Water, Water, Water

DSCN5968Although water is the main attraction, there is so much more at Hot Springs National Park.  Mountain hiking trails, gentle walking paths, an observation tower with views of forever, scenic drives, a campground, and a brewery are just a few examples of activities in the park.  Stephen and I are here for a weekend visit to celebrate our 28th wedding anniversary.  Knowing we cannot participate in everything the park has to offer, we choose a sampling of activities.  First order of business:  a traditional bathing experience at Buckstaff Bathhouse.  Bathed, buffed, and beautified, we explore Bathhouse Row.

Bathhouse Row is the heart of Hot Springs National Park.  Eight bathhouses line the street of downtown Hot Springs, Arkansas, each with a unique look and style.  Beginning at the south end of Central Avenue, Lamar Bathhouse is the location of the national park gift shop where various spa items such as bath salts, oils, mani/pedi sets, and fluffy towels and robes are sold alongside books, stuffed animals, souvenir magnets, and a plethora of national park knickknacks.  We collect our Hot Springs National Park cancellation stamp and purchase a thick white hand towel embroidered with the Hot Springs National Park logo.  Next to Lamar is Buckstaff Bathhouse where we received our early morning pampering.  Ozark Bathhouse is currently closed, but will reopen as an art museum; a great excuse for us to return.  Quapaw is an operating bathhouse offering more modern services such as hot stone treatments and revitalizing body polishes.  Another excuse to return to Hot Springs!  Next to Quapaw is Fordyce Bathhouse.  Fordyce is the national park’s museum. After watching the short film that explains the history of Hot Springs as well as the science of the springs, we follow the self-guided tour route and explore all three floors of the museum passing through both the men’s and women’s bathing areas, the basement where mechanical exhibits demonstrate how the springs are pumped from the mountain into the bathhouses, and ending at the Hubbard tub, a large, elaborate tub once used for specialty treatments such as physical therapy. It is fun to notice that our bathing experience this morning is so similar to the bathing experience of guests fifty years ago.  DSCN5972After touring Fordyce, we pass by Maurice and Hale Bathhouses which are both currently closed.  Superior Bathhouse is the last bathhouse on Bathhouse Row.  Superior is currently operating as a Brewery with a tasting room; and, since it is lunchtime, perfect timing for a break.  Stephen and I are not normally beer drinkers; but…since we did wear togas this morning…when in Rome…I order a beer.  Well, actually a mead.  Stephen orders a root beer that is brewed in-house and we share a hummus plate with pita chips and bread.  Sitting at the counter facing the street, we enjoy lunch while watching people stroll up and down Bathhouse Row.

Bathhouse Row is nestled at the base of Hot Springs Mountain where rain falls and pores and cracks in the rock take the rainwater deep into the Earth.  As the water goes deeper and deeper, it heats at about 4 degrees Fahrenheit every 300 feet.  As this heated water passes rocks below the earth’s surface, it dissolves the minerals from the rocks.  Eventually what goes down comes back up.  Four thousand years after rain falls from the sky, the water comes back to the surface, hot and full of the minerals it has collected from the rocks.  Forty-seven natural hot springs dot the lower west side of Hot Springs Mountain.  A network of hiking trails passes by many of these capped and protected springs.  Stephen and I drive scenic Hot Springs Mountain Drive to Hot Springs Mountain Tower.  DSCN5963For a fee we ride an elevator 216 feet to an observation deck where we admire the views of the Zig Zag Mountains on the eastern edge of the Ouachita Mountains.  One level below the observation deck, we explore a small museum explaining the history of Hot Springs, Arkansas including some famous and notorious residents and guests.  Apparently, Al Capone was a frequent visitor.  And we all know which president hails from Arkansas.  (hint:  he enjoys hamburgers and jazz, he did not inhale, and he did not have sex with ML).

