After showering and changing into a bathing suit, you make your way to a communal, coed thermal-pool room. Here, you eye a series of small tiled pools with natural spring waters ranging in temperature from 98 to 104 degrees. Under the light of an arched stained glass ceiling, you start a soothing soaking ritual, moving from pool to pool to moderate your temperature. As the minutes pass, your aches, pains and cares seemingly melt away.
Welcome to Hot Springs National Park (HSNP), nestled in the Ouachita Mountains within the city of Hot Springs in central Arkansas. Without an entrance booth or gate, and with attractions both indoors and outdoors, this isn't your typical national park. With its abundant natural resource of hot spring water, people come here to do the Hot Springs Soak, a centuries-old bathing tradition, in ornate bathhouses. HSNP boasts 47 springs, 27 of which are used for bathing, soaking and drinking.
Loyalists like to tout HSNP as the country's first national park. In a way, they have a point. In 1832, President Andrew Jackson named it the country's first federal reservation — a forerunner to the National Park Service, which Congress established in 1916. In 1921, Hot Springs Reservation became Hot Springs National Park.
The history of the area starts long before the early 1800s, of course. More than 4,400 years ago, water trapped under the surface of the Ouachitas began to bubble up through folds and faults in the mountain range, resulting in natural springs with waters up to 143 degrees. Native Americans relied on these waters for centuries, believing they had curative properties. It's thought that Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto soaked in these springs in 1541, the first European to do so. Between 1880 and 1950, more than a million people (including Al Capone and other Prohibition gangsters) came to soak here, again believing it could help cure what ailed them. But as Western medicine became more developed in the 1940s and ‘50s, the public's interest in the waters as medicine waned, and the focus became a recreational one.
Bathers today know that soaking in the warm spring-fed pools after a long hike does a body good, soothing tired muscles.
While anchored in the past, HSNP has been updated for the more than 1.5 million visitors it attracts each year. The eight bathhouses now on Bathhouse Row — the heart of the park on Central Avenue in downtown Hot Springs — were built between 1892 and 1923 in grand architectural styles ranging from Renaissance Revival to Spanish Colonial Revival, and seven of them have been painstakingly restored. Two still function as bathhouses and the other five are now an art/event space, a brewery, a large emporium/gift shop, a hotel and the main visitor center. The eighth one is closed.
Bathhouse Row should be your first stop, but the park also lures visitors with its 5,550 acres of green expanse in three of the Ouachitas — Hot Springs, North and West mountains. Made from Arkansas Novaculite, sandstone and shale, the mountainsides have sharp, gray outcroppings that shimmer in the sun and provide places to sit and rest when you're hiking or cycling their trails.
Location: Hot Springs, Arkansas
Number of historic bathhouses: 8
Acreage: 5,550 acres
Highest peak: At 1,405 feet, Music Mountain (historically called the summit of West Mountain)
Miles/number of trails: 26 miles along 21 trails, some of which overlap
Main attractions: The spring waters and Bathhouse Row
Entry fee: Free park admission (but bathhouses charge fees for soaking services and treatments)
Best ways to experience it: Walking along historic Bathhouse Row and taking a soak
When to go to avoid the crowds: Spring and fall
Plan Your Trip
Most visitors come to this mountain getaway by car, as it's a doable drive of less than five hours from several major cities. The state capital, Little Rock, is just 55 miles northeast; Memphis, Tennessee, 188 miles northeast; Dallas, 286 miles southwest; and Oklahoma City, 309 miles northwest. If you prefer to hop on a plane, you can fly into Hot Springs Memorial Field, a small airport with commercial flights to and from Dallas. If you do arrive by air, rent a car so you can get to trails, vantage points and campgrounds.
Driving in Hot Springs is easy, and free parking is well marked. Downtown is a condensed, walkable area, with many hotels, shops and restaurants just across the street from Bathhouse Row.
Summer attracts the most visitors, with warm temperatures averaging in the mid-90s during the day and in the low 70s at night in July. The weather and longer days make for good hiking conditions, pleasant picnics and ideal selfies on scenic overlooks. But spring and fall are the local secrets: lower room rates, less-crowded spas, fewer mosquitos, less humidity and foliage that's either blooming or changing color. The weather typically cooperates, as well, with average highs in the mid-70s during the day and in the low 50s at night in April and October. If you visit in mid-March, the city hosts the World's Shortest St. Patrick's Day Parade, a hilarious 98-foot celebration (and the exception to the smaller-crowds-in-spring rule). In October, visitors from around the globe come for the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival.
The park remains open all year round, but the average highs and lows drop to 50 and 30 degrees in winter, and you may even see a dusting of snow. Also, bathhouses, museums and other area attractions have limited hours. On the plus side, the crowds thin and you'll really appreciate the warm thermal waters after you've been out in the chilly air.
