By Bryan Mims
The main industry in Hot Springs is the sweet pursuit of ways not to be terribly industrious. That’s not to say the town is bereft of good, hardworking stock: It’s just that in a town encompassed by the Pisgah National Forest, one can make a decent livelihood meeting the needs of people who need to get away from it all.
Hot Springs has fewer than 600 residents but just added one more with Jaycee Cole, who recently moved about 35 miles north from Asheville, tired of its four-lane roads and five-star vibe that draws nightlife-happy crowds. He sits at the Smoky Mountain Diner, 7 in the morning, two biscuits drenched in gravy, coffee poured and re-poured. At 66, he wants his golden years to shine with the warm glow of solitude. “I take a deep breath,” he says of Hot Springs, “and I can’t help but smile.”
Small and remote, Hot Springs is a blissful burst of civilization for hikers along the Appalachian Trail. The trail, spanning more than 2,000 root-and-rock-ribbed miles from Georgia to Maine, is a smooth sidewalk right outside the diner’s front door. Hikers headed Maine-ward from the south round a bend on N.C. 209 to gaze upon country ham and black Angus steak with eggs and sweet potato pancakes. It’s one of the few bona fide towns along the trail’s entire stretch affording the weary a hot meal, a cold beer and a place to wash their socks.
It was Hot Springs’ reputedly healing waters that lured people to this corner of North Carolina in the first place in 1778. It’s the only natural hot spring in the state and one of only two known east of the Mississippi. Naturally, a community sprung up around the springs, first called Warm Springs and then, when a hotter water source was discovered, changing its name to Hot Springs. People really started to flow in when a 350-room resort opened in 1831, capitalizing on the public’s desire to test the waters, but it burned down in 1884. Another hotel was built, a ritzy one with marble pools, croquet courts and vast manicured lawns — regarded as one of the most luxurious resorts in the Southeast — but it, too, burned to the ground. Two more hotels went up but curiously met the same fiery fate.
Madison County native Eugene Hicks, home from military service, stopped by the Hot Springs Inn in 1956, but because he wasn’t a guest, the staff wouldn’t let him look around. As the story goes, Hicks was so upset, he vowed to one day buy the place. In 1990, he did just that, turning the hotel into today’s iteration, the Hot Springs Resort & Spa.
The resort spreads across 100 acres and boasts 17 outdoor hot tubs pumping in that prized mineral water. Book for an hour’s bath overlooking the French Broad River or stay longer and let the sulfate of magnesia ease your sore muscles, the chloride of potassium soothe your nerves, the sulphate of potassium help your heart. The resort, owned by the Eugene G. Hicks Administrative Trust since Hicks’ death in 2008, has six hotel-style rooms (four with heart-shaped tubs), several deluxe cabins, 16 rustic camping cabins and more than 100 campsites.
The relaxed can then immerse themselves in the crosscurrents of this town where a mountain stream meets a wide, mountain river, with one Dollar General store but not a single traffic light. That suits Daniel Gallagher, one of the owners of Bluff Mountain Outfitters, just fine. He used to guide whitewater-rafting trips until he declared he was too old “to push people down the river.” With the town lacking a place for outdoors folk to stock up on protein bars and flannel, he opened his store in 1996. Originally from Connecticut, he happily rolls with the flow of Hot Springs. “We don’t have any traffic lights,” he says, “which is probably why we’re not all neurotic.”
While outdoors recreation is an economic dynamo here, Hot Springs does have a manufacturing presence. Peerless Blowers, maker of industrial blowers and fans, set up shop in 1992 and employs nearly 100 people. Madison County has only two other incorporated towns — Marshall, the county seat, and Mars Hill, home to Mars Hill University — just slightly larger than Hot Springs.
“Bikers, hikers, tourists and locals” are the clientele at Dory’s Restaurant, which opened in August and is named for the owner’s dog. Simone Landes says her biggest sellers are the barbecue sandwiches and burgers, washed down with regional craft beer. Next door, with a patio overlooking Spring Creek, is the Spring Creek Tavern and Inn, serving up local brews named Lazy Hiker Trail Mate and Frog Level Salamander Slam.
Hot Springs bubbles with places to eat, drink, sleep and tie the knot. Locals will tell you that on most any given weekend, a couple is exchanging vows at the Mountain Magnolia Inn and Suites or honeymooning at the Laughing Heart Lodge or Sunnybank Inn. Getting in hot water is such a cool way to forget your troubles, and in this town, nirvana springs eternal.