Before returning to the Arlington Hotel, Stephen and I fill our five-gallon water container, water bottles, and backpack bladders from one of several fountains scattered throughout Hot Springs.  The park collects 700,000 gallons of water each day for use in the public drinking fountains and bathhouses.  Fortunately, this water is for all to enjoy and is free to everyone.  And lots of people take advantage of this wonderful amenity of the park.  People gather around the fountains and wait their turn to fill their containers.  Milk jugs, orange juice cartons, even peanut butter jars can be used as delicious, cool, natural, mineral-filled spring water receptacles.  A refreshing way to recycle!


Bath Time

DSCN5979 After primitive camping for three nights during a four-day paddling trip down the Buffalo National River, it’s time to take a bath.  Of eight bathhouses on historic Bathhouse Row in Hot Springs National Park, two are active bathhouses:  Quapaw and Buckstaff.  Quapaw offers modern spa treatments such as hot stone, facials, Swedish and Deep Tissue massages, as well as the traditional mineral bath. Buckstaff has been in continuous operation since 1912 and still offers a bathing experience in the historical therapeutic style.  Stephen and I choose the traditional bathing package at the Buckstaff.

The Buckstaff does not accept reservations so Stephen and I get up early and DSCN5971arrive when the bathhouse opens at 8 am.  We are separated and Stephen is taken to the men’s section and I am whisked up an antique elevator to the women’s area on the second floor.  I am escorted to a dressing (undressing?) room and told to strip to bucknackedness and place my clothes in a private locker.  My personal attendant, Carolyn, who has been a bathing attendant for 37 years, wraps me toga-style in a large sheet and we go to a small room with a large bathtub.  Carolyn helps me into the tub and gives me a cup of mineral water to drink during a private, twenty-minute soak in a warm (100 degrees), whirlpool bath of natural mineral water pumped from the hot springs in the mountain behind Bathhouse Row.  I lie back on a padded incline and try not to fall asleep and drown as the tub really is quite large.  Carolyn returns and scrubs my arms, legs, back, and feet (tickles!) with a loofa mitt that I get to take home as a souvenir.  I step out of the tub and she again wraps me in the sheet.  From the tub bath I go to a vapor cabinet, a metal box of steam.  Carolyn closes the top and I feel like Lucille Ball in an I Love Lucy episode as I sit with only my head exposed, steam rising around my ears, watching women of various ages and sizes, dressed in togas, coming and going.  From the vapor cabinet, I am escorted to the hot pack table.  I lie on my back, with my head on a pillow, covered with a sheet.  My legs and feet are wrapped in very hot towels and a hot towel is placed over my eyes.  I lay here for quite a while, listening to the sounds of the activities of the bathhouse.  Eventually, Carolyn removes the hot towels that have become cool towels and takes me to a room with a circular metal contraption, the needle shower.  DSCN5974I am apprehensive as she unwraps my toga and instructs me to stand in the middle of the upright tube-like structure.  Carolyn leaves me and very warm water suddenly shoots from all directions.  This is actually quite wonderful and I twist and turn, making sure every inch of me receives the benefit of  the therapeutic, healing water.  The spray stops, Carolyn returns, and I am once again wrapped in a toga.  From the needle shower, I go to a resting room where I say goodbye to Carolyn and wait peacefully and patiently for the last step:  a 20-minute full body massage.  After a short wait, I am escorted to a private massage room where my already relaxed muscles are blissfully kneaded into a limp, loose, and lifeless state.

Feeling like a rag doll, I manage to retrieve my clothes, get dressed, and find Stephen resting on the veranda enjoying an ice tea.  I join him and we contemplate going back to the hotel for a nap.  Although our bodies are relaxed and our muscles are saying, “nap! nap!”; our brains know it is only 10:30 in the morning and are saying, “explore! explore!”.  The brains win (they are always so smart!) and we slowly walk away from the Buckstaff Bathhouse to explore Hot Springs National Park and the rest of Bathhouse Row.