If you're an avid hiker, you can set out on challenging trails with elevation changes, but you don't need to be a mountain climber to get a little cardio action in Hot Springs. Just go for a walk along the brick-paved, half-mile Grand Promenade behind Bathhouse Row. When you do, you'll also get a taste of Hot Springs’ opulence a century ago, with the promenade's preserved sculpted fountains and manicured landscaping. Benches along the walk are good perches for resting and taking in Bathhouse Row's striking architecture. “With the old bricks, you can almost envision people strolling on this same promenade generations ago,” says Steve Arrison, chief executive officer of Visit Hot Springs.
Staying hydrated on your visit won't be a problem. Throughout the park, including along the Grand Promenade, you can fill up water bottles for free at spring-fed taps. The water has no volcanic component, so it has no sulfur and therefore no taste or smell.
You may lose cell service on mountain roads between Little Rock and Hot Springs, and perhaps on the West Mountain trails, but in the city of Hot Springs proper — as well as in the park on Bathhouse Row and the Grand Promenade, and at the observation tower — stay as connected as you want to be. Many spas do request phones stay in lockers so everyone can soak in quiet and fully relax.
Where to Stay and Eat
Lodging: Relaxing is the operative word in Hot Springs, and most hotels make that easy to do, with deep soaker tubs in their rooms and water fresh from the springs. Many also offer soaking and spa services. There's only one small hotel inside the park, but many others are close by, often requiring only crossing a street.
At the renovated Hotel Hale, bed down in the park in the former Hale Bathhouse, which opened in 1892. Its Mission Revival-style architecture — red-tile roof, stucco exterior, arched windows — gives the property a stately look. Inside, its nine rooms take you back in time with exposed brick walls, original archways and thermal baths.
The grand dame of Hot Springs hotels, the 484-room Arlington Resort Hotel and Spa has been welcoming guests since 1875. Just across the street from Bathhouse Row, it will charm you with its high ceilings, spa and historic murals, vintage tile work and framed artifacts from the city's storied history. True, it's worn around the edges in a few spots, but given its age that's to be expected and respected.
For something a little farther from busy Bathhouse Row, book the Gold-Inn Hot Springs, a retro-vibe motel with mountain views a little more than a mile north of the Fordyce Bathhouse Visitor Center. Bright-colored decor, a refreshing swimming pool and in-room kitchenettes make the 17-room motel a comfortable place for an extended stay.
Camping: For the quintessential national park experience, do your sleeping in the park's Gulpha Gorge Campground ($30 per night, 50 percent discount with National Parks Senior or Access passes), just two miles from downtown, but insulated from traffic noise by tall trees and a babbling brook. The first-come-first-served facility has 40 sites for RVs and tents, all with full hookups. Each site has water, as well as a picnic table and grill. There are restrooms but no showers.
After a night of shut-eye under the stars, get your oxygen flowing with a morning hike on the adjacent, 0.6-mile Gulpha Gorge Trail. Several switchbacks make the steep trail manageable, and you can rest on benches along the way. Your reward for starting your day with this active pursuit: impressive gorge views.
Dining: The park offers only a few places to grab a bite, but many of the city's restaurants are just quick walks away.
For breakfast, stroll less than a mile from the visitor center to Central Avenue's Colonial Pancake and Waffle House, a budget-friendly diner. Fuel up on hearty stacks of flapjacks and syrup or eggs cooked to order before adventuring out for the day.
Later, perhaps after a hike, treat yourself at Fat Bottomed Girl's Cupcake Shoppe, just across the street from Bathhouse Row on Central Avenue, a sweet spot featured on the Food Network's Cupcake Wars. Try the Lemon Lavender cupcake — lemon buttercream frosting atop a cake infused with lavender oil and topped with edible lavender. One bite and you'll know why it's a best seller.
Grab a brew and a casual meal at Superior Bathhouse Brewery, in the restored Superior Bathhouse (a 1916 Classical Revival building). Choose from one of 18 different ales made with spring water. Try Space Force — a bitter IPA made with blood orange puree. Pair it with a burger or the mushroom panini with house-made pesto.
Want a side of music with your calories? The Ohio Club, on Central Avenue across from Bathhouse Row, claims to be Arkansas’ oldest bar, and back in the day Al Capone and Bugsy Siegel hung out here. Live bands play many nights, but the music isn't so loud to distract from your meal of sliders, salads and sausage plates.
For special-occasion dining, reserve a table at The Avenue, Hot Springs’ most refined dining spot. Chefs use Arkansas-grown produce to craft dishes such as pan-seared scallops and a vegan “steak,” made with portobello mushrooms. It's inside The Waters Hotel, also just across from Bathhouse Row.
If a picnic sounds good to you, you'll find designated areas on Hot Springs Mountain and North Mountain trails and on West Mountain. Most have tables and grills.
