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5 1/2 hours at Hot Springs National Park was not enough for me. But such is the nature of a trip like this. It’s kind of like a giant cruise on land. Whenever we take a cruise, which we love to do, we think of our few hours in port as just a taste of a place. We know that you can’t get a real feel for any city in just the few hours that the cruise ship is moored there, but we look at it as an appetizer portion of a place that we might want to return to later for the full entrée portion. And in order to get to all the parks on our list for this trip, appetizer portions are all we can do for many of them.
|We visited our first park of the trip today! After this, Josh bought me a whiteboard to use for numbering our pictures, but this one was a last-minute thought so it's scribbled on the back of our printed directions.|
Hot Springs is the smallest national park in the whole national park system, and my priority was to visit one of the mineral baths that is still in operation to “take the waters” as they used to say. The heyday of mineral bathing was the early part of 20th century when baseball players with aches and pains and veterans recovering from war injuries would come to take advantage of the healing effects of the spring waters. Most of the guests in those days were men, so the men’s areas of the bath houses are much bigger than the women’s areas. It’s ironic that today spas are mostly used by women.
I had done some research online and learned that only two bath houses, Buckstaff and Quapaw, still operate on Bathhouse Row inside the park. Like all national park lodges and restaurants, these are not actually operated by the National Park Service; they are operated by concessionaires who basically rent the property form the NPS and then run a for-profit business. Since the Quapaw was closed on Tuesdays, I wanted to get to the Buckstaff by 1:30 for its limited afternoon hours.
The website indicated that guests had to be at least 11 years old, but when we walked up the wide stairs to the porch lined with blue Adirondack chairs for lounging and bedecked with colorful blue awnings for shade, the brochure said 10-year-olds were welcome! That meant that Knox could do it, too, (or at least that we wouldn’t have to be dishonest about Knox’s age). For $33 per person, patrons get an array of services including a 15-minute soak in a private tub filled with hot mineral waters straight from the springs bubbling forth from Hot Springs Mountain.
In my travels, I have experienced several different versions of therapeutic bathing from the onsen of Japan to the hot springs of New Zealand to the public baths of South Korea to hammams of Morocco to the après ski spas of Banff. In my head I was picturing some sort of combination of these experiences, but the Buckstaff experience was entirely different for anything I’d ever experienced. I wish that I had had a clearer picture of what was going to happen so that I could have been more prepared, but, I suppose, this just gives me even more reason to go back and do it again sometime.
|Our family trip to Banff Springs, Canada in 2006 meant skiing and a late-night hot springs soak afterward. My sister, Amanda, and niece, Elizabeth, pose with us for a picture.|
|Kinley and I enjoy a private room for our hot springs soak in Rotorua, New Zealand in 2005.|
As we waited in line to pay, it became clear that Josh was not excited about the prospect of stripping down to his birthday suit and plunking himself into a vat of hot water on a 95 degree day. In fact, he later admitted that he had a near panic attack about the whole thing. In the end, only three of us signed up for the Whirlpool Mineral Bath package which includes the 15-minute tub bath, 15-minutes of your choice of four hot or cold towels placed on body parts that you designate, a 10-minute sitz bath, 5 minutes in a steam room, and a 2-minute “needle” shower. After we paid, Knox was sent off to the right to the men’s locker room, Kinley and I were told to wait for the attendant to give us a lift to the second floor on the antique elevator, and Josh left to go take a 2:00 ranger-guided tour of the visitors’ center which is housed inside the most luxurious of the former bathhouses.
|This flier explaining the treatments was hanging in each stall of the changing rooms. Kinley later told me she didn't read it.|
You may be wondering if I was worried about sending Knox off alone, and the answer is yes. Knowing that my ten-year-old son was going to be naked and alone for the next hour or so did cause a bit of anxiety, but I was mostly worried about him hating the hot water and not being assertive enough to tell the attendant. Knox is a very sensitive kid, emotionally and physically. He has a very narrow window of air-temperature comfort (he’s usually cold and chooses to wear jeans on days that most kids his age are in shorts), he can’t STAND to have a wrinkle in his sock, and he is obsessed with scents – soaps, candles, detergents, whatever. He also doesn’t like to disappoint people, so I could envision him sitting in the hot water and being miserable but not saying a peep to anybody about his discomfort. It truly never occurred to me that he might end up loving it.
