The urban wilderness
I’ve seen the future, and it’s in an urban wilderness area. The term “urban wilderness” might seem contradictory, but let me explain.
It’s urban because we’re only about a mile from downtown Hot Springs. And this is indeed a wilderness. It’s quiet on a humid Thursday afternoon as we walk through thick woods. I hear no traffic. A breeze rustles the oak and hickory trees that cling to rocky hillsides. Below us is a pristine lake. It’s like a postcard as I look down at the water. Two of the Hot Springs city officials who are accompanying me on the hike say this view is what they use as the screensaver on their computers.
We’re in what’s being billed as the Northwoods Urban Wilderness Park. The city owns 2,080 undeveloped acres here that contain three lakes—13-acre Lake Bethel, 24-acre Lake Dillon and 28-acre Lake Sanderson. In 1881, the Hot Springs Water Co. began developing reservoirs to provide drinking water for the booming resort city. Wood-fired steam generators were used to pump water, and the surrounding forests provided the wood. The three lakes no longer are used for the city’s water supply.
I grew up 35 miles from Hot Springs and never knew about this place. It’s safe to assume many Hot Springs residents are unaware of the Northwoods. Frankly, I’m amazed the city didn’t sell pieces of this property through the decades when budgets were tight, or at least sell the timber. The current leaders of the Spa City have inherited what turns out to be one of Arkansas’ finest treasures, and they’re determined to develop it correctly.
The Northwoods soon will have mountain biking and hiking trails, a bike shop, and a watercraft rental facility so people can use kayaks and canoes on the three lakes. David Frasher, the Hot Springs city manager, has no doubt that the area will prove popular with both area residents and tourists. In fact, he says the main concern may be that “we don’t love this area to death.”
A November feasibility study by Pros Consulting Inc. noted: “The site, if developed, would contribute significantly to the quality of life and tourism in Hot Springs. . . . Outdoor recreation opportunities will enhance and promote environmental stewardship and natural resource management. The Northwoods property has enormous potential to be a local, regional and even national leader in outdoor adventure recreation while preserving its beautiful natural setting. The proposed development would provide Hot Springs with a unique site that balances recreation and environmental stewardship and would serve as a valuable asset that attracts users from across the country.”
Frasher says there are 44 miles of possible trails. And these days, it’s important to note, Walton family money often follows the development of mountain biking trails.
“Lake Bethel’s dam dates back to the 1880s, Lake Dillon’s dam to the early 1900s and Lake Sanderson’s dam to around 1926,” says Jean Wallace, the city’s parks and trails director. “In the early years, what was known as the water works was a mecca for young people and visitors in town. Except for a few years of public access after this time, the area has remained relatively untouched. In 2015, the International Mountain Bicycling Association designated Hot Springs as a bronze-level ride center. As a result, more visitors and residents are seeking a backwoods trail experience close to an urban setting. This 2,000-acre wilderness with direct access to historic downtown Hot Springs is in a perfect place at the right time to provide that experience.”
Arkansas quickly is gaining a reputation as a quality cycling state. The IMBA held its World Summit last year at Bentonville. The four-day event, which takes place every other year, attracted more than 500 people from countries around the world. With five mountain bike trails designated as “epic rides” by the IMBA, Arkansas is tied with Colorado for second (behind only California) for having the most such trails. IMBA has designated Bentonville, Fayetteville and Hot Springs as “ride centers.” Those in the recreation industry refer to cycling as “the new golf.” It’s an activity that people will travel to pursue while spending big money in hotels, restaurants and shops.
Consider how Alabama’s Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, a collection of well-designed courses with adjacent hotels, put that state on the tourism map for the first time for thousands of wealthy Americans. Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who has branded Arkansas as the Cycling Hub of the South, believes cycling could do for this state what golf did for Alabama. The Walton Family Foundation agrees. It provided IMBA with a $309,000 grant to maintain the state’s five designated “epic rides.”
Cycling and hiking, combined with the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and an expanding culinary scene, have put Bentonville on the map when it comes to upscale tourists. With proper development, the old resort city of Hot Springs will appeal to millennials. Hot Springs could once again become the nationally prestigious resort it was in the 1920s and 1930s. Along with developing the Northwoods Urban Wilderness Park, it’s crucial that the city find the best use for the former Majestic Hotel site. Most people favor a series of outdoor thermal pools that highlight the hot waters.
The city also must entice investors who will improve the quality of hotel rooms on the north end of Central Avenue and attract downtown residents through the development of apartments and condos in empty buildings such as the former Velda Rose Hotel, the former Howe Hotel and the Medical Arts Building. This would give the neighborhood a 24-hour vibe, making it even more attractive to visitors while drawing upscale restaurants and boutiques. Just think: People could take their bicycles directly from that part of downtown to one of this nation’s great urban wilderness areas.
Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.