Have you heard the phrase “not all National Parks are created equal?” A few times when I’ve mentioned my bucket list ambition to make a stop at each one, this has been said. I hate to admit it, but I have to agree. Not every National Park is as awe-inspiring as Yosemite, the Grand Tetons, or, my personal favorite, the Redwood Forest, but each holds a reason for the status and sometimes, as in the case of Hot Springs National Park, it’s a hidden phenomenon.
Found in the center of the state of Arkansas amid the Ouachita Mountain Range, the waters that flow out of Hot Spring Mountain have attracted physicians, health gurus, and medicine men along with the sick, the well, and the curious for centuries. Known also as the “American Spa,” Hot Springs is thought to be a place of power and healing, with fresh water bubbling up at an average temperature of 143 degrees Fahrenheit. This 5,550 acre area was officially granted National Park status in March of 1921 and continues to be a popular destination for all walks of life.
In late February, after spending a bitter winter stuck in the polar vortex that was Michigan, where even my snowshoes were sick of the cold, an opportunity arose for me to make a road trip to the great state of Texas. I jumped at the chance. In the midst of packing for my trip that held no set return date, I threw all of my camping and hiking gear in my trunk, eager to spend the night outdoors.
The twenty-three hour drive was to take place over a three-day span, and one of those nights put me right smack dab in the middle of Arkansas, right near Hot Springs National Park. It was destiny. I rolled into Gulpha Gorge campground on Saturday and as luck would have it, I secured the last spot on Gulpha Creek.
Let the name not deceive: the creek is more of a river. Camping next to water is my favorite. Walking barefooted through lovely green grass is icing on the cake. I did both.
Gulpha Gorge campground operates on a first-come, first-serve basis. Each site is equipped with a grill, but unfortunately, this is a no-bonfire type of place, with the exception of one large campfire circle set near the amphitheater. Every site has space to park an RV or camper, and though each has a little grass room for a tent, not all have the “lawn” I was lucky enough to snatch. Primitive sites cost around $10 a night, and sites with hookups at a mere $24, prices are cut in half if you have a National Park pass. There are no showers at the campground, but campers have access to modern restrooms.
The first thing I noticed as I pulled into my site, outside of the river, was the MASSIVE wall that is Hot Springs Mountain just on the other side. As I pitched my tent, I could hear the echos of hikers as they wound their way up the mountain trail. With my camp set up, I followed suit and made my way across the river toward the trail.
Following the Gulpha Gorge Trail up the side of the mountain is just the beginning. It is much like a choose your own adventure situation in that the trails along the mountain intertwine with each other and taking a left fork here, then a right fork there, can lead you to a very different place than where you first expected. Hikers can choose a short jaunt through the woods, or add to trail time by taking a different turn.
I followed Gulpha Gorge to the Hot Springs Mountain Trail and around until I came to the Dogwood Trail (upper loop), which I meandered through until I found the Goat Rock Trail. If you find yourself in this part of the country, make sure you get to the Goat Rock Trail: the views from this part of the mountain, even in the foggy mist that I experienced, were vast and beautiful.
In order to protect the natural hot springs from contamination and the human footprint, hikers will not find any open springs along the mountain. The majority of springs flowing from the mountain are directed to Hot Springs, Arkansas, where residents and visitors are invited to fill drinking containers with the natural spring water or visit one of the bathhouses still in operation for a little rest and relaxation. Visit the Fordyce Bathhouse, also a visitor’s center, to see one of the first springs discovered, the Fordyce Spring, learn the history of the springs, and take a tour of the bathhouse which was renovated to its original state as when first built and utilized.
The elegance of the old bathhouse truly carries through, and I would recommend a tour for the experience of a past generation.
Hot Springs National Park is a wonder. It celebrates a natural phenomenon that can only occur when conditions are set just right. Though it’s one of the smaller National Parks, it hosts several great trails for the outdoorsy types, history for those so inclined, and a little R&R for all. It is most definitely a great experience for the weekend warrior–go check it out!