Once upstairs, an attendant showed us into a tile and marble locker room and took each of us to our own curtained stall containing two old-school-style full-length lockers. We each put all of our clothes, jewelry, and purses into a locker and put the keys around our wrists. (There are more secure lockers for valuables in the lobby, but I didn’t use them. And in the end, I was glad I hadn’t since I wouldn’t have had any money to tip my attendant if I had.) We were supposed to “poke our heads out” when we were thoroughly in the all-together, and then the attendant brought over a full-sized white sheet and gave me instructions so that she could wrap me in it, toga style.
Kinley and I were then told to have a seat to wait for the next available tub. Apparently, men almost never have to wait, but the women’s side usually has a wait. After about 5 minutes the attendant took Kinley for her soak, and I didn’t see her again for more than an hour. In the end, Knox was finished a full hour before I was, and Kinley was done 35 minutes after he was. I kind of wish I had known in advance that you can’t really expect to stay with the person you come in with.
I was eventually ushered into another tile and marble room divided into more curtained stalls, each of which held an old-fashioned tub that was clearly an original fixture. The tub was already filled to the brim with bubbling mineral water, and the attendant, Julie, helped me step out of my sheet and into the tub. The supposedly-no-more-than-100-degree water was too hot for me, so Julie pulled a GIANT plug out of the bottom and then added some cold water. She then put a board with a rolled towel behind me so that I could lean back comfortably, and left me alone.
|This is NOT a picture from the Buckstaff because pictures are not allowed inside the bathing room. I took this one in the national park visitors' center. It is very similar to the one I used at the Bucstaff.|
I made a valiant effort to stick it out for the whole 15 minutes, but I did have to add more cold water and even take a break by sitting on the side of the tub for a few seconds with my head between my knees. It was so hot that I was afraid I was going to pass out and drown without Julie ever being the wiser. I imagined the scene when she discovered my limp, naked form, bright red and lifeless, propped up in the ever-bubbling elixir. It wasn’t pretty, even in my head.
Mercifully, the clock on the wall ticked on, and Julie came to escort me out of the waters and wrap me back up. I was light-headed and wobbly, so she helped me to an adjacent room with eight or ten blue tables similar to massage tables. Other ladies were there as well, and I reclined and began to allow my body to return to its normal temperature. This was the part where I got to choose the hot or cold cloths known as hot packs or cold packs. I chose a cold one for my head and another cold one for my feet, and I’m pretty sure that in my delirium I shouted something like, “Oh, Julie! Bless you! You’re my FAVORITE!” as she placed the one on my feet. Julie placed hot ones (I suspect these were straight from the 143 degree natural spring) under my shoulders and rear end, and then placed a bolster pillow under my knees. She brought me ice water and left me there for another 15 minutes, checking on me occasionally and bringing more water to begin to replace all I’d sweated out during my soak.
Next came what ended up being my favorite part – the 10-minute sitz bath. After giving birth to Kinley, people kept telling me I needed to fill my bathtub with a couple of inches of water and then sit in it for a sitz bath. I tried it once, and it was awful. Why take a bath if only part of you is in the warm water? The rest of you is just cold! But, friends, I have seen the light. The problem is that a real sitz bath requires a special shallow tub that no one outside of a 19TH century bathhouse would have. It’s similar to a shower stall with a 6-inch-deep porcelain tub as the bottom. You back into it and sit down with your feet sticking out resting on a stool. I loved it and found the temperature of the water much more bearable when I wasn’t completely immersed in it. I was bummed when my time was up, but Julie helped me up, bustling me next into the steam room.
|Again, this wasn't taken in the Buckstaff; it was taken at the visitors' center. But this is what I would LOVE to have in my bathroom. Actually, I think every maternity ward ought to have one in every room.|
|This is how you sit in the sitz bath. You're welcome. The ones at the Buckstaff had stools for your feet and were in more of a stall for privacy.|
This was a stainless steel room, again, about the size of a shower stall with a bench inside and a Dutch door allowing you to open half the door if you’re too hot. Once seated on the bench, two stainless steel panels folded down allowing your head to stick out of the steamiest part. I was probably left in there for three or four minutes which was fine. Apparently, I let my toga sag a bit while taking the vapors, and when Julie opened the door to let me out, she got quite a shock. Bless her heart.
