Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas is the second smallest National Park in the United States. It was created to preserve the bath houses along the appropriately named Bathhouse Row, and also includes several hiking trails and an observation tower to catch some of the scenery. Find out everything you need to know to plan a visit to this tiny National Park.
Hot Springs National Park bath houses
The Hot Springs National Park Visitor Center and headquarters in one of the old bath houses that made Hot Springs famous back in the day. These grand old buildings were used for sort of medicinal purposes, but as modern medicine advanced and more and more people had indoor plumbing in their homes, their popularity began to fade. Only a couple of them are in operation these days, and there were no evening appointments available, so I had to rule out actually visiting one of the baths during my business trips there. Visiting the Visitor Center allows you to tour one of the magnificent old bath houses and get a taste of what it would’ve been like.
The first floor of the visitor center has the main baths. You can walk through the women’s area and the men’s rooms. Shockingly (or not) the men’s area is elaborately decorated with a beautiful stained glass ceiling and fountain. The women’s area…not so much. The ladies’ area can best be described as hospital chic. There were also several metal fittings that could best be described as torture devices.
The third floor also contained a small gymnasium, which fit the pattern of much of the rest of the bath house by looking vaguely like a torture chamber.
Outside the bath house, I found a fountain where hot spring water straight from the mountain was steaming in the chilly November air and somehow managed to get it all over my coat while reaching in to get a feel for the temperature. I don’t regret it. The water comes out at a perfect bathwater temp. Over the next couple of days, I noticed a few other fountains like this scattered through the downtown area.
Hot Springs National Park observation tower
My first visit to the overlooks in Hot Springs National Park was a quick lunch run with a co-worker. There wasn’t much daylight left after work in November, so one day, my co-worker and I plotted to get a taste of the mountains during lunch. We grabbed sandwiches and chips from the Subway in town and then drove up one of the mountain loops to eat at a picnic area. We had a decent view overlooking the town, but there were still a lot of trees in our way. Once we finished eating, we continued on the one-way loop and less than a quarter mile later, we found a gazebo with a gorgeous panoramic view over the area.
The observation tower can be reached by a short drive up the mountain. There are some switchbacks, so use caution, but it’s not too challenging. It can also be reached by several of the Hot Springs National Park trails. You can check their hours here, but it might be worth calling to double check the times. On my second visit, I hiked up the mountain to visit the tower and arrived at 6:45. According to the website, they were open until 9 that day, but I was informed by the cashier that they had changed their hours and were closing at 7 that day and stopped selling tickets half an hour before closing.
Hot Springs National Park hiking
Despite its focus on the historical bath houses, there are actually lots of Hot Springs National Park trails to pick from – 26 miles of trails, to be exact. I hiked up to the previously-mentioned observation tower one evening after work. I began on the Dead Chief Trail, and then forked off to the left to take the shortcut to the top of the mountain. The trail was moderately steep in parts, and the gravel-y covering made it a little difficult. It was part of the exercise trails related to the bath houses back in the day and it certainly provided a workout.
For the trip back down the mountain, I took the Peak Trail. This one crisscrossed the road to the top a couple of times, so take care as you hike. Neither of the trails was particularly scenic along the way, but the view from the top of the mountain is well worth the effort. Bring bug spray if you plan on doing some Hot Springs National Park hiking in the summer though – I ended up with quite a few mosquito bites.
Walking the Grand Promenade
If hiking uphill to see the view isn’t your thing, you can go for a nice stroll along the Grand Promenade that runs behind the Hot Springs, Arkansas bath houses. It’s a brick-lined walkway that seems made for romantic evening walks. It was probably a lot nice before air conditioning became a thing because these days the most prominent feature was the humming of A/C units for the buildings, but it’s still a popular place for a walk.
At the north end of the Grand Promenade was one of the coolest things I found in Hot Springs National Park. Hot water trickles out of the mountain in a sort of steamy waterfall and is collected into a large pool. Sadly, you can’t use the pool, ,but it’s cool to stick your hand into the hot flowing water. I don’t think I’ve seen a hot waterfall anywhere else that I’ve been so far.
