American Adventure: Hot Springs, Arkansas

victoryLong ago, Hot Springs, Arkansas, was THE place to go for rest and relaxation. Visits to soak in the “healing” waters of the thermal hot springs were actually prescribed by doctors for athletes and injured members of the military. (That was before the rise in the use of those silly antibiotics after WWII, though.) Folks made the trip from all over the world to vacation here. Known as America’s first resort, Hollywood celebrities could be seen here and professional baseball spring training took place in Hot Springs long before it became popular in Florida and the southwest. Famous gangsters Al Capone, Owney Madden, and “Lucky” Luciano used to frequent Hot Springs. It’s said that Hot Springs was a safe haven for them, a place where they went with their families to get away from the rough-and-tumble gangster biz.

It was common knowledge locally that Hot Springs was also a haven for illegal gambling and houses of illrepute. And when the authorities cracked down and the casinos closed in 1967, the locals thought they were getting rid of the bad element. But be careful what you wish for! All that meant was that the gentlemanly gangsters were out and an uglier element moved in. The Dixie Mob came in and from 1968 to ’88, there was a lot of crime. So the bathhouses were closed and vacant, and Hot Springs stagnated.

In the late ’80s, things turned around, and the rebuilding process is still ongoing. Today there’s a thoroughly modern side of town with all the conveniences of any big city and a revitalized historic downtown district adjacent to Hot Springs National Park.

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My trip to Hot Springs actually began in Texarkana, Arkansas, where I decided to get off the highway slab and see some back roads aboard a brand-spanking-new 2011 Victory Vision. I headed north out of Texarkana on State Route 71, hugging the Oklahoma border until I entered the scenic Ouachita (pronounced Washita) National Forest. In early spring, the temps were still chilly and the trees weren’t in full bloom, but the roads were free of tourists, and I sometimes felt like I was the only one out there.

My first night in Arkansas was spent in Russellville, adjacent to Interstate 40, which is where I decided my entire Arkansas adventure would remain south of the interstate. Even though the twisty roads of Eureka Springs were beckoning for me to ride a mere 50 miles north, I didn’t feel I had to time to fit it all in. The next day, I saw on the morning news that Eureka Springs had gotten sleet overnight. Looks like my intuition was right. And besides, the friendly folks at the Arkansas Visitors Center back near Texarkana pointed out a few spots to see in the vicinity of Russellville.

My first full day of Arkansas fun started with gray skies, but I had three things to see before I headed south to Hot Springs. First stop: Petit Jean State Park. It’s not that I’m a tree hugger; it’s what’s inside the park that I wanted to see: The Museum of Automobiles. Secluded and quiet, when I arrived my Victory was the only vehicle in the visitor parking lot. While I was inside the museum, a few more guests arrived, so I didn’t get lonely. The Museum of Automobiles features a fine selection of some rare and unusual vehicles such as a pink 1937 Packard, a 1923 Climber (manufactured in Little Rock), JFK’s personal 1963 Lincoln convertible, and, my favorite, Elvis Presley’s 1967 Ford Ranchero. On display are not one, but two mid-’30s Chrysler Airflows. I had never even seen one in person until that day. A small selection of motorcycles is on hand as well: a couple of Harleys, a 1950 Indian Chief, a 1950 Cushman, and a 1969 Rockon.

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carI checked out the vintage tin, but I couldn’t dawdle, as there were two more to-dos on my list. When I exited Petit Jean Park, heading west on State Route154 toward Dardanelle, I was looking for Mt. Nebo State Park and its famed zigzags and hairpin curves which lead to the top. RoadBike contributor David Bell an Arkansas native, suggested the ride, and I’m glad I listened to him. Mount Nebo State Park is one of two Arkansas parks offering launch sites for hang gliding enthusiasts; the other is atop Arkansas’ highest mountain in Mount Magazine State Park, my next stop. On Mount Nebo there are cottages for rent, and I toured the top of the mountain from Sunrise Point to Sunset Point. Vultures, hawks, and eagles can be seen riding the thermal updrafts all day long. In the entire time I was up there watching them, I think I saw a raptor flap his wings only once. They seem to just hover and float.

After lunch, I had one more peak to climb. How could I resist the urge to see Mt. Magazine State Park, what with my occupation and all? Just a little farther west on 10, and then north on 309, I soon found the highest point in Arkansas. To see the actual highest point, the Signal Hill marker at 2,753′ above sea level, you’ll need to take a hike after parking your bike. But Magazine features a circular loop drive around the peak with beautiful views and plenty of pull-off areas. The visitor’s center is modern and contains wildlife and nature displays. You can even kick back in a rocking chair and use loaner binoculars to do some bird watching while there.

