While the popularity of Hot Springs, Arkansas gurgled up from the ground over centuries, it wasn’t until in the 1800’s, with the protection of the federal government, that Hot Springs was ultimately developed into “America’s Spa.” Even though its heyday may have passed, the history and beauty remain. We loved visiting Hot Springs National Park, and it feels like walking back in time to a different era. Its glamorous past, lovely scenery, and touch of modern elegance make it a fun place to spend a weekend.
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Best things to do in Hot Springs National Park
Visit Bathhouse Row
Hot Springs National Park is a bit of an anomaly. Until Gateway National Park came along, it was the smallest National Park in the NPS system. It’s nowhere near the size of just about any other park. Snowy mountain peaks or endless vistas aren’t why people come to visit.
While Hot Springs is a lovely place, its claim to fame is the water.
Bathhouse Row sprung up around all of this geothermal water, and is now a collection of beautifully restored bathhouses along Central Avenue. It’s where you will find the Park Visitor Center, shops, and a fully restored Edwardian bathhouse. Not only have the bathhouses been restored to their former glory, a few still offer traditional baths using water from the springs.
On April 20th, 1832, President Andrew Jackson signed legislation to federally protect Hot Springs, effectively making it the first National Park and predating Yellowstone by 40 years. However, since the National Park system was not yet created, it wasn't until 1921 that Hot Springs officially became a National Park Unit.
Fordyce Bathhouse is where the Hot Springs National Park Visitor Center is located, and you can find it right in the middle of Bathhouse Row. Stop in here for a map of the park, watch a movie about the history of the park, and talk to a Ranger.
After you get your bearings, take a tour of the bathhouse. It’s an amazing example of what it was like to ‘spa’ here during the Edwardian era. Not to be outdone by the popular spas in Europe, developers in Hot Springs pulled out all the stops to make it the place to be and be seen, and the attention to detail shows at the Fordyce Bathhouse.
In the Lamar Bathhouse, you’ll find the Bathhouse Row Emporium which is the Park store. Here is where you can pick up some handmade soaps, a souvenir jug of spring water, and everything else you might need for a spa day at home.
Hours: Both Bathhouses are open from 9 am. – 5 pm. daily and are closed on New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas Day.
How to get here: Find a place to park along the street or look for a spot at the nearby Hot Springs Visitor Center next to the park. You may also park at the parking garage on Exchange Street just one block west of the visitor center.
Be sure to sample the water straight from the source at the water fountain inside the Lamar Bathhouse.
Stroll along the Grand Promenade
Behind Bathhouse Row you’ll find the Grand Promenade, and it is a great way to enjoy the park and ponder what life was like here at the height of its popularity. The Grand Promenade has a nice view of Bathhouse Row, along with manicured gardens and benches. This is also where you’ll begin your hike farther up the hiking trails if you choose.
The Grand Promenade is a short, flat walk and is easy for kids and families. It’s only about a 1/2-mile walk and will take about thirty minutes round trip. Grab an ice cream cone and go for a stroll!
Did you know? The Grand Promenade is recognized as one of nearly 1,300 National Recreation Trails located in all 50 states. Find some trails in your state here.
How to get here: Just find a path between the bathhouses to the stairs up to the Promenade. You can also begin on either end of Bathhouse Row at Central and Reserve streets or Central and Fountain streets.
Fun Fact! The spring water at Hot Springs National Park averages a temperature of 143 degrees Fahrenheit, and there are several places around town to fill up a jug for free if you want fresh spring water.
Go for a Hike
Even though it’s small, Hot Springs National Park has 26 miles of hiking trails that will keep you busy for a while. During our visit, we hiked up to the Mountain Tower from Bathhouse Row, but there is much more you can explore if you have the time.
Sunset Trail is the Park’s longest and most remote hike. It stretches to the edge of the park and is a challenging 15-17 mile loop through most areas of Hot Springs National Park.
West Mountain Trails
The West Mountain Trails are a bit more remote, but because of this, are more apt for wildlife sightings. To get here, you can hike up via Bathhouse Row, or you could drive up West Mountain Drive to the car park and begin hiking at the top.
Hot Springs and North Mountain Trails
These trails begin right behind Bathhouse Row and lead up to the Mountain Tower, which makes them popular. We hiked these trails during our visit, and they offer up some great views of the park and the surrounding Ouachita ((pronounced WASH-i-tah) National Forest. Most of these trails are short, but you could easily string several together to make a day of it. As with any hike, make sure you are prepared to go. Take plenty of water, bug repellent, and sunscreen. A small Camelbak is great for this, but a Nalgene bottle full of water works also.
