Arkansas

Things To Do in Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas

July 14, 2020

The Anthony Chapel in Garvan Woodland Gardens
The Anthony Chapel in Garvan Woodland Gardens

Why Arkansas?

My first experience in Arkansas was driving across the state while traveling between Cincinnati, OH and Dallas, TX. After doing this drive on 5 separate occasions, I found the state to be boring, dull and never-ending. However, I realize now that I did not give “The Natural State” a fair chance at all! Arkansas is full of natural beauty, from the mountains of the Ozarks, to the waterfalls in Petit Jean State Park to the cave system at Blanchard Springs. I can’t wait to explore more of the state, but I had the chance to spend a day in Hot Springs, AR as I drove in between Memphis and Dallas, and I’ve compiled a perfect way to make the most of one day in Arkansas.

History of Hot Springs, AR

The Buckstaff Bathhouse, which has been operating as a spa since 1912
The Buckstaff Bathhouse, which has been operating as a spa since 1912

Hot Springs, AR is named after the natural mineral hot springs that are found in the area. The small town has quite a storied past. Native Americans were the long-time original dwellers in the area and called the region the “Valley of the Vapors.” They believed that the hot water possessed healing properties. As American expansion moved westward, Hot Springs became federally protected land in 1832. It was the first federally protected land in the United States and became America’s first resort town. As the years passed, Victorian style bath houses were built and became spas harnessing the thermal water.

The thermal hot spring water
The thermal hot spring water

Hot Springs became an official National Park in 1921, and at the time it was a popular hangout for mobsters, bootleggers and gamblers. The town was an ideal hideaway for mobsters like Frank Costello and Al Capone, and essentially had Vegas-style amenities before Las Vegas was urbanized. The gangster activity in Hot Springs lasted until the 1960’s, when the government shut down what they called the “largest illegal gambling operation in the U.S.”

The Ozark Bathhouse, now housing the Hot Springs National Park Cultural Center
The Ozark Bathhouse, now housing the Hot Springs National Park Cultural Center

Another interesting piece of the Hot Springs history has to do with baseball. Beginning in 1886, the Chicago White Stockings (now the cubs) began spring training at the Hot Springs. From then on, spring training in Hot Springs attracted players from all over the country, where baseball legends trained for the season while also enjoying the bustling night life of the resort town.

Hot Springs Today

The Fordyce Bathhouse, now the park's visitor center
The Fordyce Bathhouse, now the park's visitor center

Today, Hot Springs is not quite the same spa town as it used to be, but it still has plenty to do and ways to experience the mineral hot springs. The Hot Springs National Park is a mix of both history and nature. It includes historic buildings on Central Ave as well as protected nature with hiking, camping and other outdoor activities. Central Ave is full of shops, restaurants, hotels and a multitude of tourists. You can venture about 20 minutes away from this area of town to go swimming or boating on the popular Lake Hamilton or visit the beautiful and peaceful Garvan Woodland Gardens.

How To Get To Hot Springs National Park

If you are flying to visit Hot Springs, the closest major airport is in Little Rock, the Arkansas capitol. The Little Rock airport is a little less than an hour away from Hot Springs.

If you are driving, Hot Springs is about five hours from Dallas, four hours from Memphis and a little under five hours from Tulsa, OK.

Things To Do in Hot Springs, Arkansas

Here are the top things you should do in Hot Springs, Arkansas if you only have one day!

What To See in Hot Springs National Park

No visit to Hot Springs is complete without a visit to Hot Springs National Park. This park is not your traditional national park, as it contains both nature and a street with a variety of businesses. The historic Central Ave has a row of deco-style buildings known as Bathhouse Row and each one is leased out by the park service. The eight bathhouses have different uses today, including housing offices and the visitor center for the park service, a luxury hotel, spas and a brewery.

The Quapaw Bathhouse viewed from the promenade
The Quapaw Bathhouse viewed from the promenade

The National Park Service operates a cell phone history tour along Bathhouse Row, so you can get a guided tour without coming into contact with anyone.