The sun was out and my list had some checkmarks, so I figured I’d better get going to Hot Springs. State Route 10 west out of the park took me south of all the stops I had just made and intersected my favorite road (thus far) in Arkansas — State Route 7, known as Scenic Seven. I meandered south through Ouachita National Forest past Lake Nimrod (yes, that’s the name). If you’re a gem collector or a rock hound, you’ll find yourself off your bike more than on. Roadside stands offer a plethora of colored specimens to pick from. And while 7 runs north and south almost from border to border, I felt I had picked the prettiest portion of it to ride. SR 7 leads straight into Hot Springs.

bath houseMy home base for the next few days was the Arlington Resort Hotel and Spa. Perhaps the most popular and famous room in the house is room 443, the Al Capone Suite. Completed in 1924, the Arlington anchors Bath House Row and is right across the street from the entrance to Hot Springs National Park. There are 47 hot springs along Bath House Row, places where the 143-degree bubbling hot water just comes up from the ground. Most have been covered to prevent contamination; you’ll see a scattering of green metal boxes, about the size of a doghouse, on the lawn and among the rocks. The water is collected, pooled, and then distributed to the various bathhouses and spas in the area. But three springs are still visible, and the steaming fountains are popular photo stops. Bathhouse row is a National Historic Landmark, and many of the Victorian bathhouses have been renovated and are used as museums, tourist centers, and, appropriately, bathhouses. By the way, if any enterprising souls are interested, three beautiful buildings along Bath House Row are still available for lease by the National Parks Service. You can’t come in here and open up a Hooters, but private sector partners are desired to occupy the spaces and run suitable, upscale businesses.bathhhh

Recently, the US Treasury Department released its latest line of commemorative quarters, and Hot Springs National Park was the first 25-cent piece released. Although Yellowstone claims to be the first national park, Hot Springs and the four square miles around it were reserved and protected 40 years before Yellowstone was officially designated a national park. In 1832, Congress set aside the natural hot springs site as a federal reservation, making Hot Springs National Park the first federally protected area in the national park system. Hot Springs officially became a national park in 1921.

My stay in Hot Springs included a visit to Quapaw Bath and Spa for dip in the pool. Proprietor Anthony Taylor showed me what he calls “the dungeon,” a basement room with jagged rock walls where a narrow tunnel leads to a spring. It was so steamy that my camera lens fogged up as soon as I removed the cap. There are three main pools at the Quapaw ranging from hot to hotter to hottest. A 15-minute soak in each, from hottest to coolest, does wonders for sore muscles after a ride. While my yearly springtime hay fever wasn’t cured, I can say my skin never felt so smooth. The Quapaw also has a menu of spa services, including massages.

The Ohio Club Bar and Grille across from Bath House Row advertises the best burger in Arkansas. I concur. Some of the other fun things to do in town include visiting McClard’s Bar-B-Q, or taking in the sport of kings at Oaklawn Horse Racing Track. Many Kentucky Derby favorites have raced at Oaklawn. I got a tour of the executive suites, and I never knew such plush seating was available at a horse race. I’m on a stadium-seating budget, I guess. For those times when the horses aren’t running, Oaklawn also entertains with gaming.

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garvan1While cruising around looking for fun roads to ride, I discovered the beautiful Garvan Woodland Gardens and its trussbeamed wedding chapel. I was just about to leave when I saw a sign pointing toward a koi pond. Off with the riding gear! I had to see this. It’s a hike, but worth the visit. Hundreds of huge koi fish inhabit the pond. I rode west out of town on State Route 270 and found Mountain Harbor Resort. What started as a family-owned fishing boat rental business has blossomed onto a massive resort and camping facility located on the shores of Lake Ouachita. I was supposed to take a houseboat ride, but someone mentioned a military vehicle museum. Say what? Where? Here? I was there. The Montgomery County Military Museum is owned by Bill Barnes of Mountain Harbor Resort and is available for viewing by appointment only, so you know it won’t be crowded. I didn’t regret missing the houseboat ride.

A ride around the Lake Ouachita north on State Route 27 will take you back to Scenic Seven, or you can cut across on either State Route 298 or State Route 314. I did the loop a couple times just to take in 7 over and over. My visit to Hot Springs was over way too soon, and I rode southbound when it came time to depart. And while 7 south to the Louisiana border claims to have some scenic riding, it’ll have to wait for my next visit.

The healthful benefits of hot water are widely recognized, and many consider the hot springs therapeutic. While the water cannot actually cure you of disease and ailments, some folks still believe it, and you can count me as one. RB

Story and Photos by Steve Lita

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