I grew up next to a national park — and I took it for granted
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For the vast majority of my childhood, I couldn’t wait to move away from home. Now, I wish I would have savored where I grew up a bit more when I was younger.
I’m from a small town just outside of Hot Springs, Ark., which is home to Hot Springs National Park. It actually wraps around part of downtown Hot Springs, so you can walk down a section of Central Avenue surrounded by the park on both sides.
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The park turns 100 years old this year, so there have been special events held throughout 2021. I’ve seen a few pop up on my Facebook timeline recently, and it’s made me a bit nostalgic for the place that holds so many of my favorite childhood memories.
Growing up, I never realized just how unique my hometown is, nor did I realize how lucky I was to have grown up just a few miles from a national park.
Hot Springs National Park stretches across 5,550 acres of land, making it the smallest national park in the United States. There are hiking trails, campgrounds, a promenade walkway built into the bottom of one of the park’s mountains and even a row of historic bathhouses that use the natural hot springs. You can also fill up jugs with the spring water from fountains downtown.
In many ways, Hot Springs National Park was my teenage playground.
On early-morning weekdays in the summers, I would go for runs up West Mountain with my volleyball and softball teams. Fall weekends were filled with hide-and-seek-tag along the promenade (there’s a fantastic hiding spot behind Fordyce Bathhouse) with friends. Winter days (which never really get that cold in Hot Springs) were filled with Christmas shopping downtown, surrounded by the small mountains that spike up on either side of the main downtown stretch.
My junior and senior prom pictures were taken at the park (as you can see from the Instagram post below), as were a few of my senior portraits. My mom dragged the whole family downtown each year to take Christmas pictures at the park and the historic Arlington Hotel located at the foot of the park’s West Mountain and North Mountain, too.
View this post on Instagram
As a kid — and certainly as an ornery teenager who was itching to explore more of the world than the small park 20 minutes from home — I never put much thought into whether or not I’d miss being just a short drive away from Hot Springs National Park. It never occurred to me that as a 25-year-old in New York City, I’d wake up on a Saturday and wish I could hike up West Mountain, strap my Kammock to a couple of trees and watch the traffic down below.
But here I am, daydreaming about the days when my ragtag group of friends would spend our weekend days hammocking and our weekend nights running around the Hot Springs National Park promenade like it was our own personal backyard.
In a time when being outdoors surrounded by nature is preferable to being indoors surrounded by people, having a national park to explore (or re-explore, in my case) is a commodity. Looking back, I realize took my hometown — and the national park that served as the backdrop to my childhood — for granted.
If you do find yourself in Arkansas, definitely make a trip down to Hot Springs National Park. What it lacks in size, it certainly makes up for in character (not that I’m biased or anything).
Take a stroll down the promenade, which runs back behind the historic bathhouses (fall is an especially beautiful time of year to walk beneath the canopy of trees), and then loop back to the car by walking through downtown Hot Springs. There are some fantastic locally-owned shops (my favorite is the Bathhouse Soapery) and restaurants (Kollective Coffee + Tea has some awesome brunch options), and the atmosphere is unique.
You can even check out the Gangster Museum to learn about Hot Springs’ history as a gangster’s paradise where the likes of Al Capone came to relax and enjoy the hot springs. I may or may not have explored the tunnels beneath downtown Hot Springs when I was a teenager to find Al Capone’s old underground bowling alley (though it’s now sealed off, and the tunnel entrances are blocked so that visitors — or unruly teens from neighboring high schools — don’t get lost or trapped).
If you’re feeling adventurous, take a hike up West Mountain. Or, you can drive up the winding road to the peak. At the top, stop at the lookout and just watch the town below. I’ve spent many an afternoon at that lookout, and I promise the view never gets old. If you have an Eno or Kammock hammock with you, find a few sturdy trees and strap yourself in for a relaxing nap (just don’t forget the bug spray).
And then finish off the day with a trip to the bathhouses. The Fordyce Bathhouse is home to Ozark Bathhouse, which has been renovated and now houses the Hot Springs National Park Cultural Center, featuring an artist-in-residence program and other exhibits. The Buckstaff and Quapaw Bathhouses are both functional bathhouses — Buckstaff has been operational since 1912 and has never fully closed its doors, and Quapaw now offers more modern spa treatments.
Superior Bathhouse has now been converted into a brewery, so you can grab a drink and people watch as the sun sets. And the Hale Bathhouse is now a hotel, so you can even book your stay at the historic bathhouse.
For anyone wondering: No, I’m not planning a move back to Arkansas anytime soon. I love New York City too much, even if it doesn’t come with its own national park to explore on the weekends.
But even though I’ve moved across the country from my hometown and its neighboring park, I now have a greater appreciation for just how lucky I was to have such easy access to a national park while growing up.
Featured photo courtesy of Calvin Smith/Hot Springs National Park.
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