I’ve spent much time over the course of my adult life in Eureka Springs. It is, for myself and my husband too, where we retreat to when we’re looking for escape. In many ways we’ve adopted it as our second hometown and we treasure every chance we can get to return there. Which makes it strange that we hadn’t heard of Blue Spring.
Mind you, there are a whole heck of a lot of things in Eureka Springs that could draw our attention. But it took until now, our umpteenth visit to the area, to actually seek out and find this remote yet important asset to the area.
It’s certainly not new -- in fact, it could be argued that Blue Spring is one of the oldest things in the county, having been bubbling up constantly clear 54 degree water at the rate of 38 million gallons a day for longer than humankind has bothered it. Native Americans considered the spring to be sacred ground. The Osage used the spring as the anchor of their trading post. Generations have visited it -- but it is new to us.
The property, the Blue Spring Heritage Center, is on the National Historic Register, officially for its connection with the Trail of Tears. The Cherokee people were camped on the ridge above the spring for nine days in 1839 during that tragedy before being pushed further on into Oklahoma Territory.
There are lots of other reasons it could have made it onto the historic register, though. For instance, there was a mill that resided on the banks of the spring, about a quarter mile from where it spurts forth from the Earth. There are remnants of the mill on-site -- a turbine still in place, the wooden dam on the spring, and an old grist mill up by the visitors center. It’s been gone for decades, though.
Contemporary to that mill, gardens were planted, and the spring became a bit of a tourist attraction. The constantly cool water gave rise to all sorts of plants that might not have survived elsewhere.
In 1971, University of Arkansas students under the direction of Robert G. Chenall conducted a dig down from the fount of the spring at a ledge and discovered the remnants of societies as far back as 8000 years. The Bluff Shelter, as it is known, has been providing cover and relief from the weather for passers by for millenia.
In 1993, Eureka Gardens were born around the Spring, and in 2003 the Blue Springs Heritage Center was created to tie together gardens, spring and history into one very comprehensive and lovely site.
Well, it was time for us to go see this wonder. We set our date for a Tuesday afternoon and got out there much later than we planned. The sky had threatened to open up and rain on us a couple of times, so we’d waited about as long as we were comfortable. The drive over was pretty, past Thorncrown Chapel and over the next ridge. After taking the turn off of US Highway 62 we descended down a road that gave us brief glimpses of the White River below.
Pulling up, we saw a collection of buildings -- a barn, restroom building, outbuilding, and visitors center. After figuring out where to park, we entered the building and walked through the gift shop.
Our kind hostess gave us a brief overview of the site, with a couple of suggestions and admonitions. She told us about the supposed healing powers of Blue Spring, and where to sit on the bridge if we wanted to dangle our feet in the cold water. She told us about the film we should watch before we went down to the spring. And she specifically told us to head down to the spring first instead of the Woodland Garden. “I want to see fannies, not faces. That’s a long staircase,” she told us.
We went over to the next building, which housed a small museum with artifacts about the spring and early Eureka Springs, and watched 20 minutes of film in the air conditioning. The film explains the history of the spring itself. There’s also a bit of a trailer for a DVD you can purchase at the gift shop about the first dive into the recesses of the spring. Neat stuff.
Cooled off once more, Paul and I started our descent down the steps. It’s a good two or three stories down, but there are platforms along the way to stop. Lots to see, too, such as the replica mill near the top, the old grist stone from the old mill, that sort of thing.
There were mosquitoes along the trail; we should have figured we’d encounter them, considering the time of year and the proximity to open water. We smacked a couple as we descended past the rocks and the flora to the boardwalk below.
We turned left at the bottom of the stairs and headed for the first station, a trout feeding point where fish food was kept in a gumball machine and a gazebo and porch leaned out over the water. Paul took a handful and went to the edge, tossing in one handful after another. As each handful was thrown, the water boiled with hungry fish. They were big, too, some almost as long as my arm, and they were used to being fed for sure.
We ventured on, looking out at the spring as we traveled up. In spots the water was milky white, as if the bottom had been disturbed. In others, it was greenish blue, and in still others moss under the surface gave it a brown appearance.
The banks were stacked with large stones. We caught sight of a day glow orange fish, about a foot long, that darted back and forth just below the surface of the lagoon. I wish my camera could have caught it sufficiently.
And then the boardwalk took us over the spring itself, massive Blue Spring in all its quiet glory. The stone wall around the spring was placed there during a very brief period in the early 20th century when a company was formed to sell the water. Yeah, that company lasted about a year. I’m glad the cap that was over that stone wall is gone. Wouldn’t be much to see, would there be?
All along the sloping edges leading down to the blue-green pool, flowers and herbs take over. It’s a bright spot, quite fragrant and buzzing with insects. At the same time, it’s very quiet.
And what did we want? A beverage.
