Thermal Station

July 14, 2004
Filed under Destinations

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Travelers are sometimes concerned about the quality of the water at new destinations, but
there is one place that drinking the water is not only recommended, but also encouraged –
Hot Springs, Arkansas. The water of the thermal springs at the national park is certified
safe to drink, and it is the main reason for the large number of visitors to the city’s
spas along Bathhouse Row during all seasons of the year. Water of many varieties, however,
seems to be a popular theme all around Hot Springs. The numerous lakes of the Ouachita
River provide boaters and fishermen with plenty of opportunities to enjoy their sports.
Hiking the mountain trails of the Ouachita National Forest gives outdoorspeople another
avenue for recreation. For a break from the outdoors or from relaxing at the spas, shoppers
will find local artisans eager to show and demonstrate their crafts. From late January to
late April, live horse racing takes place at Oaklawn Park, a top thoroughbred racetrack.
With all the activities that are available in the Hot Springs area, it is no wonder that
it’s a popular destination for vacations or weekend retreats. One of the popular sayings
during the Golden Era of Bathing at Hot Springs National Park (from about 1880 to 1950) was
“quaff the elixir,” which means “drink the spring water.” Water from the hot springs is the
national park’s primary resource. Congress first protected that resource in 1832, and the
representatives intended for it to be used. Today thousands of visitors highly endorse the
good quality of the water from the hot springs. Stations have even been set up along the
main streets of Hot Springs for visitors to bring containers to fill with the continuously
flowing water from the springs in the surrounding mountains. The national park does not
claim the water from the hot springs is curative, but it has certified that it is safe to
drink. The water is tested regularly at various sampling points. Visitors will notice that
jugs are for sale in various stores in Hot Springs, so one could not be more encouraged to
drink the water. It is provided free of charge at several locations and jugs are readily
available. Of course, we wouldn’t recommend drinking the water where people have been
swimming, so be sure to utilize these stations. Bathhouse Row is a series of renovated
bathhouses along Central Avenue — the main street of downtown Hot Springs. The only spa
along the historic Bathhouse Row that accepts guests currently is the Buckstaff Bathhouse.
There are many other locations at which visitors can have thermal baths and receive the
full spa treatment of whirlpool baths and body massages in steamy water. Historic resort
hotels, such as the Arlington and Majestic, still offer spa treatments in their facilities.
The Louisiana Purchase was completed in 1803. The Hot Springs area was a part of that. The
bicentennial celebration of the actual purchase from France was in 2003, but 2004 marks the
200th anniversary of the exploration of this part of the purchase by a little-known
expedition sent by President Thomas Jefferson. President Jefferson wanted to know more
about the newly acquired land, particularly about the Red and Arkansas rivers, both
southern tributaries of the Mississippi. He asked William Dunbar of Natchez, Mississippi,
to lead an expedition to explore the Red River along the southwestern border of the
territory. At that time there was unrest among the Spanish and the Indians, and Dunbar
asked to explore the “hot springs of the Washita” instead. President Jefferson sent Dr.
George Hunter, a Philadelphia chemist, along to assist. Their reports to the president were
highly publicized and, before long, many people were traveling to the hot springs to soak
in the waters. The idea of reserving the springs was a new one to the government, but in
1832 the first U.S. reservation to protect a natural resource was established. The first
bathhouses were crude ones, built on the same location as the current Bathhouse Row. In
1921, the Hot Springs Reservation was named as the 18th national park, the first to be
contained within a city limit. The Fordyce Bathhouse, which serves as the national park’s
visitor center, is a restored bathhouse in the center of Bathhouse Row. There are tours
through the bathhouse that elaborate on all the “modern” conveniences offered during the
heyday of the “Golden Age of Bathing in Hot Springs” of the late 1800s and early 1900s. The
Hot Springs area is situated in a valley surrounded by the Zig Zag Mountains on the eastern
edge of the Ouachita Range. The Ouachita River runs through the mountains, and dams form
three lakes for water-recreation opportunities in the Hot Springs area: Lake Ouachita, Lake
Hamilton and Lake Catherine. Lake Ouachita is the westernmost, the largest and the
least-developed lake. It’s the largest man-made lake in the state, and is also one of the
state’s top bass-fishing lakes. Surrounded by the Ouachita National Forest, Lake Ouachita
is a popular spot for water sports and camping. Recreation areas include Lake Ouachita
State Park and many Corps of Engineers and commercial facilities offering lodging,
restaurants, and marinas. Lake Hamilton is just south of the city of Hot Springs and is the
most developed lake of the three. Recreational boating is very popular on Hamilton.
Numerous campgrounds and marinas offer recreational boaters and outdoors people many
opportunities to enjoy water sports. Fishing is very popular — large-mouth and striped
bass, catfish, trout, bream and crappie are the favored species. Water skiing and tubing,
along with cruising around, seem to be popular water-related activities as well. The Belle
of Hot Springs riverboat offers cruises on Lake Hamilton. From dinner, dancing, sightseeing
and luncheon cruises, visitors can enjoy Lake Hamilton from the deck of a riverboat while
taking advantage of someone else doing the driving. Lake Catherine is the third lake in the
Hot Springs vicinity and offers a campground, marina and boat docks. It is surrounded by a
2,180-acre state park that features miles of winding nature trails. The Ouachita Mountains
offer many state parks and abundant hiking trails for visitors wanting to experience the
outdoors firsthand. Lake Ouachita State Park and Hickory Nut Mountain on Lake Ouachita and
the aforementioned Lake Catherine State Park have hiking trails. Many other forest-service
areas offer hiking and other opportunities in the Ouachita National Forest around Hot
Springs. The mountains immediately around Hot Springs also offer hiking trails with good
views of the surrounding area. There are also scenic driving routes above Hot Springs on
Hot Springs Mountain and North Mountain. Several short trails lead from the Grand
Promenade, a paved walkway above the national-park visitor center. At the top of Hot
Springs Mountain is the Mountain Tower, a 216-foot structure that opened in 1983, which
affords a breathtaking panorama of Hot Springs, the Ouachita Mountains and the surrounding
Diamond Lakes area. The trail to the peak of Hot Springs Mountain is 0.6 miles and starts
at the Grand Promenade. The Hot Springs Mountain Trail is the longest of the trails above
Hot Springs, at 1.7 miles long. Oaklawn Park is a thoroughbred horse-racing track that has
live racing during the season, which runs from late January to late April. During the rest
of the year, simulcasts of other racing events are broadcast. Along Central Avenue in
downtown Hot Springs, there are plenty of shops for arts and crafts from local merchants
and artisans. Art galleries present original art works by acclaimed artists, including the
Hot Springs community of highly respected sculptors and painters. Antique shops feature
one-of-a-kind collectibles. Boutiques, specialty shops, rock shops, gift shops and modern
malls complete the collection of shopping destinations. Sampling the cuisine from the large
variety of restaurants would fill several days. Dining in one of the many charming
restaurants inside Victorian buildings in the Historic Downtown District, you can enjoy
more than good food — you’ll be treated to intriguing glimpses into the city’s colorful
past. Besides downtown dining, there are also restaurants on Lake Hamilton. For a
water-oriented destination, whether in the form of a thermal spa along Bathhouse Row or the
kind of water you can boat on or fish in at Lake Hamilton, be sure to “quaff the elixir” in
Hot Springs, Arkansas.

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