The first thing that I noticed was the stillness. Coming off of a night where our tent had been buffeted by periodic wind gusts that kept me up until very late, the relative calm was jarring. The next thing I noticed was that light was filtering into our tent, which meant it was officially Saturday. Our full day in Hot Springs, Arkansas was here.
When I tumbled out of the tent, the scene that greeted me was a cool, grey morning on the shores of Lake Ouachita.
In the gloom, I struggled to get our (now-more-wet-than-before) firewood to ignite so that I could heat up the sausage patties we had for breakfast that morning. The best I could get was a sputtering, hissing stream of smoke and coals upward into the cast iron. Slowly, tortuously, I came to the conclusion that Elizabeth and myself would be eating lukewarm sausage patties. Yum.
“Get better firewood” understandably ticked onto my list of things to do today. Of course, it sat at the tail end of a long list, given that Elizabeth and I were going to have a classic no-holds-barred nationalparkfest of things to do, just with masks on. The full itinerary for the day – a trip up the creatively named Hot Springs Tower, followed by a quick lunch and then a hike somewhere within the park, a fancy meal at Superior Bathhouse Brewery, then a little more hiking, before finishing the night up by grabbing dinner to go and bringing it back to our campsite. The circumstances of covid dictated that a little more than the usual portion of our trip would be dedicated to outdoor things away from people (such as hiking), and a little less time devoted to touristy stuff such as gift shopping, but we were determined to make the best of the day. Piling into Elizabeth’s car once more, we headed off to downtown Hot Springs.
Hot Springs is a unique national park – the park and the city are intertwined, with Bathhouse Row in a narrow valley cut into a ridge that bisects the city. The surrounding mountains make up the large majority of the park, but are much-less-visited compared to Bathhouse Ro, which is roughly covered by the inset box above. Anytime Elizabeth and I came into the park, we would enter from the southwest around Sugarloaf Mountain, down Grand Avenue. We found pretty decent parking just one road over from Bathhouse Row on Exchange Street, and literally walked down to the other side of the street and were on Park Service property. Very weird.
On the other side of Central Avenue, the main thoroughfare through Bathhouse Row that connects both sides of town, historic bathhouses hide the view of Hot Springs Mountain, the peak pocked with hot springs all along its face. Elizabeth and I wandered behind them, and began climbing the face of the mountain toward the tower. We briefly were on the Tufa Terrace Trail, passing by little natural drainage chutes for steaming spring water:
And then we were on the Peak Trail. Take a look at the road that follows alongside the Peak Trail, and look at how much it switchbacks. Now look at how the Peak Trail does not switchback in the slightest. Instead, it’s a straight 0.6 mile with 406 feet of elevation gain, which, lol. That’s a 13% average grade. We were huffing and puffing by the end of the walk up, but also in high spirits, laughing at the wusses driving past us instead of sucking it up and hiking with us. The trees in the national park were just starting to change colors, providing us with a hint of color in the canopy above.
After a grueling but brief hike, we reached the top of Hot Springs Mountain. There, in a little parking lot at the top, sat Hot Springs Tower. My first thought was “uh uh. No way.” Thing looked rickety as heck, and this was after it had been rebuilt out of steel to replace the original wood tower!
There was a queue set to go up the tower, as the family that operated it understandably wanted to limit occupancy for covid reasons. After I got our names on the list, we figured we had a little bit of time to wander around the mountaintop and look for a view. Lo and behold, there was a lookout not far from the parking lot. Look how cute we are and how much *fun* we’re having:
I fully anticipated an interminable wait to get up to the top of the tower. In fact, it was only a little over a half hour before our name was called and we entered the lobby of the tower. After navigating through the incredibly conveniently placed gift shop, we found the elevator, and, after a few awkward moments where a large maskless family started to get on the elevator with us, had a private ride all the way up.
The top of the tower was basically a rotunda surrounding the elevator, with a 360-degree panorama view of the southern Arkansas mountains. It was really quite pretty! Rugged terrain in each direction, with the comparatively small downtown of Hot Springs nestled into one of the valleys and the urban sprawl emanating outward. Perhaps even better were the signs that briefly (I promise I didn’t read the whole thing) outlined the history of the Hot Springs area – how the first Europeans arrived, how they came to view the hot springs as therapeutic, how the bathhouses eventually began to collect creek water and eventually forced Hot Springs Creek underground, and the growth of the area into a uniquely urban national park – all a history AND national parks buff could want!
