In Early September (don’t @ me about the lateness of this post, please…), some of my family – myself included – took a trip up to Arkansas to meet with some friends and spend a week exploring the area.
Now, I can hear you saying it (mostly because my coworkers said it first):
“What’s in Arkansas?”
Surprisingly, a lot. I saw a tiny glimpse of Little Rock, AR., and wasn’t mightily impressed. However, just roughly 45 minutes to the west of Little Rock is the absolute gem of a place – Hot Springs, AR.
Tiny, tucked into a petit valley, and graced with enough bathhouses to boggle your mind, Hot Springs is actually very, very, very beautiful – and! it has a surprisingly long history that wraps around quite a few well-known names (such as Mae West and Al Capone).
But we didn’t actually stay in Hot Springs, although staying at The Arlington is now on my bucket list.
Camping at Lake Ouchita State Park
Instead of staying inside Hot Springs itself, we camped for the whole week in a cute state park on the edge of Lake Ouachita (pronounced, to the extent of my knowledge, as “OH-Itch-It-Taw”).
edit: i have been corrected and informed that it is “Wash-It-Taw”. this has been a psa.
When we first traveled up to Arkansas, it was just me and Evan. We met our friends, the Hanson Family, up there and mom, dad, and Zeb met us up there later once they finished their road trip back from Washington State. The rest stayed home.
So for the first few days, it was the bunch of us kids (though, most of us were 20+), exploring the state park area as well as Hot Springs; by the time the other three made it down, we knew Hot Springs like it was our own hometown.
We got to the campground towards mid-day on Saturday, Sept. 1.
I had kinda hoped that the weather would be cooler in the Arkansas mountains than it is in Florida – but it seemed I didn’t get to be that lucky. It was still pretty warm, but the mornings were blessedly a bit cooler (I think) and the humidity was lower – but it was still pretty hot during the middle of the day.
The first evening at the campsite, we pretty much just hung around, set up camp and then cooked dinner over the campfire.
The second day was when the fun began.
We woke up and the first trial of the day begun: making coffee when no one had brought a campfire coffee pot. A watched pot never boils, but a pot over a fire never boils whether you watch it or not.
After we finally got through the first hurdle of making coffee, the majority vote was to explore a hiking trail/utility road that ran alongside our campsite. According to a map we had received from the park office, there was a ‘lookout’ spot at the end that would overlook the lake.
The trek took a lot longer than we thought, and we ended up walking upon a herd of deer before reaching the lookout spot. We also discovered how plentiful quartz is in that part of Arkansas. Pink and white quartz was just laying around on the ground and there was a little fairy ring near our campsite where another camper had (at some point) built a fairy ring of pink and white quartz around a fern plant. And everyone apparently respects fairy rings – because no one had disturbed it.
The lookout spot over the lake was absolutely beautiful (the pictures of the waterfront above were taken at that spot). Two of us stayed perched on top of this huge, massive boulder as the rest trekked down to the lake shore and explored. The wind brushed over the top of the lake and swept up the side of the lookout perch.
I wouldn’t say it was the most magical place I had ever been, but I definitely wished I had brought a book or that it was closer so I could go there later on my own to read.
After exploring the lake shore, the adventurers returned and declared that they wanted to go back to our campsite, change into swimming clothes and hike allll the way back.
Anna (one of the Hanson girls) and I weren’t too savvy on that idea (because even though I wanted to read on my boulder perch, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to sit in the bright sunlight for hours on that boulder perch. And it was really quite a walk).
So we went into Hot Springs instead.
Exploring Hot Springs
At first glance, Hot Springs looked like a crowded old town – a dime a dozen in the south.
Aside from the bathhouses, so much of it looked old and crumbling and clinging to a former glory.
Up close, however, Hot Springs, AR., turns into something magical.
Anna and I walked the streets of Hot Springs, looked in the various shops, visited the bathhouse museum in the old Fordyce Bathhouse and soaked up the history of the old town.
I’m not going to give you a history lesson, but after only a few hours exploring Hot Springs, I had fallen in love with the rich history of this aging city.
Originally built as a health resort (thus, the bathhouses built on top of the hot water springs), the city eventually became a sort of den of despicables later on; on one side of the street, the elegant hot spring bathhouses served up their ‘cure-all’ waters with an unhealthy dose of mercury poisoning, and on the other side of the street – gambling halls, brothels and saloons/bars boasted bright hangouts for gangsters.
Our tour guide to the bathhouse museum joked that one side of the street made people ill, and the other side of the street promised to cure their self-inflicted ills.
A prominent feature of Hot Springs is the incredibly beautiful aged-hotel, The Arlington – which is where Al Capone frequented. You can definitely tell that The Arlington is past its glory days – the wallpaper is peeling in corners, the decor is reflective of a past era – but it breathes a soul that has refused to die and plans to keep kicking as long and as hard as it can.
I completely fell in love with Hot Springs.
The history, the adorable shops in the downtown district, the old soul of everything – it was immensely beautiful.
During the whole week, I ended up spending more time in Hot Springs than exploring the outdoors. In and out of antique shops, ice cream from bright sweet shops, exploring the museum, I really loved downtown Hot Springs.
Hot Springs At Night
If we thought Hot Springs during the daytime was beautiful, it was nothing like Hot Springs at night.
During the day, you can’t really tell the hot spring fountains are actually hot unless you put your hand directly in them.
But at night, the temperature dropped just enough that you could see steam rising above the various pools and fountains where hot water seeped or spewed.
Everything was so well lit but dim enough to appreciate the glow of lights; horse-drawn carriages clipped down the streets that, during the daytime, had been extremely busy.
The marquee lights from the live theater and the wax museum (which was fun – but maybe not worth the $10 I paid to enter) were magical.