The Arlington Hotel

DSCN5977Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas has many attractions.  But I am mostly looking forward to the main attraction:  pampering.  After completing a three-day float trip on the Buffalo National River, Stephen and I are planning two nights in Hot Springs, indulging in a spa treatment, restaurants, and an historic hotel with rooms that have four walls and comfortable beds.  The Arlington is not a national park lodge but it is a grand old hotel located at the north end of Bathhouse Row.  DSCN5967The Arlington Hotel originally opened in 1875, but burned in 1923.  It was rebuilt across the street and reopened in 1924.  The large rooms are all updated with modern amenities such as air-conditioning and private baths with showers.  However, the AC is either “on” or “off”; there is no temperature control.  The windows do open and this April weekend is gorgeous.  Located on the fifth floor, our room overlooks Arlington Park and Bathhouse Row.

DSCN5969The Arlington has a beautiful, three-tiered pool area located on the seventh floor and nestled into the side of a mountain.  The hot tub, on the top tier, calls our names and we quickly change into swimsuits.  Relaxing in the hot tub, with gorgeous views of the gentle Zig Zag Mountains on the eastern edge of the Ouachita Mountains, Stephen and I rest and recuperate from three days of paddling.  As the sun descends into the green hills and the air begins its evening chill, we relax our tired muscles and enjoy the sounds of a city in the midst of a national park.  After we are sufficiently soothed, we wrap ourselves in the provided towels and go to our room to change.

The bar at the Arlington is an active social scene set right in the middle of the lobby.  A dance band plays on a small stage and couples move and groove on the dance floor as well as the perimeter of the lobby.  Stephen and I find a table on the platform area right in the middle of the action and order an Arlington Martini in honor of our visit.  Not typically martini drinkers, we are delighted with the hotel namesake adult beverage:  a concoction of acai berry, lemon, and vodka, with sugar on the rim of the glass.  We sit back and sip our shared libation and enjoy an evening of good music and people watching.DSCN5981

On Saturday, we enjoy breakfast in the Arlington’s dining room.  This morning the Venetian Dining Room is serving a buffet breakfast for about $10 a person.  The basic breakfast items are all represented.  Scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, and breakfast potatoes compete with hot and cold cereals, yogurts, and granola.  Stephen finds room on his plate for a little of everything and I choose a small portion of scrambled eggs and one piece of bacon.  Our attentive and talkative waiter notices my almost empty plate and only puts one buffet on our bill.  We linger at breakfast enjoying the ambience of the dining room and learning the history of the hotel and its connection to Al Capone from our waiter and the hostess.  With full bellies, and sufficiently caffeinated, we begin our day in Hot Springs.


Tyler’s Bend Campground

DSCN5956Tyler’s Bend Campground located next to the Tyler’s Bend Visitor Center on the Buffalo National River is a beautifully maintained campground with several very much appreciated amenities.  Even though there are many sites available with views of the river, Stephen and I choose a site directly across from the bathrooms and set-up camp.  We have had views of the river for the last two nights and decide it will be luxurious to follow a quick, lighted, paved walkway to showers and a western-style toilet that I can actually sit upon.  After setting up camp, I head to the bathhouse to wash my hands before making Salmon Patties for dinner.  As I approach the building, I notice…could it be?…YES!  A dishwashing sink!  With hot water!  I run back to camp and announce my discovery to my husband.  After four days of backcountry cooking following Leave No Trace principles, the sink is a very special luxury.  We do not have to heat our water and we can wash our dishes using a little more suds.

The campsite at Tyler’s Bend Campground is large, flat, and clean.  The tent pad is very large and the stakes slip into the ground easily.  A large picnic table is another luxury.  Not only do we have a table to prepare, cook, and eat dinner and breakfast, but we have a nice platform to roll the tent and sort the paddling gear.  It is a good feeling to have that done and not so much to do when we get home.  Staying at Tyler’s Bend the last night has been a great ending to a fantastic, mostly perfect paddling experience.

