Motorcycling the Route 7 Scenic Byway to Hot Springs, Arkansas

Experience a bit of motorcycle heaven in Ozark National Forest, then get the kinks worked out at a historical hot springs spa.** Text and photos by Jamie Elvidge.**

What voluptuous set of curves will be forever associated with President Bill Clinton? Forget Monica Lewinski. We're talking about the Scenic 7 Byway that intersects the unimpeachable President's boyhood home of Hot Springs, Arkansas. Cultivating world leaders isn't the region's only claim to fame, however. It's the legendary thermal springs seeping from the mountainside that make it such a hot spot. And the Route 7 Scenic Byway that leads to it is a slice of motorcycle heaven.

Hot Springs and its surrounding national park have been welcoming the weary for centuries before motorcycles were 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. I find it more intriguing in its time-suspended state -- it provides a great atmosphere for discovery and reflection.

The roads leading to the forlorn resort city haven't suffered similar remission, and are constantly freshened regardless of the local economy. Hot Springs sits in this network of roads like a spider luring motorcyclists to its web of asphalt. There are many routes that lead to and from the host, but the most remarkable would have to be the Arkansas Scenic 7 Byway.

You can jump 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 sinuous 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 plethora of logging trucks that enter, exit and cross the road. Truck crossings are required to be marked, but some are marked poorly. Keep your eyes and instincts trained for trouble. This part of Arkansas survives on its timber harvest.

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, but every time I go, it's the city that clutches my curiosity and ignites my imagination. I stay at the Majestic Resort-Spa on Park Avenue. The main section of this sprawling hotel was built in 1882, and the bathhouse was added in 1896. When you step into the lobby you step back in history. It has the feel of the hexed hotel in The Shining, but it's not as spooky.

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 a kotorcycle. 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.

There are a couple of ways to get more information about visiting Hot Springs and riding in the area. The Chamber of Commerce answers at (501) 321-1700. Its Web site has a lot of information about attractions and accommodations, as well as a link to a site that features route instruction for scenic drives in the Diamond Lakes area. AAA suggests a 400-mile scenic loop from Hot Springs north on the Scenic 7. And don't forget the Majestic Resort-Spa (501/623-5511).

Elvidge always takes her laptop with her into the hot springs, so you can e-mail her at:

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