This Arkansas National Park Was America's Original Spa Town — and You Can Visit Its Century-old Bathhouses Today

Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas has more than beautiful hiking trails and views — it's also home to historic bathhouses with thermal mineral waters.

When I scheduled a trip to Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas, I expected gorgeous scenery. I even anticipated learning a bit about the history, since Al Capone was known to spend a considerable amount of time in the area. What I didn't expect, however, was to sweat it out in a century-old metal box while naked.

Hot Springs National Park
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Hot Springs isn't your typical national park. It started in 1832 — 40 years before the National Park System even existed — when President Andrew Jackson set aside 5,500 acres to establish the country's first national reserve. It was a beautiful area, dense with forests, wildlife, and panoramic views of the Ouachita Mountains, but that isn't why Jackson felt compelled to protect it. Hot Springs wasn't just scenic; the thermal mineral waters bubbling from the Earth were believed to have healing properties.

A Hot Springs in Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas
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A Park Built on Wellness

By the time Hot Springs entered the newly established National Park System in 1921, the hydrotherapy movement was in full swing, and a small city of grand hotels and bathing facilities had sprung to life amid the trees. Major League Baseball held spring training in Hot Springs, so players like Babe Ruth could heal injuries in the waters. Gangsters such as Al Capone came regularly, too, to treat syphilis in prescribed mineral bath rituals. Illegal horse racing, gambling operations, and brothels were rampant in Hot Springs, so organized crime figures, including Capone, felt right at home. (Eventually, so many of them frequented town that they agreed to call a truce while in the area.)

Despite the obvious capitalism flourishing in Hot Springs, the government nevertheless held firm to the idea that the thermal mineral waters were a public resource. Facilities like the Army-Navy Hospital and Government Free Bathhouse were established so that everyone could access the baths, regardless of their ability to pay.

A view down Central Avenue also called Bathhouse Row in the Hot Springs National Park. Images

Above Bathhouse Row, a brick-paved walkway called the Grand Promenade was constructed so that patients could continue their healing through exposure to nature and fresh air. As further proof of the government's commitment to health and wellness, the Oertel System of Graduated Exercise was built to promote heart health, with a series of trails that became more strenuous as patients recovered. The park was gorgeous, but it served a purpose.

Hot Springs National Park Today

I arrived in Hot Springs on a chilly day. Downtown at Arlington Lawn, puffs of steam rose like tiny clouds from a thermal spring cascading into a small stone pool. The water bubbles from the ground at a scalding 143 degrees, but by the time it tumbles into the pool, it has cooled just enough to touch. In the thermal springs I've visited in other areas of the country, the water smells like sulfur, but that wasn't the case here — it's clean, clear, odorless, and potable. People drive from all over to fill bottles and jugs from the historic fountains on Bathhouse Row, which cool it to a safe, drinkable temperature. I didn't have a bottle with me, so I cupped my hands under a spigot to take a sip. It was delicious.

Historic Hot Springs looks like it's been frozen in time, with buildings dating back as far as the late 1800s. At the The Gangster Museum of America, I learned you can still rent Al Capone's favorite suite — 406 — in the enormous Spanish Revival-style Arlington Resort Hotel & Spa, or listen to live jazz at his favorite bar, The Ohio Club. Perhaps most importantly, you can stroll across the Grand Promenade, hike the Oertel Trail, and visit eight bathhouses on Bathhouse Row built between 1892 and 1923.

Exterior of Fordyce Bathhouse and the needle shower and sitz bat inside in Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas
Courtesy of Tamara Gane

I started with a group tour of Fordyce Bathhouse with national park ranger Cane West. The building has been completely restored and serves as the park's visitor center. Originally opened in 1915, the stained-glass ceilings, marble walls, bronze statues, and elaborate carvings signaled how luxurious some of these bathhouse experiences were, but West was quick to point out that despite the lavish surroundings, people flocked to Hot Springs for medicinal treatments prescribed by doctors. To demonstrate, he walked us through the devices used for the treatments — a stark contrast to the elaborate bathhouse decor.

