Link to USGS home page

Scientific Investigations Report 2006-5001

Characteristics of Thermal Springs and the Shallow Ground-Water System at Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas

By Daniel S. Yeatts

This document is available in Portable Document Format (PDF):  SIR2006-5001 (3.68 MB)
To view this document, you need the Adobe Acrobat® Reader installed on your computer.
(A free copy of the Acrobat® Reader may be downloaded from Adobe Systems Incorporated.)


The thermal springs of Hot Springs National Park have been valued for the recreational and therapeutic benefits of the thermal baths, as a source of drinking water, and a destination of attraction since the history of the area was first recorded. The future of the park and the city of Hot Springs depends greatly on maintaining and protecting this unique natural resource from degradation and contamination. To maintain and protect the thermal springs, it is imperative to understand the character of the springs, monitor changes in spring characteristics, and evaluate the source of the thermal springs.

The thermal springs are situated in the Ouachita Mountains of central Arkansas. The springs emerge in a gap between Hot Springs Mountain and West Mountain in an area about 1,500 feet long by 400 feet wide. The springs predominantly are composed of a deep thermal ground water component with a lesser but qualitatively substantial component of shallow cold ground water. Currently, there are 43 thermal springs in the park that are presumed to be flowing. Thermal water from 33 of the thermal springs is collected and monitored at a central reservoir, which distributes the combined discharge for public use and consumption.

The average collection system discharge over the period of record 1990 through 1995 and 1998 through 2005 was 658,000 gallons per day and ranged from 518,000 to 763,000 gallons per day, not including about 131,000 gallons per day from springs 43 and 43a that emerge from the bottom of the collection system reservoir. The overall pattern of the collection system discharge from 1990 through 2005 shows an increasing rate of discharge. Changes in the collection system temperature showed a positive relation to changes in discharge from 1990 through 1995, and an inverse relation to changes in discharge from 1998 through 2005. The collection system usually increases in discharge during rainfall events.

Continuous water temperature monitoring at the collection system reservoir inflow pipe shows that there has not been a substantial long-term temperature change during the past 15 years. The daily water temperature ranged from 59.1 to 62.1 degrees Celsius and the average daily temperature was 61.4 degrees Celsius. The collection system water temperature shows a strong seasonal pattern, with highs and lows about 1 month delayed from air temperature highs and lows. The collection system temperature also shows strong response to rainfall.

The water temperatures at four thermal springs were monitored from August 2000 through June 2005, and four additional thermal springs and one thermal spring collection box were monitored from September 2003 through June 2005. Springs of relatively higher elevation (defined as group 1) generally showed a greater temperature response to changes in air temperature and rainfall. Springs of relatively lower elevation (defined as group 2) generally showed a smaller temperature response to changes in air temperature and rainfall. Springs 17 and 46 were exceptions that displayed unique water temperature responses that differed somewhat from group 1 and 2 springs.

Rock types exposed in the vicinity of the thermal springs are shale, chert, novaculite, sandstone, and conglomerate. Shale units generally impede ground-water movement, while fractured chert, novaculite, and sandstone units generally support ground-water movement. The thermal-water component hypothetically enters the ground-water system as regionally derived recharge from rainfall and flows to estimated depths of 4,500 to 7,500 feet, where the water is heated and rises along fault and fracture conduits. The cold-water component enters the groundwater system primarily as locally derived recharge from rainfall and flows along shallow northeast trending faults, joints, and fractures to the thermal springs. The thermal springs are bounded on the southwest, southeast, and northwest by shale barriers. The lower member of the Arkansas Novaculite is probably the primary aquifer of shallow ground-water flow. Ground-water levels generally indicate that ground-water flow is towards Hot Springs Creek.

The size of the shallow cold-water recharge area was estimated from the general concept of the hydrologic budget, where the average annual ground-water recharge (input) is equal to the average annual cold-water discharge (output) of the thermal springs. Based on the thermal springs estimated cold groundwater baseflow discharge of 17.8 million gallons per year, and an estimated ground-water recharge rate of 5 to 10 inches per year, the estimated size of the shallow cold-water recharge area computes to 0.10 to 0.20 square mile. The shallow cold-water recharge area appears to be bounded on three sides by low-permeability barriers, and extends approximately to the topographic divide. The estimated shallow ground-water recharge area based on the boundaries is about 0.14 square mile.

Rhodamine dye released on Hot Springs Mountain, about 1,000 feet east of Central Avenue, was detected above background levels at several thermal water recovery sites over a period of several weeks. The flow path of the rhodamine dye to the thermal springs is probably along the western boundary contact with the Stanley Shale or along northeast-trending fractured lineaments. Presence of the dye verifies that this area is part of the recharge area and that surface water enters the ground-water system at some point along the pathway of the rhodamine dye. Time of travel from the release point to the thermal springs was 1 to 3 weeks, depending on where the dye was detected.


  1. Map showing location of Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas
  2. Map showing study area and monitoring sites, Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas
  3. Map showing location of thermal springs, collection system, and monitoring sites, Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas
  4. Map showing dye release sites and dye recovery points, Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas
  5. Photograph showing collection box 2 with fabricated lid to provide access for dye trace monitoring, Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas
  6. Map showing geology in the vicinity of Hot Springs Mountain, Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas
  7. Graph showing daily and annual average discharge and temperature of the thermal springs at the inflow of the collection system reservoir
  8. Graph showing thermal springs collection system hourly temperature and discharge response to 3.5 inches of rainfall on February 15-16, 2001
  9. Graph showing hourly air temperature at Hot Springs Memorial Field Airport, Hot Springs, Arkansas, 2005
  10. Graph showing daily average water temperature of group 1 springs and rainfall, 2000-2005
  11. Graph showing hourly air temperature fluctuations compared to hourly water temperature at group 1 springs, July 10-20, 2004
  12. Graph showing daily average water temperature of group 2 springs and rainfall, 2000-2005
  13. Diagram showing conceptual model of the thermal water flow system
  14. Graph showing hourly water levels in wells W2 and W4 and daily rainfall, 2004-2005
  15. Map showing estimated recharge area for shallow ground-water contribution to the thermal springs
  16. Map showing dye release and detection points and implied flow paths of the dyes
  17. Photograph showing rhodamine dye release at site 2 on Hot Springs Mountain, Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas.
  1. Thermal springs identified in Hot Springs National Park
  2. Generalized stratigraphy of sedimentary rocks in the vicinity of the thermal springs
  3. Historical record of thermal springs temperature and discharge
  4. Results of rhodamine dye release at site 2 on December 4, 2004

FirstGov button  Take Pride in America button