Hot Springs National Park is not only the second smallest of all the National Parks it is one of the most unique. It is a national park that is part of a city. It is the only National Park that includes the streets of a downtown historical district and also the only one that has a brewery inside the park.
Hot Springs National Park is a free national park that is focused on a unique time and place in American history and culture.
If you are looking for grand vistas this is not that. However, if you are looking to understand a bit of interesting history, natural curiosities, and fascinating geologic phenomenon then you are in the right place.
In addition to the Hot Springs National Park, the state of Arkansas also has some amazing state parks.
About Hot Springs National Park
As mentioned, this is a small park that is right in the downtown heart of the small city of Hot Springs. As you drive down the busy tourist section of town you will have the national park on one side with the shops and restaurants of the town on the other.
It is known for its 47 thermal springs and the old bathhouses all in a row.
There are also about 26 miles of hiking trails through the beautiful Ouachita Mountains, some nice scenic drives, picnic areas, campsites at Gulpha Gorge Recreation Area & Campground, and much more.
History of Hot Springs National Park
Congress established Hot Springs Reservation on April 20, 1832 to protect the springs. This causes some people to claim that this is the oldest national park even predating Yellowstone by 40 years.
Although this is certainly the first piece of land set aside by the US government for protection, it happened before the nation had created the national park system that we know today.
Of course, the American Indians were the first to use the springs thousands of years before Thomas Jefferson sent an expedition in 1804 to explore the southern reaches of the Louisiana Purchase.
The expedition “discovered” the springs and soon afterward a bustling town soon grew up around them. The town existed to provide services for those who came to seek healing in the mineral springs.
This created a bathing industry in the town which soon became known as the “American Spa.”
The Hot Springs Bathhouses
When the bathing industry began the springs were free flowing and the “bathhouses” were basically shacks built over the individual springs. These spring ran down the hill to form a creek at the bottom.
As the town grew and more people came to “take the waters” the creek became more and more unsightly. In 1882 the government enclosed Hot Springs creek in an underground arch for flood and sewage control, covered it over with soil and planted trees in front of it.
By 1901 all of the springs had been covered to protect them.
I must admit that every time I visit the city I try to imagine what the hillside would have looked like back when streams of steaming water were flowing down the hillside.
Throughout the early 1900’s the rough wooden bathhouses were replaced one by one with fire-resistant brick and stucco. These were beautifully decorated and elaborate with marble walls, billiard rooms, gymnasiums, and stained glass windows.
All of the bathhouses are still standing today and are a large part of the appeal of the park!
Things to do in Hot Springs National Park Today
Browse Bathhouse Row!
Stop first at the Fordyce Bathhouse which is now the park’s visitor center and a museum of what the bathhouses functioned and how they looked during their heyday.
Park rangers are available to answer questions and you can take a self-guided tour of the old building as well as see the rooms where guest took baths, the dressing areas, the gymnasium, and the salons where the spa goers relaxed.
It is fascinating!
THe other bathhouses
As you walk down bathhouse row you can:
- Browse in the gift shop at the Lamar bathhouse
- Spend the night in luxury at the Hale Bathhouse
- Have a snack and a beer at the Superior bathhouse
- Visit the cultural center at the Ozark bathhouse
- Experience a traditional mineral bath at the Buckstaff bathhouse
- Have a spa treatment at the Quapaw bathhouse
- Unfortunately the Maurice bathhouse is vacant and can’t be visited at this time.
If you counted you might notice that I mentioned that there were 9 bathhouses and I only mentioned 8 above. The 9th bathhouse is the administration building for the park and is not open to the public.
Experience the Waters
Drink the water
In the olden days of the park visitors were encouraged to “quaff the elixir.” Did you know that you can still quaff the elixir today?!
You will find plenty of fountains in the park and the town to drink the hot springs waters.
These waters are not at all sulfuric and the taste is clean and pure. You will see the locals filling up jugs to take home and put in their fridge to drink on a regular basis. TIP: Bring your own jug!
Soak in the water
Sadly there are no outdoor places to soak in the hot springs. However, there are still two bathhouses where you can soak in the mineral water.
The Buckstaff Bathhouse is the only one that has never closed down. It has remained open since 1912. This is the place to have an authentic mineral bath experience. Check their website for services and prices.
The Quapaw Bathhouse offers modern day services in the ancient waters. Check their website for services and prices.
Touch the Hot Springs
There are two outdoor spots where you can touch the waters. One is on the Arlington Lawn. This is one of the few visible springs in the park. The water flows down the hillside and into two pools at the bottom.
The second spot is tucked away behind the Maurice Bathhouse. The spring comes from a fissure in the rock and into a shallow pool a couple of feet below.
Stroll the Grand Promenade
Up the hill behind the bathhouses you will find the Grand Promenade. This is a National Recreation Trail that was built in 1933 and is about 1/2 mile long. It is wide and tree lined and entirely paved with brick. There are benches, tables, and even a chess board along the way.
It is a gorgeous place for a walk.
Trails to hike
Are you interested in doing some hiking? There are 26 miles of hiking trails within the park not to mention many more that are in the nearby Ouachita Mountains. Check out the Hot Springs National Park website for some great information about the various hiking trails.
There are a few guided tours at the park that include guided hikes, water talks, and evening campground programs at Gulpha Gorge Campgrounds. These are not all offered on a daily basis so you will want to stop by the visitor’s center for more information.
Scenic Drives and Overlooks
The park has some lovely scenic drives in the park with stunning overlooks! Check these out on the Hot Springs National Park website.
Hot Springs Mountain Tower
Want to get a truly amazing view of the park and the surrounding country side? Go to the Hot Springs Mountain Tower. The tower sits high on the hill behind the bathhouses. You can hike the 1.5 mile trail up to the tower or drive the scenic route to the top.
This is not a free attraction but if you decide to do it an elevator will whisk you up 216 feet for a panoramic view.
Where to Stay in the Park
There are plenty of places to stay in the surrounding town of Hot Springs but only two that are right in the park.
The first is the Hotel Hale which is located in the Hale Bathhouse. There are only 9 luxurious suites and each one has a large soaking tub that has hot spring mineral water pumped directly into every room! Doesn’t that sound amazing?
On the other end of the luxury spectrum is the Gulpha Gorge Campground which is the park’s official campground. The campsites vary in size and can accommodate both tents and RV’s.
It is a beautiful campground with 5 star reviews on many of the campground review sites.
Although it is not part of the national park you can also camp and enjoy hiking at the nearby Lake Catherine State Park.
I hope that you enjoy your visit to Hot Springs National Park!