Paul went over to a vending station that was kindly pointed away from the spring. He returned with a carbonated beverage of choice and we debated our next step. It was either off to the gardens or onward along the lagoon. I sat down on a bench by the spring itself that was partly covered by vines and flowers, and kept getting this butterfly knocking against the side of my head. It was almost too idyllic.
What the hostess at the visitors center had said rang out in my mind. I’ve been nursing a sore ankle for weeks; I sprained it mid-July when stepping off a small step in my house onto one of Hunter’s building blocks and had pretty badly twisted the side - not the bottom - of my foot. After all the stairs and the length of the boardwalk it ached. I decided to see if the medicinal properties of the water were honest.
Then again, if you think about it, it makes sense. 54 degree water -- that’d be like immersing one’s foot in a bath of cold packs, right? Sure it would be. But still not as cold as a refrigerator. I took off my shoe, my foot brace and my sock and then hobbled over to the crossing bridge we’d been told from which we could access the water.
I used the rail to carefully lower myself down. Paul watched to make sure I didn’t fall in - don’t laugh, stranger things have happened. I sat cross legged and pulled up my pant leg, then lowered my foot into the water.
And it was cold. Damn, it was cold. But somehow, it felt pretty good, too. After my initial shock I lowered my foot in again, noticing how the veins on the top of my foot popped up. The wind rose and fell, and it sighed, and so did I.
Another couple came along the trail shortly. They came down to the spring, saw what I was doing and joined me. I must have had my foot in that water a good 20 minutes or so before I decided I needed to get up. We had a lot more to look at before the center closed at 6pm.
But Paul had decided he wanted to give it a try, so while I dried my foot and put everything back on he shed his socks and shoes and slid his legs under the sidebar of the bridge.
I noticed that the pain in my ankle had indeed receded; whether this was from a “curative bath” in the waters or the far more likely possibility that the cold had taken down the swelling in my ankle, I didn’t know. Whatever way, I was thankful.
Some 15 minutes later I reminded Paul of the time, and he scurried back onto the pathway and put on his footgear. We meandered down the pathway on the other side of the lagoon, a little sad we didn’t have time to check out the Medicine Wheel garden. That was okay.
The late afternoon sun was starting its descent. There was a hum in the air, and we found ourselves gazing at the water as we passed down that way.
There was a splash, and we saw a muskrat flip over at the surface, apparently fishing in the lagoon’s clear water.
Down past that, we came to the old dam. Across the way lay many things we’d pass on our way out.
The dam is narrow, barely large enough for two people to squeeze by each other on its wooden planks.
From there we could see up towards the spring and out towards the White River, not more than a quarter mile down.
Up on the far bank lies the only remaining part of the old mill at that location, the old turbine. There’s a sign there talking about the piece of machinery. Its red rusted hull still stands like a sentinel at the lagoon’s termination point. From this elevation you can just see down to the stone ring that encompasses the spring.
More wonders were ahead of us, though, in the form of the Bluff Shelter. This amazing rock formation would be interesting enough just from the way it juts out over the bank of the river.
What makes it more interesting is what was found there. There are plaques with information about Doctor Chenall’s famed dig here, and numbers scribbled up on the wall above that mark out the hieroglyphs left there by ancient folks. There are also benches, and if we’d had the time it would have been a good place to relax before making the last part of the trek.
Unfortunately, we were out of time. With just 15 minutes before the close of the park we needed to get moving. My stomach was already growling for the veritable feast I expected at Bubba’s Southern Pit BBQ that evening. But we did stop briefly a few times. Just past the fence north of the old mill site, there’s this unusual tree that’s growing out of a rock, no joke. That I had to photograph, in all its unlikely glory.
I caught a glimpse of boaters out at the mouth of Blue Spring on the White River, casting their lines far off. The trees framed the scene beautifully.
As we wandered back up, we noted the vulture area and paths here and there. And then we were on a long series of ramps that zig-zagged back and forth up the side of the hill, pausing at the gazebo that looks out over the garden. Another time of year, this area would be ablaze with color, but in the August heat things had withered. I didn’t mind that. I liked the idea of the sustainable garden, and was happy that perennials instead of annuals had been favored in the area. I want to come back in the fall and see the blaze of color from fall flowers against the turning leaves.
And then we were back to the top, stopping briefly through the gift shop to thank our hostess and head on out so she could close the doors. We mentioned the couple on the paths behind us.
I know, this is far from a great story about Blue Spring. I want to go back at a time when the weather is more temperate and the heat hasn’t withered the majority of the blooms away. But it was a lovely place, even in the dead heat of our hottest month. And for that, I’m glad I need to go back, thankful for the excuse to enjoy these gardens again.
You’ll find Blue Spring Heritage Center off Highway 62 five and a half miles west of Eureka Springs. Admission is $7.25 for adults, $4 for students 10 to 17 and free for anyone under the age of ten. The gardens are open from March 15th through the second Sunday in November. Go. Take water. And your camera. You’ll find more information on the Blue Springs website or by calling (479) 253-9244.