SPRINGS IS THE SMALLEST NATIONAL PARK
I had a new experience while visiting a national park last week. I asked a local at a filling station how to get to the park. He said, "You're in the park now. This is it. The whole town."
I'm not sure if I said "huh?" or just thought "huh?" But I know I said, "Okay, thanks," though I had no idea what he was talking about. I thought national parks had entrances where you pay to get in and visitor centers where you buy coffee cups or T-shirts to show friends you went to the park. But I was sitting in downtown Hot Springs, Arkansas. Turns out that a portion of the town itself is indeed designated as part of the park. The park also includes the forested areas and geologic formations surrounding one end of the city, including the famous Bathhouse Row. I was perplexed. Does Hot Springs actually qualify as a national park on a par with Yosemite, the Great Smoky Mountains, and the Everglades?
The answer is yes. Not only is the site a true national park, by some interpretations it was the first national park! Even before Yellowstone, some say. Congress set aside Hot Springs Reservation in 1832, the first federal land to be intentionally protected from commercial exploitation. Those who take the position that the first national park was Yellowstone, in 1872, note that it was designated as a national park at that time. Hot Springs did not receive the official national park designation until 1921, although the habitats had been protected even before Arkansas was a state. The semantics of who was first is not what is important. The key issue is that both preserve the integrity of natural ecosystems in their regions.
The National Park Service (NPS) has 391 protected areas that are national treasures, and each has its exclusivity and reason for being. All are part of the National Park System, which includes national monuments, national seashores, and historic sites. Every state except Delaware has at least one. However, of these 391 notable areas, only 56 are officially designated as certifiable national parks approved by Congress. Each of these is distinctive because of regional uniqueness and because they protect their particular ecosystems, including geology, plants, and wildlife. As the U.S. Department of the Interior states, the purpose of a national park is "to conserve the scenery, the flora and fauna, and any natural and historical objects within its boundaries for public enjoyment in perpetuity."
Hot Springs is the smallest national park, with 5,839 acres. The next smallest ones are Virgin Islands National Park on St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands with 14,689 acres and Congaree National Park in South Carolina with 21, 867 acres. Compare these with the more than 2 million acres of Yellowstone or the eight parks in Alaska, of which two have more than 7 million acres each and another three have more than 3 million acres each.
The visitor center at Hot Springs, where uniformed NPS officials provide tours and information to visitors, is in the Fordyce Bathhouse, one of the elegant health spas privately built on federal land in the early 20th century. The purported healing waters that arise naturally from the ground throughout the immediate region have attracted such well-known personalities as Al Capone, Babe Ruth, and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The natural thermal waters of Hot Springs are produced through the process of geothermal heating. Rainwater from a large area percolates into rock fissures, moving down as much as 8,000 feet over thousands of years. The water is heated by the natural increase in temperatures at such depths. Due to the geologic formations in that section of Arkansas, the heated water is eventually expelled to the surface, creating the warm to hot springs of the area. The process is different from volcanic heating, which produces Old Faithful and other heated waters in Yellowstone National Park.
of whether Hot Springs is considered the first national park, Congress
did the right thing when it protected the mountaintops and forests that
surround the hot springs, thus preserving the first U.S. habitat for posterity.