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January 5, 2020 David

I stopped to catch my breath and gazed out across the valley to the surrounding mountains. The autumn leaves glowed in the light of the setting sun. The scenery would have taken my breath away if I wasn’t already gasping for air. I had joined the local running club, the Spa Pacers, for one of their weekly group runs. Our route mapped out by Ken Freeman, trails coordinator for the City of Hot Springs, took us along various connecting mountain trails in Hot Springs National Park, for a total 4.75-mile run.

While I’ve hiked these trails many, many times, it had been a decade since I last ran them. Back then, I was training for a 5K road race – organized by the Spa Pacers as part of their annual Spa Running Festival. I’d written about the event for a local magazine and felt inspired to participate. Around that time, I’d also written a story about author Stephen Altschuler and his book, “The Mindful Hiker: On the Trail to Find the Path.” A resident of California, he was coming to Hot Springs to lead a “mindful hike” in the National Park. I’d considered going along but ended up training that day and inadvertently zoomed right past them as they stood to study the moss growing on a rock (or presumably something like that.) I wanted to stop and introduce myself, as our interview had been by phone, but I felt a little embarrassed that I was racing through the woods as he was encouraging people to slow down and observe them.

All of that was running through my mind during my recent run with the Spa Pacers. As we ascended the mountain, I noticed the ground change beneath my feet from hard and rocky to soft and grassy – something I’d never noticed while hiking – and it occurred to me that running itself is a form of mindfulness and mediation. Lulled by the cadence of our breathing and our bodies in motion, our minds become free to wander, to examine our thoughts and our surroundings. As I ran through the towering trees, past ancient rock formations and expansive views, I couldn’t imagine any surroundings better than this.

Hot Springs’ quaint and historic downtown is surrounded by nationally protected forests that offer miles of trails and endless natural beauty. The area also hosts high-quality racing events that attract runners from all around the country who come to compete and enjoy all that Hot Springs has to offer – like post-run soaks in our thermal pools!

The Spa Running Festival

A family-friendly, nationally-recognized road racing event, the Spa Running Festival is held each November with multiple races through downtown and the Hot Springs National Park. The festival began with the Spa 10K in 1981 and has since grown to include a half marathon, a 10K, a 5K walk/run, a 5K for junior and high school students, a 1K for children 2-10 years old. It kicks off with an expo on the day before the races and wraps up with a Finish Line Festival area that includes hot soup, pizza, and a beer tent.

About 1,800 runners from more than 20 different states are expected to participate in the 2019 festival which will be held Saturday, Nov. 16. Race Director Cindy Baswell credits the festival’s growth to several factors including the tourism industry of Hot Springs, the opportunity to run through a national park and the caliber of the races.

The “Summit 2 Summit” Half Marathon takes runners over both North Mountain and West Mountain in the National Park and through Hot Springs’ historic neighborhoods and downtown. A challenging but beautiful course, it’s a great way to see the Park and the heart of the city.

“There are half marathons in Arkansas that are much easier as far as the course, but ours provides something different because they do get to run through the National Park which is pretty special,” Baswell said.

A longtime member of the Spa Pacers, which organizes the Spa Running Festival, she began running just before turning 50 and has since competed in over 20 half marathons and a couple of full marathons. She has been a racing director since 2014.

“We put on a fantastic race,” Baswell said. “It’s a coordinated effort among many different groups – the city police, the National Park and our volunteers that make it happen that day.”

The Spa Pacers is a nonprofit running club and member of the Road Runners Club of America. In addition to the Spa Running Festival, the club hosts two free-running clinics each year and a variety of weekly group runs with something for all levels of experience. There are walking groups, easy runs, long runs, trail runs and pub runs. The group has been active since the early 1980s and comprises over 200 households.

“Running with a group makes you more accountable,” Baswell said. “[It] makes you want to show up when you know someone else is going to be there to run with you.”

In addition to their local members, the Spa Pacers are sometimes joined by visitors, she said.

“We get calls frequently from runners coming in on the weekend and wanting to run,” Baswell said. “We welcome all visitors to come run with us and we get to show them our beautiful downtown.”

Reprint from: Hot Springs Advertising & Promotion Commission, web site.


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December 6, 2019 David

I could almost hear the crack of the bat reverberating through 100 years of history. A moon was hanging in the morning sky and I imagined a ball soaring past it, then landing with a plop in a pond at the Arkansas Alligator Farm across the street. I was standing at the site of the historic Whittington Park, where, in 1918, Babe Ruth made history with a record-breaking home run – the first to fly more than 500 feet.

Today, the historic ballfield is an employee parking lot, and one of many stops along the Hot Springs Historic Baseball Trail, a free, self-guided tour that showcases the city’s rich baseball history. At my feet, a home plate base, permanently planted in the pavement, marks the spot of the 573-foot grand slam. The event, widely reported at the time, is still being celebrated today in a town where nostalgia for America’s favorite pastime is in full swing.

“Just the sheer length of it was astounding to everyone who saw it,” said Bill Jenkinson, a leading authority on Ruth. (He was the primary historical consultant for the Babe Ruth Birthplace & Museum in Baltimore, Md. and also helped with the creation of the Hot Springs Historic Baseball Trail.)

Witnesses included Ruth’s teammates (he was playing for the Boston Red Sox at the time) and members of the Brooklyn Dodgers who they were playing against, plus thousands of onlookers.

