This article appeared in the May 2000 issue of American Motorcyclist.
By Kim Barlag
Vacation spots come and go. What’s hot right now may not be in a matter of months.
But that’s not the case with Hot Springs, Ark. They say people have been coming here to relax and renew themselves for nearly 10,000 years. That’s not just older than the motorcycle, it’s older than the wheel.
Photo courtesy National Park Service
I figured anything with that kind of a track record as a vacation destination has to have something pretty special going for it. So I pack up the Kawasaki and, like generations of Americans and native Americans before me, head to Hot Springs.
Eventually, I pull up in front of the Hot Springs’ Convention and Visitors Bureau, where I find a fountain of cool spring water pouring out in a pool. I cup my hands and take several refreshing drinks.
Hot Springs is both a city and a national park: the only such combination in the country. It was designated as the Hot Springs Reservation in 1832 to protect this unique area where 47 thermal vents gush mineral water at an average temperature of 143 degrees.
Imagine the delight of ancient people to stumble across nature’s own water heater. Is it any wonder that this area was considered neutral ground even among the Indian tribes of the region? According to reports, they came here to hunt, trade and bathe in peace.
But the boom for Hot Springs really hit in the late 19th century. By that time, it wasn’t just the heat, but the minerals the water picks up as it percolates deep underground, that were said to provide a cure for such infirmities as rheumatism.
By the early 20th century, elegant bathhouses crowded along Hot Springs’ Central Avenue, which parallels a line of hot-water vents. Nearby, large hotels were built to serve the thousands of people attracted by Hot Springs’ healing waters.
The people at the visitors bureau directed me to one of these impressive old inns, the Arlington Resort Hotel & Spa. This 484-room grand old Southern hotel, built in 1875, is within easy walking distance of the Bath House Row historic district. In its heyday, the Arlington’s guests included Theodore Roosevelt, Babe Ruth, Andrew Carnegie, F.W. Woolworth, Al Capone and Will Rogers.
Who was I to argue with a lineup like that? I check in and follow the signs to the hotel’s own pools and mineral hot tubs.
As I settle into the soothing water, I decide that maybe the people who came here in times past were on to something. A soak in a hot mineral bath seems to have the same ability to ease the strains of a few hundred miles on a motorcycle as it did to soothe the aches of a day spent hunting and gathering.
I could get used to this.
The next morning, I take a stroll down Bath House Row. The national park has its headquarters in the old Fordyce bath house, and it offers exhibits on the Hot Springs’ era as “the American Spa.”
If you really want to get the full treatment, the Buckstaff bath house has been reopened for thermal bathing and massages. You can also stroll along the Grand Promenade, a landscaped walkway behind Bath House Row that takes you along the actual springs.
Rejuvenated by my spa experience, I’m ready to do some more riding. I aim the Kawasaki north and pick up state Route 7, a National Scenic Byway often mentioned as one of the most beautiful roads in middle America.
The road does have some major-league curves as it winds north through the Blue Ouachita Mountains and into the Ozarks. For most of the way, you snake through the trees at lower elevations. But from time to time, you climb to the tops of ridges, where you’ll find vistas overlooking miles of deep-green forests, accented by a couple of sparkling lakes.
Along the way, I find some interesting roadside attractions, like Booger Hollow, a town where the sign says it all: “Population 7, Countin’ 1 Coon Dog.”
At Harrison, I turned off 7 and picked up U.S. Route 62 toward Eureka Springs, in the far northwest corner of Arkansas. Now home to eccentrics, artists and vacationers, Eureka Springs has its own history in healing waters.
Legend says the springs here, like those in Hot Springs, had been used by native people for thousands of years. But in the 1860s, a physician claimed that bathing in and drinking the water cured his son’s eye ailment.
This entrepreneurial doctor began selling the “magic” water and inviting others to the springs to be cured. As in Hot Springs, elegant hotels sprang up to accommodate wealthy visitors.
Many of these inns have been restored to their former glory. As a result, there’s a wide range of interesting places to stay in Eureka Springs.
In the historic downtown area, I pass the Palace Hotel & Bath House, which was also the town’s brothel many decades ago, and the Flatiron Building, a wedge-shaped structure that is one of the most photographed buildings in Arkansas.
Riding the tight, steep hills of the historic district was fun, but it was nothing compared to the scenic, open countryside just outside of town.
Leading the way down Kings Highway and north on U.S. 62 just east of town, I peel off on state Route 187 and stopped short of the Beaver Dam and Beaver Lake.
Then I ride to a ridge where state Route 187 reaches toward Missouri, then head back toward town to savor a cold lemonade back in the Eureka Springs historic district.
From there, I head south to state Route 21, which turns out to be every bit as curvy as Route 7, without all the traffic. From Eureka Springs all the way to Interstate 40, I practically have the road to myself. It’s a great way to see the Ozarks.
I could have stayed on the interstate and started on the first leg toward home. But as I approached the town of Russellville, I feel a little tightness in my back.
It wasn’t much, nothing that a good soak wouldn’t cure.
I turn south on Route 7 and aim the Kawasaki back toward Hot Springs.