At this point, Julie told me that if I wanted to tip her – which, she insisted was completely optional – I needed to go back to my locker now. I had wondered during my hot pack session how I could show my appreciation for all the care and attention Julie had given me, and now was my chance. If I had known this in advance, I would have been sure to give Kinley $10 to tip hers as well, but as it was, I only had two fives total. I gave one to Julie and asked her to give the other one to Kinley’s attendant. These ladies work really hard running from client to client in a hot, steamy room all day, and they deserve a tip better than what I gave if for no other reason than that dealing with heat-crazed naked ladies should come with hazard pay. But my hope is that this post will help future patrons plan to take extra cash along.
The last step was the needle shower which was really just a lukewarm shower in a marble stall with eight shower heads. It didn’t feel anything like needles, and I would have liked the water to be cooler since I was still feeling kind of like a limp noodle. Maybe they really meant to call it a noodle shower?
|Kinley and Knox were in shower stalls that looked more like this one.|
Anyway, after that I headed back out to get dressed and meet up with the fam, thoroughly expecting Knox to give me a tongue lashing for putting him through such misery. Both kids were waiting outside in the shade with their dad since the building isn’t air-conditioned. Lo and behold, Knox had loved it. Kinley, on the other hand, was scarred for life. It seems she wasn’t quite prepared for that amount of indecent exposure and will probably hold this against me for the rest of her life. Oh well. That’s why we have therapists.
Josh was excited to take us on a tour of the beautiful visitor’s center sharing all the tidbits he’d learned from a ranger who’d lived in Hot Springs all of his life. We watched the short national park video (I think these are always worth your time if you can work them in), and then we took a short walk to Display Springs where we could see the water streaming straight out of a rock wall.
|Copper gutters, stained glass, and art pottery tiles are just a few of the original details in the most beautiful national park visitor's center I've ever visited.|
|A full view of the visitors' center|
|The preserved men's gymnasium, the assembly room, and the men's baths in the visitors' center made it easy to picture turn-of-the-century guests taking advantage of the amenities.|
|Josh stamps Kinley's national parks passport.|
|Knox and Kinley take the Junior Ranger pledge with one of the park rangers in the lobby of the visitors' center.|
One of the former bathhouses, Superior Bathhouse, is now a restaurant and craft brewery that uses the hot spring water to make its beers. They also make their own root beer, so we headed over to have a snack. We ordered the spicy pimento cheese, the giant Bavarian pretzel with three dipping sauces, and root beers all around. Everything was yummy!
After that, Josh bought empty gallon jugs (2 for $2.25) to fill with spring water from the public fountains, and we headed for the fountain in front of the administration center.
|This placard detailing the chemical analysis of the natural hot water hangs above the free public fountain where we filled our jugs and water bottles.|
Fun Fact: Hot Springs National Park is the only NPS site in the nation that allows you to take away resources. The motto, “Take only photographs; leave only footprints,” doesn’t apply here. Locals cart away hundreds of gallons per week from the various fountains scattered throughout the parks, and it’s all completely legal. The water coming out most of the fountains – even the decorative ones – is at an average temperature of 143 degrees. There are two cold fountains, but they are Ozone-treated whereas the hot fountains are straight from the ground and completely safe to drink.
|We bought two jugs to fill with the water which Knox thought was especially tasty. I liked the 143 degree temperature of the water since I like to drink mugs of warm water.|
We filled two jugs and three water bottles with the supposedly-healthy liquid and decided we didn’t have time to do any of the trails if we wanted to get to Texarkana in time for dinner. Josh had found a barbecue place called Naaman’s that was highly recommended by Texas Monthly, so off we went driving past a beautiful nearby lake and several state parks worth future explorations.
Sadly, Naaman’s had closed an hour before we arrived, so we ended up splitting some too-salty gumbo and a lackluster po’ boy at a local place near our hotel. Then we put our suitcase/overnight bag plan into play for the first time and sprawled across several parking places choosing clean clothes for the next day and swapping out dirty ones. It’s a good thing the parking lot was dark and deserted or Kinley might have been scarred by embarrassment twice in one day. But that’s what therapists are for, right?
+1 for Victorian architecture evoking turn-of-the-century gentility
+4 for cheap spa experiences
+1 for cute shops and gilded-age hotels
+2 for delicious, free water
-1 for not enough time
-1 for missing a highly-rated barbecue experience
-1 for settling for a disappointing dinner