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HIKING

Hot Springs: Soaking Up Some Arkansas Charm

April 04, 1993|JOHN McKINNEY

Banners across Central Avenue proclaim Hot Springs the hometown of Bill Clinton.

Not the President's birthplace, mind you. That distinction belongs to Hope, Ark. Hot Springs, some 55 miles southwest of Little Rock, is where young Bill spent his formative years.

Unlike more isolated Arkansas towns, "The National Spa," as the resort has long billed itself, has received--and still receives--visitors from across America and around the world. By Arkansas standards, the town is quite cosmopolitan.

Hot Springs is also home to a national park. It's an unusual one: Most national parks are large natural areas with small resort towns clustered at their borders; Hot Springs is a good-sized town surrounded by a small park.

First to bathe in the hot springs--by some evidence, 10,000 years ago--were American Indians. Tah-ne-co , they called it. Among warring tribes, the springs were considered neutral ground, a place to talk peace.

The gangster set made Hot Springs a hot spot. During Prohibition, Al Capone headquartered his operations there. On one side of Central Avenue were speak-easies, gambling dens and brothels; on the other side, elegant bathhouses run by reputable businessmen and physicians, under the supervision of national park rangers.

In less hurried times, folks came for a week of soaking. Today's traveler usually takes one traditional bath of warm and hot soaks, then a brief stay in a steam cabinet, plus an (optional) massage.

European spa culture was not the only facet of resort life imported to Hot Springs. So was the idea of hiking your way to good health. Something called the "Vertel System of Graduated Exercise" had proven successful at the celebrated springs of Nauheim, Germany.

In 1915, a color-coded trail system was cut into the Hot Springs hillsides above Bathhouse Row. After a morning of mercury rubbing, ozone inhaling and electro- hydric massaging, spa visitors were encouraged to hit the trail. Thousands hiked, though some took the easy way up Hot Springs Mountain and rented a burro. Handrails along the pathways offered safe passage for hikers, and a convenient place to hang laundry.

Though hiking for health is rarely a part of the modern doctor's prescription, the Hot Springs trails of old are still used for fitness and pleasure. Hot Springs Park sponsors an annual Volksmarsch, or "People's Walk," in October--a tip of the hat to the German tradition of community-based walking.

Behind Bathhouse Row is a horseshoe-shaped ridge. Music Mountain (elevation 1,405 feet) is the park's highest peak. The mountain is composed of erosion-resistant sandstone and novaculite (a fine-grained rock used for whetstones). Thick forests of oak and hickory blanket the slopes.

Ready yourself for your hike by filling your water bottle at the Thermal Water Jug Fountain and by consulting the park map. The park's trail system is divided into two parts. On one side of Highway 7 (Central Avenue, downtown Hot Springs) is a network of short trails that contours up and around Hot Springs Mountain. On the other side of town are longer and more remote paths that tour West Mountain and Sugarloaf Mountain.

Among the Hot Springs Mountain Trails are Dogwood Trail, which is one to take in the spring when the park's predominant flowering tree bursts into bloom. You can observe a bit of the park's geology by hiking the short Tufa Terrace Trail past outcroppings of tufa rock, formed by mineral deposits from the hot springs. Dead Chief Trail contours around Hot Springs Mountain to the park's picnic ground and campground.

In a hurry? Peak Trail (half a mile long) is the shortest and steepest route from Bathhouse Row to the summit of Hot Springs Mountain. This mountaintop has long been the locale for a series of observation towers.

For a 7 1/2-mile adventure and good aerobic workout, take West Mountain Trail, then Sunset Trail, which follows the horseshoe-shaped ridge back of town. When you've finished hiking this long loop, you'll be ready for a soak in the springs.

Hike with John McKinney's "Walk Los Angeles: Adventures on the Urban Edge " ($14.95). Send check or money order to Los Angeles Times Syndicate, Dept. 1, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.

Hot Springs / Arkansas, Dogwood, Peak, Sunset Trails Where: Hot Springs National Park, 55 miles southwest of Little Rock. Distance: 7 1/2 miles round trip. Terrain: Timber-covered Ouachita Mountains. Highlights: Trailside views of President Clinton's hometown, and an apres-hike dip in mineral springs. Degree of difficulty: Easy to moderate. For more information: Contact Superintendent, Hot Springs National Park, P.O. Box 1860, Hot Springs, Ark., 71902, (501) 623-1433.

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