“It was reported that the crowd estimate that day was 18,000,” said baseball historian Mike Dugan who also helped research the local Baseball Trail.

Known as the “birthplace” of Major League spring training, Hot Springs hosted more than 300 professional ball players between the late 1800s through the middle of the 20th century, including 137 members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. In addition to the Great Bambino, the city welcomed many other legendary players: Cy Young, Jackie Robinson, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Rogers Hornsby and Hank Aaron, among others. What attracted them to the city was Hot Springs’ nationally-prized, thermal spring water – purported to cure a wide range of ailments.

The trend started in 1886 when the Chicago White Stockings, now the Cubs, came to Hot Springs to “boil out the winter,” according to a front-page story appearing in the first issue of the weekly newspaper “The Sporting News.” The team practiced daily on a makeshift field at the site of what is now the Garland County Courthouse. When the White Stockings went on to win the National League’s pennant that year, other teams took note.

“Like any business that’s out there, the other teams copied success,” Dugan said. “So over the course of the next 30 years, Hot Springs became the hotbed for what we now know as spring training.”

Reprint from: Hot Springs Advertising & Promotion Commission, web site.


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November 6, 2019 David

Lake Ouachita sparkled beneath a big blue sky. In the distance, wooded mountains rolled across the horizon. The sun beamed and the water beckoned. I leaped from the edge of the sailboat that had ferried us out to the middle of the lake and plunged into the cold, deep water. I swam back up to the surface and floated on my back, watching the clouds and knowing that I’d always remember this moment.

I didn’t grow up in Arkansas but, for my friends who did, days like this are part of their DNA –their youth colored by the hues of the natural world. It’s almost ritualistic the way they retreat to the water to renew their spirits and chase away the heat of summer.

Hot Springs offers plenty of opportunities to splash and play in nature and some other fun ways to beat the heat (see below). Nearly all of the swimming holes and swim beaches listed are located within the state or federally protected areas and nearly all are free. So pack your swimsuit and make plans to enjoy the great outdoors in Hot Springs.

Swimming Holes

Lake Catherine State Park boasts a nice swim beach but it is also home to a hidden waterfall that spills into Falls Creek, a tributary of Lake Catherine. To get to this picturesque swimming spot, follow Falls Branch Trail, a moderate two-mile loop trail that winds through the forest. The hike culminates at the seasonal waterfall which measures 12-15 feet tall. There is a nice shallow pool right at the base of the waterfall where you can cool off before finishing the loop. The trailhead is located at the south end of the park, near the amphitheater. Follow the red blazes.

Gulpha Gorge Campground and Picnic Area are situated along the bank of the Gulpha Gorge Creek at the base of North Mountain. It is the only campground located within Hot Springs National Park and it’s a nice day use area too with hiking trails and a shallow, cascading creek. A small diversion dam crosses the creek, creating a wide shallow area on one side and a series of deeper pools on the other. The cement blocks serve as a path to two trailheads: Gulpha Gorge Trail heading south and Sunset Trail heading north. Both routes are well worth exploring and after your hike, you can take a dip in the creek. The campground is located off Highway 7 on the east side of Hot Springs.

Located about 20 miles west of Hot Springs in the Ouachita National Forest, Charlton Recreation Area is the perfect destination for the hottest of days. Walnut Creek, a mountain stream and tributary to Lake Ouachita flow through the recreation area where a native stone dam was built to create a nice, super-cold swimming hole. There are diving platforms and a grassy lawn for lounging around. The historic recreation area features a 1930s Civilian Conservation Corps bathhouse and opportunities for camping, picnicking, hiking, and fishing. There is a small fee for the day-use/swimming area: $5 per vehicle or $2 per person if you walk in, bike in or are dropped off. Dogs are not allowed in the day-use or swimming areas.

 

Swimming Beaches

Nestled in the Ouachita National Forest, Lake Ouachita is one of the cleanest lakes in the nation and the largest lake located entirely in Arkansas. There are swim beaches at various marinas along the shoreline but my favorite is the sandy swim beach at Lake Ouachita State Park, next to the historic Three Sisters’ Springs. The park is located about 30 minutes northwest of downtown Hot Springs. You can enjoy multiple, free day-use areas or play and stay. The park is home to 93 campsites and eight fully-equipped cabins. In addition to the swim beaches, there are hiking trails, picnic tables, a playground, a marina with boat rentals, and some really great interpretive programs, like the sunset kayak tour.

With a towering mix of old-growth hardwoods, lake access, and mountain views, Hill Wheatley Park is a pretty park and a pleasant place to spend the day. It’s situated on the north-eastern shore of Lake Hamilton and features a sandy beach with a designated swim area that’s safe from boat traffic. Once you get tired of the sun, you can picnic beneath the canopy of trees. The park also includes a boat launch, a walking trail, picnic tables, grills, a pavilion, and restrooms.

Lake Hamilton flows into Lake Catherine and the sandy, swim beach at Lake Catherine State Park is a popular destination for summer fun, especially among families. Kids love playing in the sand and splashing in the water while mom and dad take turns lounging in the sun. The beach area includes bathrooms with changing rooms and outdoor showers. The visitors center is also nearby where you can buy snacks and drinks. If you want to get out on the water, the park includes a boat launch, boat rentals, and a full-service marina. You can spend the day at the park (day-use areas are free) or stay overnight in the campground or one of the cabins. Other facilities include hiking trails, picnic sites, and playgrounds.

Reprint from: Hot Springs Advertising & Promotion Commission, web site.