An Edwardian Fall in Hot Springs, Arkansas

Go back to the Edwardian period in Hot Springs, Arkansas. I lament that bathing is not as fashionable as it used to be in both the US and UK. We go to any hot springs we can, but there’s not as many open today. Arkansas is often looked over but give it a second glance. It’s natural beauty and history might win you over. Take a nostalgic day trip or weekend away in a place that is all deteriorated decadence. See the echoes of the Edwardians, the gangsters, and a wilder time.

There’s no denying Hot Springs is past its heyday as a hub for the rich and famous. But if you see through a slightly grungy veneer you’ll be sent back in time. Sulfury water has attracted people for thousands of years. (I know I love that eggy smelling water in Iceland.) I’ll explore Hot Springs history, what Baths to see, and some offbeat attractions nearby.

Hot Springs Rehabilitation Center
Towering Hot Springs Rehabilitation Center

Bathhouse Row History

For thousands of years Native American tribes, like the Caddo and Quapaw, have visited the 143° waters of Hot Springs. In 1803 the US bought the land from the French. And in 1832 Congress established the Hot Springs Reservation. Soon “The American Spa” came into being.

We stayed a bit north of Hot Springs at an Airbnb hosted by a couple that had lived in the area for decades. We ached to get away from cities, but there are many hotel options on Bathhouse Row. Ideally stay in one that uses the spring water. You can even stay in the Al Capone suite at the Arlington Resort Hotel and Spa.

Mobsters like Capone ran Hot Springs in the 1920s and 40s. Illegal gambling and gunfights ran rampant throughout this era. If you want to learn more there’s a museum. There’s also a rich baseball history in Hot Springs. Players like Babe Ruth visited and trained here off-season.

Al Capone
Al Capone in Hot Springs, “Arkansaw”

Today, the Grand Promenade today hosts eight bathhouses built from 1892 – 1923.

Bathhouse Row
A view down Bathhouse Row
Most of these have been converted for uses when they shut down (mainly in the 1970s). Conversions include a National Park Store, a Cultural Centre with some excellent local art, and even a local brewery.
Ozark Bath
Ozark Bath, now the Cultural Center

Take a Tour in Fordyce Bathhouse

You may be wondering what the heck, are there any bathhouses in service?

There are two you can go to today, which I’ll mention later, but they’re modernized. But National Park Service took great care restoring Fordyce Bathhouse to its old glory. Step into the grandeur of bathing luxury of a long-gone era.

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The Renaissance Revival bathhouse now hosts the visitor center. But go behind the counter to get a glimpse of the bathhouse and how it ran. The layout isn’t the clearest at the entrance, so don’t hesitate to ask a ranger if you need to find the start of the tour.

Stained Glass ceiling in Hot Springs
Stunning stained glass ceiling, today

If you see this beauty on the ceiling, you’re in the right place.

Ladies and gentlemen would take baths in tubs like these. An attendant would be nearby assisting with any need.

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Sunrooms allowed visitors to lounge some more after their day bathing. These often were split by gender. But some shenanigans still occurred – ask a ranger.

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Guests also visited electrotherapy rooms, a gymnasium, and a bowling alley. Sheer decadence.

It’s easy to get caught up in thinking of all the luxury, but that’s not to say the past history wasn’t problematic.

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Bathing at Quapaw and Buckstaff

Quapaw Bathhouse was built in 1922 in a Spanish Colonial Revival style and named after one of the tribes that used to visit the waters. It closed in 1968 but reopened in 2008 as a family-friendly spa.

Quapaw Baths
Quapaw Baths, Library of Congress

Don’t be a silly sod like us and not book ahead! We had to meander around town a few hours as our name slowly inched up the list. Visit the communal mineral pools or indulge in a steam cave experience.

Buckstaff Baths
Buckstaff Baths, Library of Congress

Buckstaff Bathhouse also hosts many spa services in a more traditional manner. You relax in your own bath and go through the spa process. We weren’t able to get an appointment, but Rick Kilby of Old Florida has put together a great article about his experience.

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The bulk of what you want to see in Hot Springs is in or near Bathhouse Row. Even with a spa day, it’s only enough to fill a weekend. If you’re relaxing, you’ve found a great spot. If you want to do more then there are a few spectacular things nearby.

Near Hot Springs, Arkansas

Anthony Chapel

The Anthony Chapel is a fantastic mix of indoor and outdoor. Located in Garvan Woodland Gardens in Ouachita.

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Floor to ceiling glass walls, tons of skylights. Towering pines feel like they’re on the inside. All I’m saying is there are worse places to get left at the altar.

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If you can, go in autumn. The gorgeous changing leaves and early morning mist are beautiful.

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Digging Up Diamonds at Crater of Diamond State Park

Want to find a diamond? Crater of Diamond State Park is the only diamond searching site open to the public. And if you find a diamond, it’s yours. And this state park is only a bit over an hour away.

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Acres and acres! 37 to scour over. You can rent gear like a bucket or box screen, or bring your own.

Wear some boots or sturdy footwear – it’s muddy!

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We didn’t find any diamonds, just some quarts, but we could see tiny little glints of something in the sun. Either way, it was a good excuse to play in the mud. Who knows, you could find the next big diamond!

Here are some tips from a geologist I know.

  • Go near sunrise or sunset – you’ll see shadow and light better.
  • Search near the outpost building.
  • If possible, go after it has rained.

Happy hunting!

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Painting of my husband based on the bright fall

Where to next? Little Rock, Eureka Springs, and the Ozarks are within a few hours drive. There’s a lot to see nearby, it may take a little digging, so to speak. Us Southerners aren’t especially great at showing off our tourism aspects.

Now, if anyone can get me a mud bath and a cup of Earl Grey, that’d be wonderful.