There are two spas in operation in the area - The Buckstaff Bathhouse and the Quapaw Bathhouse. The Buckstaff Bathhouse has been continuously operated since 1912, making it the oldest spa still in operation. Both offer a wide variety of spa options and opportunities to soak in the thermal baths. This is the only way to soak in the thermal hot springs in the park. If you don’t need to soak, you can see a stream of spring water emerge from the rock just behind the bathhouse row, on the path up to the Grand Promenade. This promenade also has pretty views of Central Ave and connects to trails leading up into the natural part of the park.

The promenade walk overlooking Central Ave
The promenade walk overlooking Central Ave

We didn’t have enough time to enjoy any spa services, but we did reach in and touch the stream along the Promenade… so I can confirm it was very hot!

Our favorite part of Bathhouse Row was visiting Superior Bathhouse Brewery, the first brewery inside of a US National Park. It is the first brewing company to use natural thermal spring water to brew their beers. We were able to snag one of their outdoor tables, which was at least 15 feet away from any other table. It honestly felt so amazing to drink a cold beer in public for the first time in months! I had the Beez Kneez, their Honey Basil Kolsch, and it was refreshing and delicious.

Superior Bathhouse Brewery
Superior Bathhouse Brewery

beer

brewery

After lunch and Bathhouse Row, I recommend driving or hiking up into the park. As you gain elevation, you can visit the Hot Springs Mountain Tower or the 1920’s Observation Gazebo, where you see great views of the park and surrounding area. The park is not really known for the quality of hiking, but if you want to hike I recommend the Goat Rock Trail in order to get some viewpoints.

The Hot Springs Mountain Tower
The Hot Springs Mountain Tower

The 1920's Observation Gazebo
The 1920's Observation Gazebo

If you visiting Northwest Arkansas in addition to Hot Springs, check out my guide to Bentonville! Bentonville is known for mountain biking, world class art museums and great food.

Visit Garvan Woodland Gardens

meingardens

waterfall

I highly recommend visiting Garvan Woodland Gardens while you’re in Hot Springs. The gardens are located 15 minutes from Hot Springs National Park. The University of Arkansas operates this botanical garden and it demonstrates a unique combination of plant life and architecture. It contains 210 acres of trails to wander and landscaping to enjoy. Highlights from my visit include the Asian rock garden, an overlook of Lake Hamilton and beautiful footbridges. However, the absolutely stunning Anthony Chapel and the playful Bob and Sunny Evans Tree House were most impressive in my opinion.

The Anthony Chapel
The Anthony Chapel

Inside of the Anthony Chapel
Inside of the Anthony Chapel

The Anthony Chapel opened in 2006 and was designed by architect Maurice Jennings. Made of glass, wood and stone, it feels like it belongs in a fairytale forest. During non-Covid times and when there isn’t a wedding, it's open to walk inside and look around. As you look up to the 57 foot high ceiling, the intricate cross-beams tower above and the glass walls make for a unique and beautiful play of shadows and light. Unsurprisingly, this is a very popular location for weddings. You may recognize the design from two other chapels designed by Maurice Jenning’s design partner, E. Fay Jones; the Thorncrown Chapel in Eureka Springs, AR and the Mildred B. Cooper Memorial Chapel in Bella Vista, AR. Next to the chapel, you’ll also find the Anthony Family Carillon, an electronic bell tower that chimes on the hour. You can stand beneath it and stare up at beautiful symmetry made from steel columns.

Seeing the Anthony Chapel was a highlight of the trip! It would be so dreamy to get married here.

treehousecrop

meintreehouse

Also special to the gardens is the engaging and unique treehouse structure. The Bob and Sunny Evans Tree House floats among the trees and evokes a sense of adventure through its unique shape and materials. Designed as a unique educational experience for children, the structure has plenty of nooks and crannies to climb on and explore. It is located within the Evan’s Children’s Adventure Garden, where you’ll find boulders, elevated walkways and a waterfall to explore into as well.

If you have more time

Hot Springs National Park and Garvan Woodland Gardens are how I recommend you spend one day in Arkansas. However, if you are spending more time in the area, I recommend boating on Lake Hamilton, visiting the nearby state parks of Lake Catherine State Park or Lake Ouachita State Park and spending a full day of spa treatments at the Quapaw or Buckstaff Bathhouses.

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Why Arkansas? My first experience in Arkansas was driving across the state while traveling between  Cincinnati, OH  and  Dallas, TX . After…

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