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Geological Wonder at Center of Hot Springs National Park

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A fountain at Hot Springs Nat'l Park
A fountain at Hot Springs Nat'l Park
    Spring near Bath House Row in Hot Springs
Spring near Bath House Row in Hot Springs
Hot Springs
Hot Springs
    Bathhouse Row, Hot Springs National Park
Bathhouse Row, Hot Springs National Park
Hot Springs National Park
Hot Springs National Park
March 5, 2002

Geological Wonder at Center
of Hot Springs National Park

By Jim Taylor, travel writer
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

HOT SPRINGS -- In a narrow, misty valley of the Ouachita Mountains, William Dunbar and George Hunter found in December 1804 steaming waters issuing from a lush hillside adorned with 10-to-40 feet thick mineral deposits resembling the flowstones and stalagmites found in limestone caves. In places, iron oxide had stained the fantastic formations shades of red and orange.

Dunbar, a planter and naturalist from Natchez, Mississippi, and Hunter, a Philadelphia chemist, had been commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson to lead a fact-finding expedition to the legendary "Hot Springs of the Washita" after the land that is now Arkansas came under U.S. ownership as part of the vast 1803 Louisiana Purchase.

The two explorers were hardly the first to visit the site. Archeological evidence indicates Native Americans frequented the springs for perhaps as many as 10,000 years, and Dunbar and Hunter found an abandoned cabin nearby.

Conducting scientific studies for three weeks, Dunbar and Hunter learned, among other things, the temperature of the various thermal springs ranged from 132 to 150 degrees Fahrenheit. Publishing such findings in leading periodicals, the pair made famous a geological wonder rare in mid-America.

By 1828, a simple hotel was accommodating visitors and crude structures had been built over some of the springs to shelter bathers. In 1832, Congress declared the area a federal reservation in an effort to protect the resource, though there was no direct U.S. supervision of the site until 1877.

In 1921, the reservation was renamed Hot Springs National Park, the 18th site to receive such a designation. Among America's national parks, however, Hot Springs was the earliest site set aside for federal protection.

Its location in the heart of an urban area also makes the Hot Springs park unique. The west slope of Hot Springs Mountain, where the springs are, now serves as a backdrop for the park's centerpiece, Bathhouse Row. The line of seven architecturally stylish buildings, dating from 1911 to 1939, stands along Central Avenue, the main thoroughfare of downtown Hot Springs. Their presence silently testifies of the city's glory days as America's foremost spa.

The Fordyce Bathhouse, completed in 1915 in the Spanish Renaissance Revival style, serves as the park's visitors center, where a 17-minute, orientation film, "Valley of the Vapors," details the history of the springs, the city and the era of medicinal bathing.

Self-guided tours of the building allow visitors to see first-hand the opulence associated with the bathing industry. The men's bath hall contains an 8,000-piece stained glass ceiling and bronze fountain statuary depicting the Spanish explorer Hernando DeSoto and a Caddo Indian maiden. The lavishly decorated assembly room also features a stained glass ceiling.

The Fordyce's history mirrored the fate of medicinal bathing, which reached its height of popularity in the mid-1940s. The development of modern medicines sent the industry into decline, and by 1962 the Fordyce had closed its doors. After being acquired by the National Park Service and renovated, it reopened as the visitors center in 1989.

Despite the passing of their heyday, Hot Springs' thermal baths still have many adherents. Visitors and residents alike continue to attest to the physically and mentally relaxing experience the waters provide.

Forty-five of the 47 thermal springs have been capped. Their water -- an average of 850,000 gallons daily -- is collected in a complex plumbing system and delivered to six nearby locations that currently offer thermal baths to the general public. The only remaining operational bathhouse on the row is the Buckstaff, which began operations in 1912.

Though the spring-created formations seen by Dunbar and Hunter are gone, an open display spring located north of Bathhouse Row still amazes onlookers as the naturally heated waters cascade their steamy way down the lower slopes of Hot Springs Mountain.

Atop the mountain, a 216-foot observation tower allows visitors a birds-eye view of Hot Springs and the zigzag range of the Ouachitas, which began, geologists assert, as materials settling to an ocean floor. The sediments became so thick (estimates exceed nine miles) that they were converted by the pressure of their own weight and the sea to various types of rock such as novaculite, chert and sandstone.

Then, beginning around 300 million years ago, the rocks were squeezed northwards and their strata folded upwards by the collision of two prehistoric continents. By 286 million years ago, the Ouachitas were above sea level. Since emerging from the ocean, weathering and erosion have been disassembling the mountains, robbing them of thousands of feet of elevation. The ancient Ouachitas appear today as the Rocky Mountains will likely look in 300 million years.

The Ouachitas' orogeny -- the mountain-building process -- puts into place the complex natural plumbing that created the hot springs. According to the predominant geological theory, the continental collision raised vertically the joints of porous types of rock, allowing rainfall to seep deep within the earth where it is heated by surrounding rock. The water then finds it way to joints and fractures in the sandstone, of which Hot Springs Mountain is largely comprised, and travels so rapidly to the surface that it doesn't have time to cool completely. Modern dating methods indicate the process takes a while. It's estimated water flowing from the springs fell as rain some 4,000 years previously.

The Balanced Rock area on the park's Sunset Trail provides a close up look at vertical joints in novaculite, which was quarried in the vicinity by Native Americans for use in making tools.

Much of the park's approximately 5,500 acres is preserved in its natural state to protect the springs' recharge area. Some 30 miles of trails give hikers a chance to explore forested ridges and mountainsides typical of the Ouachitas. In spring, blooming trees, such as dogwoods and redbuds, and wildflowers, including fire pinks and wild hyacinths, add color to the routes. Autumn foliage and the myriad of spring greens yield picturesque vistas from scenic overlooks on trails and the park's mountain roads.

The half-mile, brick-paved Grand Promenade, a National Recreation Trail running behind Bathhouse Row, provides occasional glimpses of the city's Central Avenue on one side and of natural features of Hot Springs Mountain on the other. Picnic tables are situated along its broad path.

Located along Gulpha Creek, the park's campground of 43 tent and trailer sites has no water or electrical hook-ups and no showers, but water and restrooms are provided. The sites are operated on a non-reservable, self-registration basis. (Fully-equipped campgrounds can be found at Lake Catherine State Park, about eight miles from Hot Springs, and Lake Ouachita State Park, about 15 miles from the city.)

For more information on Hot Springs National Park, phone (501) 624-2701 or visit the park web site at


Travel Tips

To reach Bathhouse Row and the Fordyce Bathhouse visitors center, follow the brown directional signs to the park along U.S. 70 and 270 and along Ark. 7. Request a copy of the park brochure. It contains a map of park features, including trails.

A park concessionaire operates the Hot Springs Mountain Tower. Phone (501) 623-6035 for hours and fees. The tower is accessible to persons with physical handicaps.

Hot Springs, the top tourist destination in Arkansas, offers visitors live and simulcast thoroughbred racing at Oaklawn Park; Magic Springs/Crystal Falls theme and water parks and many other family attractions; a thriving arts community with world-class galleries; and festivals throughout the year. Log on to for thorough information, including hotels and other locations providing thermal baths, or phone toll-free 1-800-SPA CITY to request a free Hot Springs Vacation Planning Kit.


Submitted by the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism
One Capitol Mall, Little Rock, AR 72201, (501) 682-7606

May be used without permission. Credit line is appreciated:
"Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism"

1 Capitol Mall, 4A-900 - Little Rock, Arkansas 72201 | 1-800-872-1259 or (501) 682-7777 (V/TT)
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