As we’ve mentioned before, we’re on a quest to visit all 61 of the US’s National Parks. Arkansas’ Hot Springs National Park — our 50th — was a pleasant surprise! Nestled in forested, rolling hills, this park offers hot spring baths and spas, hikes, beautiful architecture, and a glimpse into history.
Originally set aside in 1832 as Hot Springs Reservation to protect the naturally occurring hot springs in the area (and making it the first natural area to be protected by the US government, predating Yellowstone National Park by some 40 years), today’s park is a blend of history, culture, relaxation, and nature. And, there’s no cost to visit!
While most of the springs have been covered for over a hundred years, several natural hot springs are on display for visitors to see — and touch — the 143 degree F (62 C) — water. The largest is at the north end of Bathhouse Row in the grassy area across from the Arlington Hotel.
Besides the natural springs, the park provides several fountains throughout town that offer fresh spring water. You’ll be sure to see locals filling up jugs of spring water for use at home. Several springs offer hot water while others offer cool water. We really enjoyed the Happy Hollow Spring, since its cool water taps are conveniently located near the end of several hiking trails on the east side of the park!
The main feature of the park, Bathhouse Row, is an impressive stretch of gorgeous buildings where, beginning in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, therapeutic spa treatments were offered to visitors. Start your visit by walking through Fordyce Bathhouse, which now houses the park’s visitor center. Most of the original spa equipment is on display with thorough explanations of what spa-goers called “the cure.”
While several of the old buildings no longer function as bathhouses — they’re now museums, park offices, and even a brewpub — two of them still function much as they did a century ago. The Buckstaff and Quapaw bathhouses still offer visitors a chance to soak in the natural hot spring water. They each charge a fee for their services, but are worth a visit in order to get the full park experience.
Buckstaff Baths offer the full, historical spa treatment, which includes a soak in a hot spring water-filled porcelain tub, steam treatment, hot towel wrap, and “needle” shower. At Buckstaff, we really felt like we were stepping back in time, as the experience was very similar to the historical one described at the visitor center.
Quapaw Baths & Spa offers “modern” spa treatments as well as the opportunity to soak in any of four indoor thermal pools. Each pool is kept at a slightly different temperature, and a small cafe offers food, drink, and even cocktails to enjoy during your relaxing visit. Swimsuits are required, towels are provided, and the locker rooms even offer swimsuit dryers!
Major League Baseball’s spring training began in Hot Springs, and it attracted players including Cy Young, Hank Aaron, and Babe Ruth. The Hot Springs Historic Baseball Trail, a self-guided walk complete with informative audio via phone call or app, provides plenty of details.
The Grand Promenade is a lovely brick walking path that extends the length of Central Avenue along the back side of the bathhouses, and it’s well worth a stroll. It provides a peaceful alternative to walking along bustling Central Avenue.
Those looking for a more adventurous walk can plot out a hike along the park’s numerous criss-crossing hiking trails. We really enjoyed a loop hike along the West Mountain Trail, which offers some great views of the forested countryside. Another good hike was on Hot Springs Mountain along the Dogwood Trail (don’t miss the view from Goat Rock). Both mountains also offer scenic drives and viewpoints.
Birders will enjoy the many opportunities to see a variety of eastern birds. We spotted Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Brown Thrasher, and Summer Tanager in the park, among others. We saw several deer on our hikes, too!
The Hot Springs Mountain Tower offers a fantastic 360-degree view of the entire area. An elevator climbs 216 feet (66 m) above the forest, and two observation decks provide both local history and spectacular views. Admission is $8 for adults, with discounts for seniors, children, military, and National Parks Pass holders.
Finally, peaceful Whittington Park offers a shaded, flat, creekside walking path through a Hot Springs neighborhood. While the park no longer has the grandeur of its heyday, it’s a great place to walk, picnic, and find some shade. We did a few laps around the 1.2 mile (1.9 km) trail and nearly had it to ourselves. Tip: the Whittington Spring fountain, in front of the National Park building on the south side of the park, offers cool spring water.
We really enjoyed our visit to Hot Springs National Park — its history, thermal waters, hiking trails, beautiful architecture, small town charm, birding opportunities, and forests. Enjoy your next national park adventure, whether it’s for a week or a weekend!