Warm Days and Cold Nights

DSCN5944Warm, sunny, and a clear sky, Tuesday, April 15 is a perfect spring day to begin a four-day, three-night canoe paddle of the Buffalo National River.  Putting in at Ponca and taking out at DSCN5939Woolum, Stephen and I have planned a fifty-mile float.  With Class I and II rapids and a moderate current, we plan on averaging two miles an hour, a typical average for the Buffalo.  Loading the canoe at Ponca, I eyeball the rapids feeling a mixture of trepidation and excitement.  This is my first experience with canoes on whitewater, but I have faith in my husband’s river skills.  The first day we gain our river bearings and increase our confidence as we easily conquer rapids with names such as Roark Bluff, Big Bluff, and Gray Rock.  We discover a picnic spot with three rock “chairs” and two rock “tables”.  A perfect place to prepare lunch: olive pate with crackers.  I am experimenting with dehydrating my own meals and am building a backcountry pantry at home.  Lunch is a delicious success!  The olive pate rehydrated well and was delicious served on Ritz crackers.

DSCN5888Either we paddle a lot or the river is moving fast. Or we paddle a lot AND the river is moving fast.  We arrive at our first night’s destination, Kyles Landing, way earlier than expected.  Kyles Landing is a developed national park campground with flush toilets and water.  After discussing the time, Stephen and I decide to paddle a little further down river and camp for free somewhere along the bank.  The park service allows camping anywhere along the river, no permit necessary.  Stephen and I practice Leave No Trace principles and focus on low-impact camping so we are prepared for a primitive camp.  Plus, unsure of the rain situation in the upcoming days, we don’t want to waste beautiful daylight!  We paddle until 5:30 and find a great campsite alongside the river.  We make camp and cook dinner.  I should have rehydrated dinner at lunch.  The Chana Masala is a little crunchy.  Oh well, I’m learning.

After a beautiful warm day in the low 70s, as soon as the sun dips below the bluff, the air begins to chill.  Time to go to bed.  Dressed in a long-sleeved SmartWool shirt, long underwear, SmartWool socks, and snuggled down deep in the sleeping bag, I freeze.  My toes are like ten ice cubes attached to two feet.  I doze and wait for morning and the warmth of the sun’s rays.  Of course Stephen sleeps well, as usual.  I wake him every so often to let him know that I am very, very cold.  He snuggles close and promises tomorrow will be another beautiful sunny day.

DSCN5912And he was right!  Wednesday is sunny and warm.  However, it is also windy.  The rapids present a different kind of challenge in the wind.  I continue to paddle hard and Stephen does an excellent job keeping the nose of the canoe into the wind.  Today we have to paddle a lot because even in the calm sections the wind is stronger than the current and pushes us towards shore.  As a result of all the paddling, we make excellent time, paddling 20 miles before evening.  We choose a campsite on a rocky beach with a soft sandy section for our tent.  We prepare dinner (an excellent vegetarian curry stew) and enjoy every drop of sunshine left in the day.  Tonight is cold, but after a hard day of paddling I am exhausted enough to sleep a little better.  Again, Stephen sleeps really well and I don’t wake him as often.  After fighting those winds all day, he deserves a peaceful night.DSCN5927

Thursday is gorgeous!  Today I don’t even need to wear a jacket on the river.  And no more wind.  Just a peaceful current and lots of fun, rolling rapids that give a gentle push to the canoe.  We decide to paddle to our final destination, Woolum, and camp there tonight, giving us a full day to travel to Hot Springs tomorrow.  The Nars, or the Narrows, is definitely an unexpected highlight to our trip.  The Nars is a very narrow limestone bluff with the Buffalo National River on one side and Richland Creek on the other.  The currents running on both sides of the bluff has created a ridge that gets smaller as Richland Creek approaches the Buffalo River.  Immediately following the Nars is Skull Bluff.  Skull Bluff has the appearance of (you guessed it) a skull.  If the water is low, you can paddle through the “eye”.

