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This Spa in Historic Arkansas Soaked Up My Stress

When can I go back? LOL!

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Quapaw Baths and Spa in Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas.
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As part of our goal of visiting all 63 U.S. national parks, my husband and I, along with another couple, arrived in July at Arkansas’ Hot Springs National Park, which celebrated its centennial last year. With a mix of city and forest in the downtown area, the park’s main feature is its thermal spring water, which Congress first protected in 1832.

Magnolia trees and ornate buildings line the park’s Bathhouse Row. Eight of the buildings were constructed as bathhouses, and two still function as spas. Shops, galleries, museums and restaurants sit along the main thoroughfare. Public fountains provide access to spring water to drink. The Ouachita Mountains, which frame downtown Hot Springs, offer wooded hiking trails. 

Eager to enjoy the classic Hot Springs wellness adventure, my friend Linda and I went to the Buckstaff Bathhouse, arriving around noon to secure a spot for the afternoon session (since reservations for bath services aren’t taken). Meanwhile, our husbands experienced thermal spring water via a “Beer Bath,” a sample of 18 beers ($40), at the Superior Bathhouse Brewery, a former bathhouse a few doors away.

Operating since 1912, the Buckstaff provides authentic experiences from the golden age of bathhouses, when all classes of people traveled here for the healing power of the hot spring water for help with many ailments, including chronic illnesses, arthritis and neurasthenia (similar to chronic fatigue).

The nearby springs produce 700,000 gallons a day with an average temperature of 143°F.

Having never visited a historic health spa with operating guidelines set by the National Park Service, we didn’t fully know what to expect as an antique elevator took us to the second-floor locker room. No robe or slippers were provided. Instead, like stepping back in time, an attendant wrapped a white sheet around my torso, flipping one corner over my right shoulder, another over my left.

Another attendant guided me to a private bathing area to begin my Whirlpool Mineral Bath package: mineral bath, hot packs, vapor cabinet and needle shower ($40). Naked, I climbed into a tub full of hot water, extending my feet toward a jet, and scrubbed with a loofah mitt ($4). After 20 minutes, the attendant led me, wrapped in a sheet, to another section, with side-by-side lounging tables. She placed hot towels over and under me and draped a cold towel over my head. Next, she brought me to the vapor cabinet. Marble walls encased the silver metal box. The attendant closed the cabinet door around my bare body and wrapped the sheet around my neck to trap the steam. In the tiny space, sweat gushed down my back. I felt like I was being cooked.

Four minutes later, I was relieved when it was time for the sitz bath. I sat in hot water, in a low sinklike tub, my legs hanging over the edge, my feet resting on a stool. From my location, I observed my attendant assisting three other women and cleaning the service areas, which were aged but spotless. She returned and directed me to stand and dry off with a small towel, then wrapped a fresh sheet around me.

I gulped down almost an entire pitcher of water waiting in the women’s lounge for Linda to complete the Traditional Bathing package, which included the same services as mine plus a loofah mitt and a 20-minute massage (total of $89). Other patrons commented on how relaxed and refreshed they felt. Linda emerged from the locker room, her skin glowing.

She loved her massage. I had one word for my experience: different. As a dancer for many years, I regularly undressed in front of strangers. But being naked in the public bathhouse made me self-conscious. Swimsuits are allowed, but I’d forgotten to throw mine in my purse, and disposable garments aren’t provided.

Between my spa time and some hiking, I was ready for sleep. My husband and I had booked the park’s Hotel Hale, a boutique with nine suites. The operator — who is also the mayor — showed us to our room. He made sure we knew how to access the special mineral water for drinking and soaking. In the lobby, we could purchase soaking salts ($18), bath bombs ($6-$8) and sugar scrubs ($12).

The next morning, after an early hike, we arrived at Quapaw Baths & Spa for a more upscale spa experience with the park’s special water. Our reservation was for The Sportsman package: hot stone alignment, a 50-minute deep tissue massage, steamed towels and a foot massage ($180 each), plus a Couples’ Mineral Water MicroSilk Bath ($60).

We changed into robes and slippers, then an attendant brought us to the bathing area and a private room with a modern tub full of hot water. After a 20-minute soak, we sat with chilled towels in a cooling lounge. While other patrons used the nearby thermal mineral pools ($25), we sipped cucumber-infused water, flipped through books and learned how Al Capone had loved Hot Springs.

The city has a positive, family-friendly vibe and has shifted from a health to a relaxation destination. In 2021, the area experienced a record number of visitors.

Driving home, feeling renewed and with a clearer complexion and silky skin, I began planning another visit. The park and spas are open year-round, although they’re closed for some major holidays.

Next time I visit, I hope to trade the summer heat (over 100 degrees when we visited in July) for October’s cooler temperatures and the splendor of fall foliage in Hot Springs. If you choose a winter getaway, those months can still be a temperate 50 degrees, and the bathhouse experience would be both for warming up and rejuvenation.

If you are coming from afar, fly into Bill and Hillary Clinton Airport in Little Rock, rent a car and drive the 54 miles to the spas. For our three-night weekend in Hot Springs, my husband and I spent about $2,500, including our hotel, spa services, food and gas. The visit can be done more economically by cutting out expensive spa treatments and fancy restaurants. On our next visit, we may try camping in the park! 

Any desire to visit a national park? Here's what to know about the top ones here.

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