The Best Things To Do in Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas
November 26, 2021
Hot Springs National Park is unlike most other US National Parks. While there are still a few hiking trails, the park is more about history, architecture and the stories that make the area what it is today. Visit expecting to learn about the mineral hot spring water (but know that you can also swim in the water inside of a spa) and be ready to take in the views of the beautiful Bathhouse Row. This unique national park has something for everyone and is a must-stop on an Arkansas road trip.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
I would recommend at least two days to explore the national park, enjoy a spa treatment and visit Garvan Woodland Gardens. However, Hot Springs also makes a great day trip from Little Rock if you are short on time.
The most iconic hotel in Hot Springs is the historic Arlington Hotel. The hotel originally opened in 1875 and has hosted politicians, gangsters and legends for over 100 years. If you enjoy historical hotels and don’t mind that this is said to be haunted, it’s a great option.
For a more modern option that’s still on the main stretch, stay at The Waters by the Hilton Tapestry Collection. This hotel feels historic with beautiful marble and tile, but has modern amenities. It is right across from Bathhouse Row and many of the rooms have great views of the bathhouses.
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 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. Take your time admiring the architecture, reading the signage and listening to the audio tour.
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.
The Hot Springs National Park Visitor Center has an impressive free museum all about the history of bathhouses in the area. It includes three floors full of original pieces from the bathhouses. You’ll see changing rooms, the gymnasium, massage rooms, a terrace where bathers would sunbathe, electrotherapy devices and more. The museum also has beautiful original tiles and interesting architecture.
In the basement of the museum, you can even see how the spring water enters into the bathhouse. It’s a fascinating way to see what the bathhouses were really like in the early 1900’s.
The Superior Bathhouse Brewery is the only brewery inside of a US National Park and the first brewing company to use natural thermal spring water to brew their beers. The interior has touches that feel like a bathhouse, such as a wall of lockers and a giant pipe as a beer tap. There is a lot of indoor seating and a patio area.
I love the refreshing Beez Kneez, which is a Honey Basil Kolsch. To try the various beers, you can order a flight or even a “beer bath” that includes a sample of all 18 beers on tap. They also serve good food with menu items like buffalo cauliflower, wings and burgers.
The Ohio Club is a historic bar located right across from the national park. It is Arkansas' oldest bar and has been open since 1905. In the early 1900’s, it was a popular hangout spot for notorious gangsters like Al Capone, along with Major League Baseball players. The bar is named the Ohio Club due to the bar itself - it was brought down to Arkansas on a barge from Cincinnati.
Today, the bar often has live music and serves a full menu of food and drinks. I enjoyed the veggie burger and loved the moody atmosphere complete with gangster photos and the impressively carved wooden bar.
A steep one way road will take you up above the main strip of Hot Springs. Make a quick stop at the 1920’s Observation Gazebo for a nice view of the surrounding area. For an even higher vantage point, you can pay to go up inside the Hot Springs Mountain Tower. You’ll obtain a ticket (if you have an America the Beautiful pass, you’ll receive a discount) and receive a coin to put in the turnstile and take the elevator to the top. There are two floors at the top - one indoor and one outdoor. The indoor area has a ton of history to read all about Hot Springs. You can learn about the gangsters from the 1920’s, the geology of the area and so much more. The tower is definitely worth visiting if you have enough time.
There is a paved Grand Promenade trail that follows along behind the bathhouses of Bathhouse Row. On the north side of the trail, you can actually see some of the natural hot springs of which the park gets its name. Depending on the weather, you’ll see steam rising up above the springs. The water is hot but it won’t burn you if you quickly touch it to feel how hot it is.
The promenade also has pretty views of Central Ave and connects to trails leading up into the natural part of the park.
Hot Springs National Park is not known for its hiking, but there are still a handful of trails to explore surrounding the Observation Tower.
- Goat Rock Trail - 2.4 miles, rated moderate, leads to some nice mountain views.
- West Mountain Trail - 2.4 miles, rated easy, trail through the woods with a good bit of elevation.
- Oertel Trail - 3.2 miles, rated moderate, leads from Bathhouse Row to the Gulpha Gorge campground.
If you like wine, it’s worth enjoying a quick tasting from the Bathhouse Row Winery. They offer a variety of wines made from muscadine grapes native to the southeastern United States. You can have a tasting at their counter, purchase bottles to take home or shop the variety of other gift items they sell in the shop.
The national park gift shop is located in one of the former bathhouses and you can taste the natural spring water from a water fountain there. They sell soap, shirts and all kinds of national park merchandise. It’s a bit more unique than most national park shops, so it is worth checking out.
Mountain Valley Water is a bottled water facility that has been bottling water from the Ouachita Mountains for 150 years. They bottle the water in glass to preserve the water’s naturally balanced pH and the mix of minerals. On the main stretch just north of the national park, you can visit Mountain Valley’s Museum and Visitor Center. There is a museum about the history upstairs and merchandise for sale downstairs. If nothing else, buy a bottle of water from their fridge to try for yourself!
If you love cupcakes, Fat Bottomed Girls Cupcakes has a huge selection of flavors to try. This spot was made famous by competing in Cupcake Wars on Food Network! Popular flavors include creme brulee, ooey gooey buttercake and red velvet. They also sell a variety of gift items like socks and shirts. Be prepared for a line.
The Gangster Museum of America is all about the gambling, bootlegging and other nefarious activities of the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s. To visit, you’ll take a guided tour and watch videos in the various rooms. If you’re interested in gangster history, this is a great place to learn.
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 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.
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 to explore the area, here are more things to do nearby!
- Take a boat out on Lake Hamilton
- Hike in Lake Catherine State Park or Lake Ouachita State Park
- Take in the views at the iconic Petit Jean State Park
- Spend time enjoying the history and food in Little Rock
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