Exploring Hot Springs National Park

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
Week of December 5-11, 1996
Holing up in the Georgia hills
Exploring Hot Springs National Park
Planning adventure trips with kids
Snorkeling the Nohoch cave system
Whitewater river-running in the East

Exploring Hot Springs National Park
Question: I'd like to travel to Hot Springs National Park. Any tips about when to go, or what to do while there or in the area?

Joyce Kelly
Acton, MA
[email protected]

Adventure Adviser: The first thing to know is that this 5,000-acre swath of dogwood- and wildflower-laden woodland isn't miles from the nearest urban center, like most national parks. Considering the more than 40 mineral-rich springs that flow down from Hot Springs Mountain in Arkansas, it's no big surprise that a city sprung up in their midst, making an industry of tapping the waters' resources. Still, thanks largely to Andrew Jackson's efforts to set the spa-like springs aside as a special reservation way back in the 1830s, there's plenty of park-like feeling to Hot Springs, despite being smack dab in the middle of city of 30,000 people, about 55 miles west of Little Rock.

That said, I'll stop with the history and instead give you a quick rundown of essential Hot Springs info. First off, the park is open for hiking and soaking all year long, but it's probably best in the late fall, when the surrounding hills turn eye-popping colors, and early spring, when the first wildflowers begin to bloom. Summers can be pretty hot and sticky--weather that's not particularly conducive to lolling around in hot water. I'd recommend starting with a short hike up the Cascade Trail, at the foot of gigantic De Soto Rock and just up the block from Fordyce Bathhouse Visitor Center. Although chock-full of algae--the only plant species that can handle the heat--and surrounded by thick tufa, the Cascade will give you a good taste of what the springs are all about. From there, take the Tufa Trail, which winds behind a handful of concealed and off-limits-to-bathing pools.

By now you'll probably be craving some decent backcountry hiking, which, if you keep an open mind, is not totally out of the question in Hot Springs. To find it, head about three miles out of town on Arkansas 7 and U.S. 70b west to the Gulpha Gorge Campground, a good place to pitch your tent ($8 per night; first-come, first-served)--the only place, in fact, as backcountry camping is off-limits. From there, take your pick of either the 1.6-mile round-trip Gulpha Gorge Trail, one-mile Goat Rock Trail, or a handful of other short treks through thick redbud and dogwood cover to nearby quarries and great views of the city below. Because the water in the few uncovered hot springs in the park usually hits a scorching 147-degrees, you'll have to do your bathing in one of six bath halls in town--only one of which, the Buckstaff (501-623-2308), is on historic Bathhouse Row and still offers traditional baths. For additional information, call the park visitor center at 501-624-3383.

While you're in the area, consider a two-day canoe trip on the Buffalo River, the last of Arkansas's great rivers to remain undammed. The 30-mile stretch of river from Boxley Bridge to Pruitt Landing will take you past towering cliffs and more than 1,500 species of plants, including sweet gums, sycamores, hickories, and maples, not to mention a 175-foot waterfall at Hemmed-In Hollow, one of the highest between the Appalachians and the Rockies. Call the Buffalo National River Park Service office at 501-741-5443 for a list of canoe rental concessions on the river and a copy of the Buffalo National River Canoeing Guide ($6).

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