Things to Do
Soak. For generations, its natural thermal springs have lured people to this mountain oasis for a soak. You can (and should) do the same at the two bathhouses on Bathhouse Row still offering this big draw: Buckstaff and Quapaw. Buckstaff, a well-preserved brick facility with bright exterior awnings and impressive marble interiors, has been operating continuously since 1912. A private leaseholder reopened Quapaw in 2008 after an extensive renovation that preserved its iconic dome and vaulted porch while updating the interior with modern locker rooms and treatment rooms. You can easily spoil yourself at either bathhouse because both also offer other standard spa treatments, such as facials, massages, manicures and pedicures.
Note: Hot Springs prohibits soaking outdoors, but you can run your hands through the natural waters at Display Springs behind the Maurice Bathhouse and at the Hot Water Cascade near the Grand Promenade.
Tour. Even though Buckstaff and Quapaw are the only two bathhouses still functioning in that capacity, you'll want to explore Bathhouse Row, especially the Fordyce Bathhouse Visitor Center. A 1989 renovation of the 1915 Renaissance Revival building preserved many of the historic elements of the old bathhouse, including tiled treatment rooms with marbled walls, stained glass ceilings and an eye-popping wood check-in desk that now serves as the ranger station. As you tour Fordyce's three stories, you'll also see ornate ceramic fountains, antique workout equipment in the old gymnasium and artifacts used for medical and other treatments originally offered in Hot Springs.
Hike. Lace up your boots and hike the Ouachitas on 26 miles of trails, some overlapping. In summer's heat, you'll appreciate the shade on the Hot Springs Mountain Trail, a 1.7-mile loop that goes past the observation tower. Those with mobility issues favor West Mountain's Whittington Trail, a 1.2-mile, fully accessible flat trail. If you're an avid hiker, set out on the Sunset Trail, the park's longest at 10 miles one way or 17 as a loop. You'll be rewarded with valley views, including nearby Hamilton and Ouachita lakes.
There are restrooms near the trails at Bathhouse Row, the observation tower and Gulpha Gorge Campground.
See the sights from on high. See beautiful mountain scenery from the comfort of your car on two different driving routes with well-placed overlooks. Be an early bird on the 3.6-mile Hot Springs Mountain Drive, stopping at the east-facing overlook near the Hot Springs Mountain Tower to watch the sunrise. You also get expansive views of the city, the Ouachitas and the surrounding lakes. For an even higher viewpoint, pay $7 to board the elevator that whisks you up another 216 feet to the observation tower.
Make your way up West Mountain Summit Drive for a late-in-the-day drive. At the western overlook where the Blacksnake Road trail connects to the Sunset Trail, catch the sunset as you take in a bird's-eye view of the Ouachita River.
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The city of Hot Springs is not just the way to get to HSNP, but a thriving town integrated with the park's attractions, particularly Bathhouse Row. Some parts of the city, including residential areas to the south and a horseracing track and casino, are not in the park itself.
Hot Springs has ties to baseball, having been the game's first host for spring training camps beginning in the late 1880s. Take a self-guided tour of the Hot Springs Historic Baseball Trail, where signs along the route commemorate historic baseball activities that took place in the city. Many of its 32 stops are downtown and walkable from Bathhouse Row. Illegal gambling and the fact that they could hide away in the Ouachitas lured Siegel, Capone and other gangsters to the region in the 1930s. Fittingly, even the Gangster Museum of America, packed with Capone lore, is tucked away: Your guide will open the secret door for you.
For water recreation, you may want to stay at Lake Ouachita State Park, 15 miles northwest of Hot Springs, with its 90 campsites for RVs and tent campers. The lake's water is so clear that scuba divers explore here. Nondivers can pick from an array of fun water activities, from kayaking to swimming. On land, enjoy good hiking.
Not keen on camping? Mountain Harbor Resort and Spa is the choice for visitors who want the beauty of the lake, but appreciate the luxuries of a well-equipped hotel or cabin and an onsite restaurant with breathtaking views.
If you drive through Little Rock, stop in the capital for some history lessons at several must-see attractions.
In 1957, nine Black students integrated Little Rock Central High School, despite opposition and violence. Still an active public school just two miles from downtown, it's now a National Historic Site, with the National Park Service offering powerfully moving tours.
The William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum, less than a mile from downtown on the Arkansas River, serves as the official archive of our 42nd president, complete with an exact replica of the oval office. The eye-catching building features stunning glass architecture.
The small ESSE Purse Museum in downtown's South Main neighborhood might sound frivolous, but don't skip this treasure trove of women's history. It tells stories by looking at what women carried in their handbags during different time periods. And yes, the gift shop is a purse-shopper's dream with handbags made out felt, rubber, wood and other materials.
When hunger strikes, dine at the Lassis Inn restaurant, where desegregation proponents met up regularly during the civil rights movement. It nabbed an America's Classics Award from the prestigious James Beard Foundation this year. Since 1905, locals have been chowing down on its fried catfish, which they insist is the country's best.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on October 23, 2020. It's been updated to reflect recent COVID-19 developments.