Hot Springs National Park located in the city of Hot Springs in southwest Arkansas is not only the second smallest of all the National Parks it is one of the most unique.
This is a national park within a city that runs along the streets of a downtown historical district.
Hot Springs National Park is free to the public and is focused on a unique time and place in American history and culture.
If you are looking for grand vistas this may not the place for you. 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.
After you explore the National Park you will find plenty of other great things to do in Hot Springs. We also have a list of good restaurants in the city and surrounding area. Or you can check out our ultimate guide to Hot Springs.
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 Central Avenue, 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.
Hot Springs National Park is known for its thermal springs and the historic 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 Preservation 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 the first piece of land set aside by the US government for protection, it actually 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.
Jefferson’s 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 wooden shacks built over the top of them. 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 dirty and 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.
The main drag of Central Avenue runs over most of this creek today.
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. The Native Americans used to call this the Valley of the Vapors.
Throughout the early 1900’s the rough wooden bathhouses were replaced one by one with fire-resistant brick and stucco. These were elaborate and beautifully decorated structures with marble walls, billiard rooms, gymnasiums, and stained glass windows.
The bathhouses that are still standing today are a large part of the appeal of the park!
Things to do in Hot Springs National Park
Browse Bathhouse Row!
The main thing that you are going to want to do in Hot Springs National Park is to take a stroll down 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!
Some of the spa treatments look crazy while others are still oddly familiar.
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.
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?!
It’s true, you can absolutely drink the thermal hot springs waters without treatment. It is completely clean and many people say that it is very good for you.
“The thermal water at Hot Springs National Park is a nearly 4,000-year-old spring water in its natural state. The water’s high temperature kills most harmful bacteria, and it is monitored to U.S. standards for safe drinking water.”Quote from the hot springs national park website
You will find fountains in the park from which you can fill up your cup or bottle and drink the water. Of course it is hot so be prepared for that.
Unlike many of the hot springs in the western national parks these waters are not at all sulfuric. There is no odor and the taste is clean, pure, and delicious.
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. In fact the water comes from the ground too hot for bathing.
However, there are still two bathhouses where you can soak in the mineral water. They even cool it to an acceptable temperature for you.
The Buckstaff Bathhouse is the only Hot Springs bathhouse that has never closed down. It has remained open since 1912. This is the place to have an authentic, old-fashioned mineral bath experience.
The Quapaw Bathhouse offers modern day services in the ancient waters. They have large, beautiful soaking pools as well.
Check the websites for either of these bathhouses for prices. Also reservations will be required.
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 in the 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, a tour of the Fordyce bathhouse now turned visitor center, water talks with explanations about the thermal waters, 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
There are 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 of the Hot Springs National Park, the city of Hot Springs, and the surrounding Ouachita Mountains.
Where to Stay in the Park
There are plenty of places to stay in the surrounding town of Hot Springs but only two places to stay that are right in the park.
The first is the Hotel Hale which is located in the Hale Bathhouse. There are 9 luxurious suites and each one has a sumptuous bathroom with a large soaking tub. Hot spring mineral water is pumped directly into every room and you can bathe in privacy!
Doesn’t that sound amazing?
On the other end of the spectrum is the Gulpha Gorge Campground which is the park’s only 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!