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Unlike the popular conception of a national park, Hot Springs National Park is an urban area, surrounding the north end of the city of Hot Springs. The town grew around the hot springs located here, which are in the Bathhouse Row area downtown. This was once the place to be if you had aches and pains and could afford to come here. It was also a training spot for several baseball teams from the 1880s through the 1940s, being visited by the Pittsburgh Pirates, Boston Red Sox, Cincinnati Reds, and the Chicago White Stockings, all of whom soaked their worn muscles in the hot water here. Some of the park's later claim to fame lies in the fact that former president Bill Clinton made this his hometown, moving here from Hope when he was in second grade, and graduating from high school here.

A little known fact about the park is that it owes its inception in many ways to President Thomas Jefferson, who sent the Dunbar-Hunter Expedition this way back in 1804, and they liked what they saw. At the requests of the territorial legislature as early as 1820, President Andrew Jackson signed a law in 1832, finally, that established the area as a federal reservation, making Hot Springs arguably the first national park, some 40 years before the official first park, Yellowstone. After the National Park Service was inaugurated in 1916, Hot Springs became the 18th member of the service in 1921.

Highlights

Top of the list of targets here is the historic Fordyce Bathhouse, also the location of the Visitor Center. Walk through the historic Bathhouse Row National Historic Landmark District, which includes the Grand Promenade and eight historic bathhouses, none of them in use as a bathhouse other than the Buckstaff. If you have time, drive the park's scenic mountain roads (Hot Springs Drive, North Mountain Drive or West Mountain Drive) or plan a picnic at one of the park's picnic areas. The park has occasional Gallery Walks, wherein you can view the work of the park's artist-in-residence, and band concerts now and then.

Activities

If you have time, take a traditional bath. The hours and rates are available at the Visitor Center. You could go hiking along the park's 26 miles of trails, too. If you want to camp, do so at Gulpha Gorge Campground. At the Visitor Center, watch a movie on the history of the park or another on what a traditional bath is like.

You can take a traditional (old-fashioned) bath at the Buckstaff Baths, a park fixture since 1912, or experience a modern spa version with co-ed pools at the Quapaw Baths. If you don't want the full treatment, you can go and soak your feet for free at the foot of the hot spring water cascade. You can also drink it freely at the Noble Fountain (1892), and fill bottles to take away if you wish. There are seven such fountains, in fact, where the park certifies the water to be safe to drink. The water is tasteless, colorless and odorless, they say.

Traditional Baths at Buckstaff

After buying your ticket ($22 and up), checking in, and putting your clothing away (and locking your valuables in a security box), you will be handed a bath sheet to wear (bathing suits are optional). You'll be guided to your private bathtub where you soak for up to 20 minutes. (Buy a loofa mitt for $4 if you wish.) You can then use a full steam cabinet for two minutes or head-out cabinet (up to five minutes), either one said to be good for lung and sinus problems, or use a Sitzbad (sitting) tub for up to ten minutes (comforting to the lower back). Then you can have hot packs put on your for up to 20 minutes, soothing for general aches and pains, and take a two-minute cool-down shower. A full-body Swedish massage (20 minutes) is optional and costs extra.

Rangers

Kids can earn a Junior Ranger badge by completing activities in the program booklet, available at the Visitor Center.

Tours

The park is probably the smallest national park by area in the USA. There are guided tours, given by volunteers, several days each week of the Fordyce Bathhouse, as well as some for Bathhouse Row itself. Another is called the Discovering the Waters Tour. For all three, check out the Visitor Center (tel. 501/620-6715) or email them through the park's website.

New in 2008

The Quapaw Bathhouse opened in 2008 as a family-style spa with pools. The park is also negotiating with the Hot Springs Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) to lease the old Ozark Bathhouse. As current rehabilitation of each bathhouse along the Row is complete, the National Park Service will lease the vacant bathhouse to qualified occupants, they say.

Visitors

The number of visitors is said to be between 1.5 and 4 million per year, but I could verify only the first number.

Fees

There's no entrance fee to this national park, though there are camping fees of $10 a night. By virtue of its location, the park is open year round, 24/7. The Visitor Center, however, is open daily 9am to 5pm except on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and January 1; on those days, it is closed.

Contacts

The official website of the park is www.nps.gov/hosp. You can also contact the park by mail at Hot Springs National Park, 101 Reserve St., Hot Springs AR 71901, or by phone at tel. 501/629-6715.

The town's website is www.hotsprings.org.

A good commercial site is www.hot.springs.national-park.com.