2017: Hot Springs

Falls Branch Trail

April 23-24


I had no regrets leaving Memphis behind. Sometimes a place just isn't your cup of tea.

If I had thought all the world's greenery was in Louisiana and Mississippi, the drive to Arkansas disproved THAT theory. We were lost in a forest of green, with no civilization in sight, for most of the three-hour drive to Hot Springs.

Catherine's Landing RV Park sits alongside the lovely Ouchita River, with a boat dock and ramp only a stone's throw away from our spot. It was easily one of the nicest places we'd stayed, even without the river access.

After all the city activities we'd been doing, I was itching to get back to a bit of nature; so on our first full day at Hot Springs, we went for a hike at a local state park. Lake Catherine State Park is a lovely wooded area not far from our camp. It has three marked trails, and at two miles in length, Falls Branch Trail is the easiest to tackle. We made a quick stop at the park's ranger station to pick up a brochure, and then it was off to the trailhead.

The first part of the trail was flat and heavily forested. Then we climbed a bit, and before long Falls Branch Creek appeared, running alongside and over the trail. Several small wooden bridges help with stream crossings, but in a few places it's just you and the rocks. Beautiful red-spotted purple butterflies fluttered around us as we walked, enjoying the cool moisture. One even stopped to pose for Mike.

We finally reached the waterfall for which the trail is named. It wasn't very large, but it was pretty and serene and gurgly, like the stream that fed it. I edited together some video of all the nice water, including a short bit of the two kayakers who swung into the mouth of the stream where it meets the lake.

As we neared lakeside, we were hearing a persistent hum that gradually grew louder. Mike said he recognized it as the 60-cycle hum associated with electrical power generation. Sure enough, as the lake became visible, we saw a giant power facility on the other side. It made me sad, because for me its presence spoiled a really beautiful area. When I consulted the brochure, I read that the dam which formed the lake was built by the Arkansas Power and Light Company in 1924. So without the dam for hydroelectric power, there would be no lake. Apparently the power plant was still operating after all these years.

Swinging bridge.

The very end of the trail held one more surprise, the Swinging Bridge. It was just as shaky as you might expect, and of course we had to jump up and down and swing it from side to side like a couple of kids. Shaky perhaps, but sturdy.

State park RV campground.

We emerged from the trees to find a gorgeous secluded RV campground beside the lake. I remarked to Mike, why didn't we stay HERE? Then I remember why: no Wi-fi. Yet another reason to increase the ol' data plan.

It was still early when we finished the hike, and amazingly I still had some energy, so we decided to go into town and look around.

The town of Hot Springs is unusual because it's almost completely surrounded by national park land. President Andrew Jackson designated the first federal reservation here in 1832, to protect the thermal waters that flow from the base of Hot Springs Mountain. These waters had been valued for centuries for their purported healing properties, first by local native tribes, then by Spanish and French settlers. The reserve became a national park in 1921.

Wood frame bathhouses were built in the early 1800's to accommodate bathers. Toward the end of the century, more permanent and luxurious buildings appeared. The current Bathhouse Row is a series of architecturally diverse structures that were built in the first two decades of the 20th century, serving as the luxury spas of the day. Only two of them are still operating as bathhouses.

Ozark, now a cultural center. Quapaw is still operational. Arlington Hotel.
Fordyce. Lobby fountain.

Fordyce Bathhouse now serves as a visitor center for Hot Springs National Park, and a ranger gives tours. We happened into Fordyce about an hour before the next tour was to start, so we had just enough time to grab a bit of lunch across the street.

 I don't wanna know.

The ranger for our tour was very entertaining, like the others we'd encountered. I gotta hand it to the National Park Service. I don't imagine the pay is that great, but I'm glad these people stay around.

Our guide took us through the various rooms in the bathhouse, explaining the many steps in the process that bathers went through. Much of it sounded more akin to medieval torture than special treatment.

Needle shower. Attendant uniform. Sitz bath and steam cabinet.

The tour ended in the men's room, which was naturally much larger and better-equipped than the ladies'. The fountain containing the bronze statue of a subservient maiden kneeling before a victorious conquistador struck me as the ultimate stroking of the male ego.

After the tour was over, we went up to the third floor and admired the mosaic tile floors, the stained-glass ceiling, and even a figure-eight Hubbard tub, with a gurney suspended on a track that was used to lower non-ambulatory into the tub for physical therapy.

We ended our exploration of the town at the Hot Springs Mountain Tower, a 200-foot spire perched atop Hot Springs Mountain. On the observation deck, we enjoyed a 360-degree view for 50 miles in each direction, and also got to read some placards detailing town history.