HOT SPRINGS, Ark. — The federal government gave the go-ahead for Hot Springs National Park to open more recreational facilities, and it comes just in time for holiday weekend visitors to the historic sites and nature areas.
“We’ve missed our visitors. We love serving our visitors and doing what ever we can,” said Jori Welchans, the chief of interpretation for the park.
The expansion meant a ranger was on duty on the front porch of the Fordyce Bathhouse and Visitors Center on Friday. She wore a mask and sat behind two tables, ensuring six feet between her and people with questions about the park.
Since the start of the pandemic, most of the indoor facilities at the park have been shut. While Arkansas didn’t shut down as much as other states, the park service had to abide by stricter standards and rangers couldn’t interact with visitors because they had to follow federal guidelines.
Welchans definitely missed the chance to share what she knows about the natural springs and classic properties.
“We love serving visitors in whatever way we can to basically make their experience as positive as possible,” she said. “To not be able to talk to them in person has been really hard.”
That interaction is back for the trails, roads, and cold-water fountains that remained available throughout the last two months. Importantly for hikers, restrooms are open atop Hot Springs Mountain.
But indoor facilities remained closed, and their unique characteristics mean they may have to stay closed for some time.
“Our visitor center is in a historic building, and so the spaces are very small,” said Welchans. “So it’s very difficult to maintain the six feet social distance necessary.”
A shortage of personal protective equipment has also made cleaning the campground bathrooms difficult, so overnight camping areas remain closed.
But since the beginning, the great outdoors have been wide open to visitors ready to venture out. Now, the guides are back to help those looking to enjoy it more.
“Visitors just have this excitement about them,” said Welchans. “They bring this level of enthusiasm and energy with them that you can’t really get over the phone or online.”