And Maxine’s opens at night.
Like everything else, Maxine’s has a history that is long and…not quite the cleanest. It’s a beautiful brick building, music pouring from every crack, but with the windows thick with curtains and a bright cloth banner giving it a sort of gypsy feel.
When we first passed it, we commented that it looked like a brothel, and left it at that. Later, I found a book in one of the shops that had been written by Madam Maxine herself and we realized – wow, we were right. No longer a brothel (that’s been outlawed), Maxine’s is more of a bar and hang out. Also, there are burlesque shows. While I’m not planning on attending, I find it completely interesting that Maxine’s doesn’t shy away from the history it withstood, but instead embraced and found a new way to market itself. And the building did provide a very magical, interesting feel – when I go back to Hot Springs (because I will), I wouldn’t be opposed to getting a few drinks there on a night that doesn’t have a burlesque show going on.
On the first of the nights that we walked through Hot Springs-after-dark, it rained. It wasn’t a downpour, but it was almost there. We ran from shop front to shop front in order to hide under their doorways and awnings. The street sparkled with the rainwater and caught up the shine of the street lights. Thankfully, it didn’t rain the whole time, but I don’t think any of us were actually opposed to the rain, to begin with.
Highlights of Hot Springs
I enjoyed almost everything about our trip; it was – for starters – just nice to be away from home and work and unwind a bit. But there were certain details that I enjoyed (and miss now that I’m away) more than others:
– – – The Ohio Club – – –
I don’t think the historical value of Hot Springs can truly be felt until you go into The Ohio Club. Yes, the bathhouses are amazing, and the architecture around town that breathes a certain amount of 1920-40’s charm is all wonderful. But sitting in the Ohio Club, a place that has been buzzing since 1905, was visited by Mae West and Al Capone during it’s past, survived a history as a speakeasy, a gangster hangout, a nude bar, a gay bar, and various other pasts before making it to where it is today. I loved it. I don’t think I could emphasize that enough. The live band (with the lead singer being one of the owners of the club), the packed house, the dark and gold decor, old photographs and newspaper clippings over the walls, everything was perfect. I miss it. and I miss that Arkansas Sprite I drank there. I’m ready for another.
– – – The Fordyce Bathhouse – – –
If you go to Hot Springs, do not pass up a tour of the Fordyce Bathhouse Museum. I went through the old bathhouse four times and learned something new every time. The last tour I took of it was ranger-guided (the previous three were self-guided), and while the tour only lasted a few of the rooms, it was incredibly informative, so I recommend attending an actual guided tour as well. Exploring and viewing this old bathhouse really put into perspective modern medicine, and how we perceive medical care. Some of the practices used in the Hot Springs bathhouses are obviously insane (such as bathing with mercury floating at the top of you bathwater), but makes you question how we will look back on today’s practices and which ones will future generations scoff at?
– – – The shops – – –
Naturally, the rest of Hot Springs was like any other city; you had McDonald’s and there was a Walmart and Tractor Supply store.
But downtown, there were no commercial buildings and everything was either locally owned or one-of-a-kind. There were also so many shops selling crystals and stones. If you wanted quartz, amethysts, fluorite, citrine or other various stones, all you had to do was take a short walk through the stores and you’d find them in abundance. For someone who loves stones and crystals, it was wonderful. I also found some beautiful fluorite slivers that were at least two inches and had green and purple colorings – and were only 99 cents each! That’s an absolute steal. I was blown away (and promptly bought, like, 6).
– – – Hot Springs Mountain Tower – – –
It’s not a free attraction, but it’s not expensive. If you decide to visit Hot Springs, make sure you go up the mountain and then further up the tower.
If you have a heights phobia (like me), the elevator up may be a bit concerning, since it’s partially glass. But the view at the top is amazing and, if it’s a hot day, the breeze blowing over the tops of the trees and up the tower is very refreshing. You’ll want to bring your camera, though! The view at the top was picturesque and seeing the downtown portion from above was really amazing. From the top of the tower’s observation deck, the small rises and falls of the mountains and valleys around Hot Springs look so tranquil. It makes everything seem so close and it puts the landscape into perspective. Also, the Hot Springs Mountain Tower has the best gift shop down at the bottom – so make sure to bring cash!
– – – The downtown design – – –
The old buildings, the downtown area’s old-fashioned bulb-styled street lights, the styling of everything was wonderful. In many ways, I feel like Hot Springs is past its glory days; but walking down the street, exploring the bathhouse museum, and visiting the different shops, you could clearly imagine what Hot Springs, AR., was like when the bathhouses were filled with patrons, when gangsters and baseball players frequented the bars and hotels and when all the buildings were new and fresh. There was so much beauty in the buildings, and I seriously wish they would put apartments in those otherwise deserted state treasures so that they could once again be filled – also so that I can pack my bags and move there.
So, I had fun. I want to go again. I can’t wait to return. Maybe next time I’ll be able to afford a stay in the Arlington (if someone can get in touch with them and inform them that I will gladly stay for a few days free-of-charge and write them an amazing review in exchange, that would be nice…because that’s probably the only way I could afford it…)
There is so much more that I can touch on, like the fact that there was a shop dedicated to just jerky – beef, salmon, ostrich, antelope, kangaroo – if it can be made into jerky, they probably have it. Or that there are drinking water fountains placed around town, and some are hot and some are cold, but you can fill your water bottles up there with fresh spring water – water than Native Americans and early settlers swore was healing. There is a walking path behind the bathhouses that you can easily imagine Edwardian ladies walking while on holiday in the city.
But at the risk of making this post into a full-fledged travel brochure (or…have I already reached that point?) I think I will hold off and leave some things unmentioned.