A few years ago, our family took a Disney vacation in July.
We had a blast, but trying to fit everything into the trip was exhausting.
By the end of the week, my legs, feet and back were wearing down. Each night, at the hotel, I’d limp my way to the pool and ease myself into the bubbling waters of the hot tub.
Under normal circumstances, I would be concerned about boiling myself among the various juices secreted off of the bodies of various worn out strangers. But under these circumstances, I cared not for anything but relief.
And that’s what I found in those waters.
Almost instantly, I was submerged in miraculous relief, buoyancy and a newfound energy that lasted until I lifted myself back out of the waters into the night air.
That’s when the mystical healing powers of boiling hot, chemically purified water wore off.
If you’ve never slipped your aching, exhausted body into the healing waters of a hot tub, it might seem strange to you that in the olden days, folks believed in the magic of geothermal springs and would travel arduous journeys to simply feel a bit of relief.
The town of Hot Springs, North Carolina
I’m always amazed that the town of Hot Springs, North Carolina isn’t bigger. Sitting at the confluence of the French Broad River and Spring Creek, it’s been a popular destination since the American Revolution.
It grew along the Buncombe Turnpike, one of the major interstate roads of the 1800s. A major rail spur came through the town.
It’s on the Appalachian Trail in an area filled with outdoor recreation possibilities.
It should be bigger.
How big is Hot Springs, North Carolina?
By 2019 estimates, only 519 people lived in Hot Springs, which tells you how much tourism business the little village gets to support the multiple interesting restaurants, shops and yes, the resort which owns the famous spring for which the town is named.
Like many of the Western North Carolina towns I’ve visited, Hot Springs is very different from the East Tennessee side of the mountains.
It’s surprising how much the culture can change in a 30-minute ride over the mountain.
It’s not that East Tennessee lacks interesting arts and culture. But people on the North Carolina side of the mountains embrace and encourage their artists.
Why is it called Hot Springs?
For a tiny mountain town, the town’s history is a wild ride with a surprising amount of hotel fires.
The mineral springs were first discovered, of course, by the Native American tribes in the region who often held spiritual ceremonies about five miles downriver at Paint Rock.
This is where some of the best-known native pictographs in the southeast can still be seen today.
Once the settlers found the springs, things began to change.
As early as 1778, European immigrants were visiting the springs for the reported healing powers of the carbonated mineral waters.
Do the hot springs have healing powers?
As an aside, I imagine the legendary healing powers of the mineral baths were exaggerated by the journey to reach the springs.
Not only were the people bathing in them often infirm, but they also had to be more exhausted than if they’d spent a week at Disney. Those warm, crystal clear carbonated waters must have felt like a miracle.
Under the European concept of land ownership (basically, if there wasn’t someone sitting on it when you walked up, you could claim it as your own) a man named Jasper Dagy is thought to have been the first “owner” of the springs.
Hot Springs used to be known as Warm Springs
In 1791, William Neilson bought the springs and built an inn at what was then known as Warm Springs.
In 1828, the turnpike was built, making the area more accessible.
By 1837, Asheville’s James Patton had purchased the springs and constructed a 350-room hotel with a 600-person dining room, complete with 13 tall columns representing the 13 colonies.
The railroad arrived in 1884.
Two years later, Patton’s wondrous hotel burned to the ground.
It was replaced in 1886 by the Mountain Park Hotel, the same year a higher temperature spring was found and the town’s name was upgraded from Warm Springs to Hot Springs.
Mountain Park featured 16 marble pools, landscaped lawns and croquet and tennis courts, making it one of the most lavish resorts in the Southeast.
That is until 1917 when the popularity of the spring waters was waning.
The hotel became a WWI internment camp housing German and Italian internees, many of whom were merchant sailors captured in US harbors when war was declared.
Several of them made local friends and stayed in the area after the war.
That hotel burned in 1920 and was replaced by two more hotels – each of which also burned.
Today, the springs are owned by a private spa and private lodging rental business.
I hope they have excellent fire insurance.
Why are the springs hot?
The waters are a thermal spring. Essentially, the water travels deep enough into the earth and is heated geothermally by forces within the Earth’s mantle.
In some cases, the water is heated by coming close to molten rock, also known as magma. But close proximity to magma is not necessary for a hot spring.
Some hot springs are heated by the radioactive decay of elements deep in the Earth’s mantle.
Can you swim in a hot spring?
Some hot springs are too hot to safely bathe in. The waters in Hot Springs, North Carolina are about 108 degrees Fahrenheit.
There are hotels, resorts and cabins that offer access to natural hot mineral waters in the North Carolina destination.
Additionally, for such a small town, there’s a surprising range of options in Hot Springs.
What is there to do in Hot Springs, North Carolina?
First, soak in the water.
People have been coming here since at least the time of George Washington to experience the waters of Hot Springs. It seems a shame to come all the way into town and not give it a try.
Hot Springs Resort and Spa pipes the water from the spring into a series of jetted hot tubs to maximize the experience.
There are several levels of availability based on the desired privacy, length of time you wish to soak and level of comfort in which you wish to experience the waters.
Prices range from $50 per couple per hour to $180 per couple for 90 minutes. There are also overnight stays available as well as other spa treatments, like massages.
What is there to do outdoors in Hot Springs?
As a popular tourist destination with a nearly 250-year history, Hot Springs offers a variety of shops and eateries perfect for a day trip or an overnight stay.
Iron Horse Station features a restaurant, tavern, shops and a renovated 1929 inn built on the town’s railroad line.
The restaurant menu offers burgers, sandwiches, steaks and locally caught rainbow trout in a variety of preparations.
Finally, enjoy the great outdoors. Hot Springs is well located for hiking, whitewater rafting, horseback riding and biking.
It’s a good place to walk a bit of the Appalachian Trail. In fact, the Lover’s Leap trail on the AT, a 3.2-mile loop, provides a view of the town of Hot Springs.
Also nearby is the Laurel River Trail that follows Big Laurel Creek.
You can also travel downstream, along the French Broad, to see the Paint Rock pictographs. If you do, remember to be respectful to the site as the designs date back as far as 5,000 years.
How far is Hot Springs NC from Asheville NC?
Hot Springs is located about 40 minutes north of Asheville, between the French Broad River, Spring Creek and the Appalachian Trail.
The French Broad River is the world’s third oldest river.
Have you been to Hot Springs? What did you think? Let us know in the comments!