DSCN5946Shortly after Skull Bluff, we spy the Woolum sign on the right side of the river.  This is confusing because the map indicates the take out is on the left.  We beach at the sign and are delighted with a special surprise!  Two days earlier, we met a wonderful couple from South Carolina also paddling a multi-day trip.  This couple took the time to write a message for us in the sand.  We soon realize the campground take out is on the other side, ACROSS the rapids. DSCN5953 We take a deep breath, concentrate on the task, Stephen yells GO!, and we paddle hard!  Very, very hard!  We make it to the other side, just slightly off the mark.  The timing could not have been more perfect.  Just as we unload the last off our items from the canoe to a campsite up a slight hill, our car arrives.  We had hired a shuttle driver to move our car from the put in to the take out.  At lunch today, Stephen had enough signal to call the outfitter and let them know we are a day ahead of schedule.  We decide to camp tonight in an established campground with water, toilets, and showers.  We load our gear into the car and make the short drive to Tyler’s Bend campground.




Waterfalls and Rapids

DSCN5956Rain makes the river run.  Running rivers make great paddling.  Great paddling means time for a float trip down the Buffalo National River in north-central Arkansas!  The Buffalo National River meanders from west to east through 150 miles of massive limestone bluffs, passing rock beaches and many, many, many gorgeous waterfalls.  With Class II rapids and a gently flowing current, the Buffalo is a wonderful river for canoes and kayaks.  Stephen and I load our gear and enough food for a four-day, 50 mile float into a rented canoe from Buffalo Outdoor Center and put-in at Ponca.  The Ponca put-in is dependent upon air space at the bridge.  Appropriate air space is between 15 and 20 inches.  With about 15 inches of air space, we are good to go!DSCN5843

Putting-in at Ponca, we encounter our first rapid.  Even though it is mild and small, we do not have time to gather our wits and almost immediately capsize!  My brave and talented husband manages to keep us upright and dry and we settle into the rhythm of the river.  A river rat at heart, Stephen is a fantastic canoe guide: reading the current, adjusting to wind, steering through rapids.  My sole responsibility is to paddle; which I do, as hard as I can, especially through the rapids.  I will do whatever it takes not to go into the 50 degree water.  The rapids on the Buffalo are not difficult, but they can be tricky with blind turns, hidden rocks, sweepers, and overhanging tree branches.  But they are so much fun!  My favorites are Gray Shoals and Slick Rock Shoals.  Shoals are large, flat rocks in the river that make huge, rocking waves.  Stephen handles these waves with expertise and finesse.  His favorite rapid is Hell’s Half Acre.  Hell’s Half Acre is a long rapid that is managed with a lot of weaving between rocks and ultimately avoiding the large gray rock on the left.

DSCN5862The Buffalo National River is a rain-dependent river and this part of Arkansas has seen a lot of water from the heavens this Spring.  The rain falls on the tops of the bluffs and finds its way down towards the river creating numerous run-offs and waterfalls.  Strong, wide, powerful falls; double, triple falls; long, gentle flowing falls; small, little trickle falls; we hear them before we see them.  The waterfalls are beautiful as they dance with nature; flowing over moss and ferns, rocks and boulders.  We cannot resist the opportunity to view the highest waterfall between the Rockies and the Appalachians.  We beach at Hemmed-In Hollow and hike about half a mile to the gorgeous Hemmed-In Hollow waterfall.  Watching the waterfall cascade 210 feet over the rugged Ozark bluff, we are mesmerized as it sways left then gracefully switches direction performing a magical dance with the wind.DSCN5870

On the calm, peaceful stretches of the river, we rest our weary shoulders and watch the birds show-off for us.  They are beautiful as they swoop and dive and ride the thermals in the canyons.  A crane is determined to stay in front of our canoe as if it is guiding us to a secret destination.  It lands and watches and waits for us to catch up and then lifts its wings to glide in front of us once again.  The crane continues this sequence for about two miles before tiring of the game and rising above the bluff walls.  We spy several pigs crashing through the woods to the right of the river.  A beaver is watching as we approach, but it disappears as we get close.  Its curiosity gets the better of him and the beaver pops its head up once again and quickly disappears as we pass.  Hundreds of turtles rest on logs, bathing in sunshine, all along the bank of the river.  Some are timid and splash into the water, but most of the turtles are lazy and quietly watch us watching them.DSCN5883