Superior Bathhouse Brewery in Hot Springs National Park
One of the former bath houses has been repurposed as a brewery. At Superior Bathhouse Brewery, you can sample beers made from thermal spring water. They claim to be the only such brewery in the world, so it’s worth trying if you’re into craft beers. They have a huge beer menu and much smaller food menu. It’s a perfect spot to grab a quick bite in the park or enjoy some evening drinks after some hiking.
Camping at Hot Springs National Park
The Gulpha Gorge Campground in Hot Springs National Park is available for affordable camping. It’s currently $30/night for a site or $15/night if you have the America the Beautiful pass. Sites are given on a first-come, first-served basis, so plan on arriving early on popular camping weekends. Tents and RVs are allowed, and the sites have full hookups. It has modern restrooms, but no water for showers – I guess you’ll have to hit one of the baths in town. Don’t forget to bring the items on this camping packing list so you’re prepared.
Where to stay near Hot Springs National Park
- Embassy Suites Hot Springs – I stayed here twice and it’s gorgeous. And they give you free drinks and snacks in the evening.
- Arlington Resort Hotel and Spa – Located right at the end of Bathhouse Row, this hotel is impossible to miss.
The best time to visit Hot Springs National Park
I’ve been there three times now and I’d say that early fall is my favorite. The weather is perfect during the fall months, you have plenty of daylight for hiking, and – best of all – you can get some great views of fall foliage in the park.
Summer is another great time to visit, but it’s also the most popular time of the year there. You’ll also have to fend off plenty of mosquitoes if you plan on doing any hiking.
Where is Hot Springs National Park?
Hot Springs National Park is in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Like right, smack in the middle of downtown. It has to be one of the most accessible National Parks out there. I’ve never even had to pay for parking, as I’ve always found free spots on the street.
If you’re flying, the Little Rock airport will be your best bet. It’s a medium-sized airport that has a reasonable amount of daily flights, though the amenities aren’t spectacular. It takes about one hour drive from Little Rock to Hot Springs.
Other Things to See and Do in Hot Springs
Some of the locals recommended a place called the Ohio Club for dinner. It’s right across the street from the National Park, so it’s easy to add in to your visit. It has a huge carved wood bar that’s over 100 years old and was a speakeasy during Prohibition. I loved reading about the history of the place on the back of the menu. It was evidently founded by the gangster who is speculated to have been the inspiration for Jay Gatsby in F. Scot Fitzgerald’s novel. I don’t order burgers very often, but theirs sounded good so I went for it. I was not disappointed.
On our last night in town, I tried to visit a quirky-looking Star Wars museum called The Galaxy Connection that displays the owner’s extensive collection of memorabilia. As a big Star Wars nerd and lover of all things kitschy, I was pretty excited even though I knew I wouldn’t get a lot of time to visit. The website and door both said that it was open until six, but when I showed up at 5:10, the doors were locked and there was an employee attempting to hide behind the counter so I couldn’t see her. She did not do a great job of it.
I was a little annoyed, but salvaged the evening by taking a walk through the Christmas lights set up in a couple of parks along Bathhouse Row. There were some nice light displays, including a tree that “danced” to music. I liked the cute little downtown area, and it seems like it would have a fun atmosphere during busier tourist times.
I’d seen people filling up water jugs at public water dispensers throughout the week and I decided that I couldn’t leave Hot Springs without sampling some of the famous water. I retrieved my trusty travel water bottle from the car and filled it up with the fresh, hot water. I was pretty sure it was safe to drink immediately, but since I had Google in my pocket, I figured I’d double check before chugging it. The NPS site encourages drinking the water, so I went for it. It’s not great hot, but after tossing it in the hotel fridge overnight, it was much better. I was expecting hints of sulfur, but it really didn’t taste all that different from the tap water in most places. This is definitely something you need to try if you’re in town. How many places can you drink groundwater like that from public taps? I was sorry that I hadn’t tried it earlier in the week because then I could’ve made multiple trips.
If you’re visiting Arkansas, don’t miss Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site.
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