There is an outdoor patio on the tower, but it was kind of cool and apparently there were wasps. Nope. We took the elevator back down and Elizabeth did her best to keep the gift shop in the black for the fiscal year. I bought a pin. Then we were off again, traipsing back down the mountain, avoiding some really weird family dynamics from a group near the top of the hill where the dad was antagonizing his son who was on crutches. The encounter that really defined the weirdness of the time period in which this was set was the family hiking up the mountain when we were near the bottom, with the dad wearing a shirt that lit up to say stuff like “Fuck Donald Trump.” Not that I disagree, but only in the atmosphere of late-October 2020 could see that kind of stuff. Political signs, hats, memorabilia – it was inescapable in Hot Springs! It was like everyone was just biding their time that weekend, waiting for election day.
Elizabeth and I wanted a slight escape from the hustle, bustle, and occasional outright insanity. So we decided to head up Cedar Glades Road to a more secluded part of the park and hike the Sunset Trail to Balanced Rock. The Sunset Trail does a near-loop of all the uninhabited parts of the national park, and in total is far too long for the kind of day hike we were planning – not to mention the early sunset time. Besides, by the time we reached the trailhead and “parked” by sitting Elizabeth’s car on the very edge of the parking area against a cliff face, it was lunchtime. Was our lunch a slightly uninspired fare? Kind of, as it consisted of peanut butter sandwiches, Go-Go squeezes, and sweet & salty mix. I happily chowed down all the same.
The Sunset Trail, as it turns out, is at its steepest essentially just west of the road, where it climbs up Sugarloaf Mountain. The first stretch was an actual struggle, even compared to the difficult trek we’d done up Hot Springs Mountain earlier. I was huffing and puffing by the time it finally leveled off. Along the ridgetop, the views were intermittent between trees but rather sweeping through the Ouachitas. We reached Balanced Rock after a while, and I was pleased to discover after a brief, treacherous climb down to it that the rock did indeed appear to be at least somewhat balanced. It’s not too balanced, or I would have sent it tumbling down the mountainside. But there is at least an element of balancing ongoing with Balanced Rock.
I climbed around the Balanced Rock a little bit, but nowhere near as much as the daredevil dudebros who were there simultaneously. To be honest, compared to some of the other hikes in 2020 (highest point in Oklahoma! Literal inside of a volcano! Loch Vale! Waterfall in Shenandoah!), Balanced Rock was kind of anticlimactic, and we didn’t stay long. I still enjoyed the cool fall weather underneath the canopy, along with the news that OU was winning their football game against TCU and Michigan State was somehow losing theirs to Rutgers.
By the time we navigated the even-scarier-on-the-way-down descent down Sugarloaf Mountain (I was grabbing trees on the side of the trail to slow myself), it was getting toward mid-afternoon. This was the time of day we were supposed to get lunch at Superior Bathhouse Brewery, a brewery that does in fact use hot spring water to make their beers. Because of covid, we hadn’t eaten in a restaurant since March, but Elizabeth, normally the more cautious of the two of us, had her heart set on eating inside. Thus, we figured the odd time would work. But as soon as we got inside, I became uncomfortable with the number of people all eating maskless in close proximity. It was packed to capacity and people were waiting outside! After a short, sharp argument, my point of view prevailed. We talked to the hostess and made to-go orders of both food, and, after a few quick tastes under our masks, two growlers of beer. I remember that our first few requests were both denied on the grounds of them being out, but finally we ended up with a blonde and a kolsch to go with our food. Then we headed back out of the restaurant to wait, which is of course when things got weird again.
Those people with their Trump flags and loud horns paraded up and down Bathhouse Row for, no joke, upward of a half hour. It was loud, it was obnoxious, it was small-town Arkansas. Like I said: late October 2020 was an experience that I don’t think anyone will be able to understand unless they were there. You could see the approval or disapproval of onlookers based on whether or not they took long videos of the parade. I registered my disapproval by spitting at the parade, personally.
