Hot Springs National Park is perhaps one of the most unique in all of the park system. Not only is it located inside of a town, but the preservation and history of this park revolve around its thermal waters, which bubble to the surface at a constant 143 degrees. For centuries, the waters have drawn people to this peaceful valley. From the Native Americans who called this area the “Valley Of The Vapors” to the flocks of people who came in the first half of the 19th century to “take the waters”.
Today, people visit Hot Springs National Park for a wide variety of reasons. The thermal waters are of course still a draw, but so are the grand buildings on Bathhouse Row, the surrounding lush green hills, and a wide variety of excellent dining options. With so many ways to enjoy the area, we’ve narrowed it down to the top five things to do at Hot Springs National Park.
1. Visit Bathhouse Row and tour the Fordyce Bathhouse
Begin your visit to Hot Springs National Park on Central Avenue. Victorian storefronts line one side of the street, while a row of stately and well-preserved bathhouse buildings hold court on the other side. This is Bathhouse Row. The eight bathhouses on Central Ave were built between 1911 and 1923, and serve as a testament to the history of the town and park.
Today, the bathhouses serve a multitude of purposes. There’s the Lamar which houses a charming NPS store offering everything from postcards to vessels for holding the thermal water. The Buckstaff, where you can still experience a traditional bath complete with steam cabinets and needle showers. The Ozark, which serves as a cultural center and community event space. And of course, the Superior, where beer that’s brewed with the thermal spring water is served up daily.
A visit to Bathhouse Row is just not complete without touring the Fordyce. From 1916 to 1952, this grand building operated as a successful bathhouse and thermal treatment center. Today, it serves as the official visitors center for the National Park. Carefully restored, it’s open for visitors to explore, top to bottom.
You can tour the treatment rooms, men and women’s parlors, a gymnasium, bathtubs, and equipment used for various hydrotherapy treatments. Don’t miss the basement, where a viewing window offers a look at the actual Fordyce Spring that supplied the thermal waters for the facility.
2. Soak in the hot springs at Quapaw Bathhouse
Touring the bathhouses is fun and all, but how about a soak in the actual springs? While there are no open springs for soaking, it is possible to enjoy the thermal waters on Bathhouse Row. If the formal bathing experience at the Buckstaff isn’t for you, then the soaking pools at Quapaw are sure to suit your fancy.
No appointment necessary here, just come in and pay the nominal fee (currently $20 for all day access). In exchange, you get a key to a locker for your valuables, a bath towel, and access to a choice of large lounging tubs. Water temperatures in the pools range from 100-108 degrees depending on your preferences. Free cool spring water is provided for sipping between soakings. Add a trip to the steam cave or a massage for a few extra bucks and you have yourself a whole day of relaxation.
3. Head up to Hot Springs Mountain Tower
For amazing views of the town and surrounding area, head to the Hot Spring Mountain Tower. To get there, drive up Hot Springs Mountain Drive, or lace up your hiking boots and make the short but steep trek to the base of the tower. A quick elevator ride can also transport you 216 feet up to the observation deck. From here, you’re treated to a 360-degree view of the town below and Ouachita mountains in the distance.
In addition to the view, don’t miss the second level where information panels wrap around the inside of the tower. You can learn about myths associated with Hot Springs, along with fun facts about the thermal waters and history of the tower itself.
4. Explore Garvan Woodland Gardens
Garvan Woodland Gardens isn’t technically in Hot Springs National Park, but it’s well worth the short drive. Nestled in the wooded shoreline along Lake Hamilton, the 4.5 acre garden is a pleasant place to spend a few hours. Numerous attractions are located across the grounds, as well as hundreds of types of plants, and stunning architectural structures like the Anthony Chapel and the Floating Cloud Bridge.
Fun for all ages, the gardens also include a Children’s Adventure Garden. They offer interactive activities, and have an iron bridge that resembles a woven tree branch. If you visit during the holidays, don’t miss the annual light display featuring over 5 million lights!
5. Grab a bite to eat from The Ohio Club
Hot Springs National Park has its fair share of excellent eateries. But if you want a bit of history served up with your meal, The Ohio Club offers all that and more. Dating back to 1905, it was first opened as a bar and casino. Since then, this building has seen its fair share of colorful operations. It was an illegal speakeasy masquerading as a cigar store, a hangout for gangsters including Al Capone and Lucky Luciano, and a jazz and blues venue. Walking into the Ohio Club today is like stepping back in time. Thought to be the oldest bar in Arkansas, the history is evident in its interior decor. A stylish, nostalgic theme abounds with vintage pictures, slot machines, and other antique items nodding to the venue’s history. The menu includes classics such as a Reuben sandwich and fried pickle slices alongside their signature Ohio Club burger.
Of course, there are plenty of campgrounds in the area to park your rig or pitch your tent. Check out Gulpha Gorge Campground in the park boundaries, or the Hot Springs National Park KOA just outside of the park. Other options just outside of the park include Catherine’s Landing, Leisure Landing RV Park, and J & J RV Park & Storage.