He explained that the row of large, silver boxes were not torture chambers, but rather vapor cabinets, which were essentially early versions of saunas. People sat in them to steam their bodies while their heads poked through a hole on top. There were also large porcelain soaking tubs and shallow sitz baths that resembled modern bidets a bit. There was even a gym for building strength, and a needle shower, which involved multiple streams of water to stimulate internal organs.

The gym inside Fordyce Bathhouse in Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas
Courtesy of Tamara Gane

After my tour, I walked over to Superior Bathhouse Brewery, which, according to its website, is the only one in the world to make beer from thermal mineral water. The beer was exquisite, and since it was full of minerals, I ordered a second.

Taking in the Waters

I stayed at the Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort, and although I was tempted by the luxurious, modern spa, I wanted to partake in a traditional bathhouse experience. After my tour of Fordyce Bathhouse, I was curious about what it felt like for women to use that equipment a century ago, so I made an appointment with Buckstaff Bathhouse, which has been in operation since 1912. After checking in downstairs, I was taken up to the changing room by an operator in an antique elevator.

Exterior of Buckstaffs Bath in Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas
Courtesy of Tamara Gane

Although I'd been told it was perfectly OK to wear my bathing suit, I decided to forgo it in order to get as close to the original experience as I could. When I finished undressing, a woman came and wrapped me in a sheet. Next, I was introduced to my bath attendant, Latoya, whose voice was so soothing and warm that any apprehension I felt about being seen naked by a stranger melted away.

Latoya led me to an old-fashioned porcelain tub full of whirlpool thermal mineral water. The tub, she said, had been there since the bathhouse was established in the early 1900s. She held my sheet and gently assisted me into the water. Normally, she said, at this point, she would scrub my arms and back with a loofa, but they weren't doing that at the moment due to the pandemic. When Latoya pulled the curtain and left me alone, I closed my eyes and let the tension in my body slip into the water. As someone whose mind is rarely still, in that moment, I thought of nothing but bubbles and warmth.

When Latoya returned, she wrapped me in my sheet again and led me to a bench. She put a hot towel across my face and another across my shoulders. The towels were as warm and relaxing as Latoya herself, and I was so comfortable under their weight that I found myself hoping she'd forget to bring me to the next bathing station. Alas, she's a professional who does not forget her charges, and after a few minutes, she led me to the back of the room. Here, I slowed down. We were heading toward a large, silver box I recognized as a vapor cabinet after yesterday's tour.

The vapor cabinet did not look inviting. While the tub was round and welcoming, this had sharp corners and leering metal. Latoya sensed my hesitation and told me I didn't have to sit inside, but she thought I'd enjoy it if I did. She was right. The steam worked its way into my pores, while the hole in the top allowed me to angle my head in and out of the heat below, which kept me from becoming too hot or uncomfortable. Afterward, I talked to another bather in the lobby who told me she wished all saunas had that feature.

A row of vapor cabinets at Fordyce Bathhouse in Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas
Courtesy of Tamara Gane

After the vapor cabinet, Latoya led me to the sitz bath. This wasn't made of porcelain, like the unit I'd seen the previous day. Instead, it seemed like a miniature version of the vapor cabinet. At this point, I was no longer intimidated by shiny square devices, so I sat inside with my head and upper torso exposed as my lower body soaked in the hot water.

Normally, this part of the experience ends with a needle shower similar to the one I'd seen at Fordyce Bathhouse, but Latoya told me it wasn't in service that day. I wasn't disappointed, since it meant I could head right into the capstone of my bathhouse experience: a 20-minute massage.

I said goodbye to Latoya and was introduced to Lena, my masseuse. I love massages, but as much as I was looking forward to it, I was a bit dubious she'd be able to cover much ground in 20 minutes. Lena, however, was able to work my front and back muscles, finishing with a tapotement technique, similar to a firm karate chop on the body.

I left Buckstaff Bathhouse feeling simultaneously relaxed and invigorated. This in itself was a kind of healing. Now, I understand why people have been coming here for more than a century.

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