After a long, long wait wherein the truck horns became seared into my skull, if not my entire psyche, our food was finally ready. Elizabeth and I retreated to a corner of the Promenade near the bottom of the Tufa Terrace Trail where the parade was a little bit further away. Elizabeth gobbled her burger and I chowed my wrap – fuel for the fire. Then, we headed over to the Fordyce Bathhouse – given covid, the NPS office was closed so the Bathhouse was serving as a quasi-visitor’s center, with all of Elizabeth’s requisite stamps on the porch outside. Inside was a gift shop, with all of Elizabeth’s requisite NPS Hot Springs merch (and my pin). She got bath salts, a magnet, a stuffed bison to take selfies with at every national park we visited in the future (note: we are 0/1 in doing so post-Hot Springs)… honestly, the National Park Service should be thankful for Elizabeth’s consistent patronage.
The past few hours in the urban area had been on the hectic end, so we were eager to get back outside of the covid crockpot of downtown Hot Springs and go hiking on the Sunset Trail again. This time, we had picked out the highest point in the national park, Music Mountain, as our secluded corner to hike to.We got in our cars to drive over to Whittington Avenue, where a little lot existed where the trail crossed it. But not before a little more weirdness:
I can not emphasize enough how weird of a time it was.
Music Mountain was completely devoid of other people when we got there. The trail rose noticeably, but nowhere near as bad as some of the other wild hikes we’d had in 2020, nor even as sharp as the hike to Balanced Rock. Outside of one switchback, it was pretty much just a steady climb. The views were nice, and probably would have been spectacular without the persistent mist and if the trees had been a little further into color-changing. The peak of Music Mountain itself was quite the anti-climax when we got up there. Unsurprisingly, the highest point is in a wooded spot, so you basically just hit the USGS marker and that’s it. We got our footage for my video, and started on our way back down.
By the end of the Music Mountain hike, it was past 5:00. Mindful of how fast darkness hit the night before, we resolved to be more prepared. I got in the driver’s seat while Elizabeth got on the phone to place a to-go order from the “Grateful Head Pizza Oven and Beer Garden” in downtown Hot Springs, just a block over from Bathhouse Row. It took a false start while Elizabeth worked through a Facetime call with Michael and Irene, but eventually we were at the restaurant. Waiting for the food to-go from a place with an obviously really cool atmosphere was the one moment more than any other that I felt like “Wow, the pandemic is costing us this experience”.
Daylight was fading away by the time we got back to our car. I had two chief concerns: making sure we had better firewood (the crappy stuff from the previous night’s escapade just wasn’t gonna cut it again this evening), and watching the Penn State/Indiana game as it trundled toward overtime (lol). In both regards, I was to be gratified – we found a stand selling firewood at the end of someone’s driveway that I remembered from the previous night, and at a much better rate than the liquor store ripoff I was able to fill Elizabeth’s car with much better logs. Meanwhile, Indiana triumphed on an incredible 2-point conversion to ruin the start to Penn State’s season while I watched on my phone (lollllll). Saturday evening was coming up Nolan.
Back at our campsite, a beautiful night was taking shape. The wind still had completely disappeared, and the night had cleared up. Elizabeth set up a beautiful fire in our pit and we pulled our Walmart chairs close to it for warmth. The pizza was excellent. Upon further review, although we had multiple growlers from Superior Bathhouse Brewery, we had zero cups to drink it in. So, we improvised by using an empty Gatorade bottle from earlier in the day. Maybe it took the edge off of the flavor, but I choose to believe that beer made with hot spring water possesses magical qualities.
The kind of fire we had begged for some smores, and we obliged. I walked the couple dozen yards from our campsite down to the water’s edge. In the darkness, all that could be seen were a few lights across the lake, the glow of campfires from the site, and the blinking light of one random dude on his boat at night sailing through the various bays. It was peaceful and serene.
I got back to the campfire to discover that, it being past 8:00, Elizabeth was tiring out and ready for bed. I volunteered to stay up and tend the fire as it burned down, while she headed back to the tent. The last hour or so of my night was spent in satisfaction on my chair, checking my phone as Michigan beat Minnesota down somewhere. Finally, with the result no longer in doubt, I doused the coals, opened the tent flap, lay down on the mattress where Elizabeth was already snoring, and fell asleep instantly.