the area as well.
For many years people have enjoyed the benefits of these hot mineral springs, including drinking the water. Today, people continue to visit the town to fill up a variety of jugs and bottles with the healing waters. I have to admit after watching a stream of visitors at the public fountain, I filled some myself. It is amazing to see the pure clean water steaming as it comes out of the faucet (the temperature varies since it comes directly out of the underground springs, some hot, some cold). Even my husband got into it during our January visit. In fact, as I am writing this he reminded me that we have only one bottle left (hmm…might be time for another road trip).
There you have it, a little taste of our visit to Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas. You could argue that it was actually the first national park created in the U.S. in 1832 by President Andrew Jackson who set aside four sections of land including the hot springs as a federal reservation forty years before Yellowstone NP. Sadly, Congress failed to pass any legislation to administer the site and folks kept moving into the area, even building on top of the springs. The area is full of history for sure, including a devastating fire that destroyed much of the downtown area in 1878 just as the government was reestablishing its ownership of the area. Many folks saw this as a blessing since most of the buildings to this point had been built in quite a rough manner.
If you are ever in the area this national park is absolutely worth the visit. A taste of what life was like back in the early part of the 20th century. I hope you’ve enjoyed learning a little bit about it.
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