Like National Parks? Be sure to check out all of Arkansas's National Parks here.
Enjoy the views from the Hot Springs Mountain Tower
Opened in 1983, the 216 ft. tall tower sits 1,256 feet above sea level and offers visitors the best views of not only the park, but also the surrounding Ouachita National Forest and the town of Hot Springs. The tower operates as a concessionaire with the park, so there is a small fee to ride to the observation deck. There is also a small gift shop at the bottom to pick up any souvenirs or t-shirts for your trip, and from here, you can continue on to many of the trails along the North Mountain Trails in the park.
Hours: The Tower is generally open from 9 am. to 9 pm. daily in the summer. Hours are shorter during spring, fall, and winter. Check here for exact hours during your visit.
Children under 12: $4.50
Children under 4: Free
Seniors 65 and older: $7
Members of the military: $6
Park Pass Holders: $5
If you have a 4th grader, be sure to pick up your Every Kid In A Park Pass for free/discounted admission to most National Parks in the U.S. Read more about Every Kid in a Park here.
Take a Bath!
Not to overstate the obvious, but Hot Springs is the perfect place for a traditional bath or hot springs spa treatment. Bathhouse Row is not just home to restored bathhouses, but a few of them are fully functioning and open to guests just like in the 1920’s. Buckstaff Bathhouse offers up traditional baths much like the Europeans did it in the 1800’s. Pamper yourself like the upper crust used to with a mineral bath, vapor cabinet, and massage. What better way to end a day hiking around the park? The entire affair takes about 1 1/5 hours.
Just a few doors down, Quapaw Bathhouse offers modern spa services along with couples packages, various massage offerings, a cafe, and a boutique, so you can take some of the experience home with you.
Both spas use the naturally hot spring water for their baths just like they’ve done here for a hundred years.
Either one of these historic Hot Springs Arkansas Bath Houses would be a perfect way to relax and enjoy your weekend.
Stick around for sunset
Watching the sun set over the Ouachita National Forest is a great way to end the day. Take a drive up Mountain Drive Trail to the end of the loop where you’ll find a pull-out near the Goat Rock Trailhead – perfect for enjoying sunset.
If you don’t want to drive up quite that far, you could stop at the pavilion near the Mountain Tower which is also a great spot. Either location will give you a great vantage point.
Things to know before you go
Click on the top left corner to expand the points of interest on the map. You can zoom by double-clicking on an area of the map and also click+drag to move it.
Hot Springs National Park is centrally located in Arkansas and sits on the edge of the Ouachita National Forest. The trip from Little Rock to Hot Springs is about an hour southwest. The entire area is great for exploring the outdoors, camping, water sports on Lake Ouachita, or just relaxing at the spas.
Best time to visit
We visited Hot Springs in the fall during our fall break from school and found the weather to still be comfortable. Summer will be hot and busy, so spring and fall are ideal, especially if you visit in late fall to see the leaves turn.
There is no fee to visit Hot Springs National Park.
Other things to do in Hot Springs, Arkansas:
Grab a famous cupcake from Fat Bottomed Girls. You may know them from their appearance on Food Network and Cupcake Wars. Even if you don’t recognize the name, go here ASAP. The cupcakes are divine.
Spend the day at the local Hot Springs Amusement Park Magic Springs. If you’re looking for a little less chill and a bit more thrill, this theme and water park has plenty of rides and roller coasters to keep you busy.
Where to stay in Hot Springs
Embassy Suites Hot Springs
We stayed at the Embassy Suites during our stay. It’s close to the park and downtown, and the included breakfast and happy hour, along with the large rooms are why we recommend it for families.
Arlington Resort Hotel and Spa
For upscale Hot Springs Arkansas hotels, consider the historic Arlington Resort Hotel and Spa. With over 500 rooms and suites, the Arlington is the largest hotel in Arkansas and just happens to be right across the street from Bathhouse row – perfect for exploring the park. Oh, and it was a favorite of gangster Al Capone.
To compare other Hot Springs hotels on Tripadvisor, click here.
Hot Springs Arkansas Camping
If you like to rough it or have an RV, there is camping in Hot Springs National Park at the Gulpha Gorge Campground, as well as in nearby campgrounds. Fees are $30/night or $15/night with a parks pass and sites are first come, first served. There are no reservations and no showers, but they do have full hookups and modern bathrooms. Click here for more information.
Have you visited Hot Springs National Park? What was your favorite thing to do here?
Be sure to check out our destination guide for Arkansas here.
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