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Hot Springs Holiday - Arkansas

The first time I "took the waters" in Hot Springs, Arkansas, my Catholic-school modesty kicked in while undressing and being wrapped in a bath sheet. I soon realized, however, that the bathhouse attendants in this spa city, many of whom make a career of carrying on a bathing tradition developed in the 1800s, have seen it all. (Still, wearing a bathing suit is an option for the most modest.)

Although therapeutic bathing was a popular health notion in the early 20th century, emerging wonder, drugs slowly but surely became the preferred method for curing our ills. It's not surprising, then, that "taking the waters" seems eccentric to Hot Springs National Park newcomers. Like its 53 counterparts, this smallest of our national parks offers scenic natural surroundings, hiking, and camping, but its reason for being are the 47 thermal springs clustered at the base of Hot Springs Mountain in the Ouachita (WASH-i-taw) Range that have fascinated humans since the earliest Native Americans peaceably shared the "Valley of the Vapors."

As the springs gained fame, Congress created the Hot Springs Reservation in 1832, the first land ever set aside to preserve a natural resource. From primitive structures to the lavish establishments built in the early 1900s, the bathhouse business flourished for more than a hundred years as a means of dispensing the sought-after waters. Today the architecturally impressive Bathhouse Row remains the central feature of Hot Springs National Park.

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