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Trails, History and Hot Springs

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The allure of Hot Springs, Arkansas, is not just the hot springs. It’s that wherever you are, there’s a trail nearby. I was able to hop onto the Sunset Trail via a footpath right from my hotel, The Waters. Sunset Trail is a C-shaped trail above downtown and is a classic representation of the network you’ll find in this hidden trail-running gem. Hot Springs National Park—the U.S. National Park Service’s second-smallest tract—wraps the city of Hot Springs like a donut.

Never mind that the park only measures 8.5 square miles. There’s plenty of space for runners on 26 miles of interconnected, mixed-terrain trails, which are packed like intestines inside the five mountains safeguarding the town’s namesake: its springs.

In Hot Springs, It’s All About the Water

Long before outdoor recreation was an industry—back when Lincoln was in office—tourists came to Hot Springs to bathe in mineral waters naturally heated to 143 degrees. In the 19th century, the town’s geothermal springs were rumored to cure anything from pneumonia to war wounds, and out-of-towners originally needed a doctor’s prescription to soak up those purported health benefits. 

Commercialization ensued, and, in 1830, the town’s first bathhouse was built—two years before Hot Springs Reservation (renamed Hot Springs National Park in 1921) was set aside to protect a coveted natural resource. Fifty-something bathhouses cropped up over the next century, including the opulent Fordyce Bathhouse.

Nicknamed the nation’s first resort, notable guests filed into Hot Springs to be bathed by attendants, including Babe Ruth and infamous mobsters such as Frank Costello, George “Bugs” Moran and Al Capone.

The town declined alongside the bathhouse industry, but has caught its second wind, reinventing itself as a rewarding destination for all breeds of outdoor enthusiasts. Bunk on Central Avenue—a nostalgic, tree-lined main street—and you’ll be moments away from your next great trail run.

Navigating the Death Loop

After my first run on the Sunset Trail, I learned that it is jokingly dubbed the Death Loop by local runners, “because it can lull you into making a mistake if you aren’t paying attention,” explains Chris Davis, an avid trail runner and secretary of the Spa Pacers, a trail and road-running club in Hot Springs.

Sunset Trail is about 15 miles if you do the entire jaunt from the West Mountain trailhead to Gulpha Gorge Campground, where runners can reenter downtown Hot Springs via a number of footpaths, the Dead Chief Trail being the easiest.

Deep into the Death Loop, I’d summited West, Music and Sugarloaf mountains, stopping for a breather at Balanced Rock, which offered a panoramic lookout over western Garland County. On the way to North Mountain, problems may arise where old roadbeds lure runners onto false trails.

Sunset Trail is worth the risk. In addition to passing by the highest point in the park (Music Mountain), the trail guides runners into remote areas with stunning displays of fire pinks and phlox wildflowers, novaculite walls, a magical grove of gnarled trees and a few abandoned structures. Dirt and packed-gravel trails are shaded by towering oaks, hickories and pines, and observant runners find ample opportunity for viewing raccoons, beavers, green herons, wild turkey and white-tailed deer.

If you don’t want to risk getting lost, you’re always welcome to run with the Spa Pacers, who meet at 4:30 p.m. on Mondays on Fountain Street, and at 4:30 p.m. on Wednesdays at the end of West Mountain Summit Drive.

The welcoming group runs sections of Sunset Trail, as well as smaller trails behind the Arlington Hotel. Sometimes they’ll venture out of Hot Springs National Park altogether.

Snag Some Extra Miles

Davis has run everything from the Dogwood Trail loops in Hot Springs National Park to the LOViT Challenge, a grueling 100 miles of rocky, rolling hills and ridgelines traversing the Lake Ouachita Vista Trail (LOViT) in Ouachita National Forest.

Thirty minutes northwest of Hot Springs National Park, LOViT provides 40 scenic miles of hiking and mountain-biking trails winding around Lake Ouachita, undulating through mixed hardwood and pine forests, opening, at times, to panoramic views of Lake Ouachita. 

Back in Hot Springs National Park, the Hot Springs National Park Trail Run, scheduled for September 22, 2018, is the town’s big trail race, offering a tough, 18-mile course on technical trails. On November 17, the Spa Pacers facilitate the annual Spa Running Festival, which includes a half marathon crowning both North and West mountains.