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Route 7 Scenic Byway to Hot Springs, Arkansas

Written by  January 31, 2005

If you’ve ever ridden through the Ozark National Forest, I’m sure you’ll agree that this is one of the most beautiful areas in which you could ever experience.
Hot Springs, Arkansas is known for its legendary thermal springs that seep from the mountainside, making it such a hot spot. The Route 7 Scenic Byway that leads to this oasis it is a slice of motorcycle heaven. .
Hot Springs and its surrounding national park have been welcoming weary travelers for centuries before motorcycles were even invented. The Native Americans called it the Valley of Vapors and believed the healing waters were a gift from the Great Spirit. In 1832, Congress made the valley America's first public recreational preserve, and it quickly became a world-famous playground for the wealthy. Magnificent bathhouses and elegant hotels catered to well-to-do travelers while abundant gambling opportunities attracted famous and infamous elements. .
The history of Hot Springs is colorful, but its fate lacks such luster. The progress of modern medicine contradicted the curative benefits of the mineral springs and a ban on gambling in the 1960s further dried out the economy. What's left more than a century after its heyday is a curious and fragile shell of the former Mecca; however, it is still very intriguing in its time-suspended state. .
Thankfully, the breathtaking roads leading to Hot Springs haven't suffered similar remission, and are constantly freshened regardless of the local economy. Hot Springs sits in this network of winding roads that beckons for motorcyclists to ride it’s many routes that lead to and from the city. But the most remarkable road has to be the Arkansas Scenic 7 Byway. .
You can hop on this nationally recognized scenic route at its designated point of origin in Arkadelphia, south of Hot Springs, or as far north as Harrison, above I-40 and the Ozark National Forest, which is 208 miles from Hot Springs. It's a two-lane highway that rises and falls with the gentle undulations of the Ozark and Ouachita Mountains. Breathtaking vistas connect the sweeping tree-lined sections, and quaint little towns break up the journey. The only shortcoming of the Scenic 7 is the overabundance of logging trucks that enter, exit and cross the road. Truck crossings are required to be marked, but some are marked poorly, so keep your eyes and instincts sharp. .
There are several worthy loops out of Hot Springs that incorporate the Scenic 7. These can be daylong or half-day rides around the five counties that make up the Diamond Lakes Region, named for the five diamond-bearing lakes in the area: Catherine, DeGray, Greeson, Hamilton and Ouachita. The brilliant lakes rest jewellike amid the lush green forests of the Ouachita Mountains. In the Southern sunshine a ride to lake level can offer resuscitating breezes and a chance to browse the local rock shops. .
It's true there's much to do and see outside the city limits of Hot Springs, plus, the city grabs your curiosity and ignites my imagination. If you’re up for a real treat, check out the Majestic Resort-Spa on Park Avenue. The main section of this large hotel was built in 1882, and the bathhouse was added in 1896. When you step into the lobby you step back in history. .
At the Majestic, guests stroll coolly from their rooms to spa appointments in robes and slippers under the soft light of enormous chandeliers. The original wood-paneled elevators are creaky and cantankerous, and moody melodies from a vintage piano seep out of the bar area. There's a clean, musty odor, an effect of piping in steaming thermal water for more than a century. Not only is the atmosphere of the Majestic nostalgic, so are the rates. I always ask for a room in the 'modern' (circa 1963) Lanai Tower wing facing the historic district and Bathhouse Row. .
The magnificent bathhouses, so celebrated at the turn of the century, stand empty and ominous. Only one, The Buckstaff, still offers traditional spa services. Another original spa, the Fordyce Bathhouse, has been reopened as the Visitor Center and Museum of the Hot Springs National Park. If you do one touristy thing in Hot Springs, visit the old bathhouses. Across the street are numerous boutiques and eateries with such a consistent turnover rate that every time I visit it feels like a new experience. .
The anguished economy of Hot Springs is a stark contrast to the city's lavish architecture -- the older buildings stand like heirloom furniture in a doublewide mobile home. Some of the most beautiful old buildings are misused or blatantly abandoned. I have ridden up crumbling roads to find mansions covered in wild vines, and art-deco motels with enough dirt on the roofs to sustain pine seedlings. It's a curious place, a ghost town with mini-malls. .
The lifeblood that sustains historic Hot Springs continues to be the thermal waters weeping from Hot Springs Mountain. Visitors at the old bathhouses indulge in spa treatments and massages for a fraction of the price charged in big-city establishments. At the Majestic, for example, an hour-and-a-half spa treatment -- including massage -- is only $60. It's a great way to work out the kinks after a long stint on your bike. In fact, I don't think rheumatism is an extinct affliction. Its definition includes 'stiffness, pain or soreness of joints and muscles,' sounds like motorcycle touring to me.

By Mike Schweder