Home » National Parks » Hot Springs National Park » The Magic of Hot Springs National Park: A Traveler’s Epic Guide

Hot Springs, Arkansas, boasts a unique feature: a national park like no other. Considered the smallest of the national parks, it is also the most urban. But what sets Hot Springs National Park apart from others is its therapeutic waters. Learning about the therapeutic properties of these thermal waters was amazing information. Spending most of our time checking out charming historic bathhouses and the picturesque, wooded trails. This was our last stop on our Texas & New Mexico road trip. It definitely surpassed all our expectations. This traveler’s guide will help you get the most out of your visit to these amazing thermal hot springs.

Two people in front of the Hot Springs National Park Sign

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Where Is Hot Springs National Park?

Hot Springs National Park is in central Arkansas, covering an area of 5,550 square miles, in the rolling hills of the Ouachita Mountains. The park boasts impressive hiking trails that give way to incredible views of the surrounding forests, lakes and rivers. Not to mention the notable access to natural hot springs.

By Car: If you’re driving, take Interstate 30 to Hot Springs. The park is easily accessible from major cities. From the north, Little Rock, Arkansas, is less than an hour’s drive. It is only 50 miles southwest of the state capital and is easily accessible via Interstate 30 and U.S. Route 70. Arriving from the south, Texarkana is approximately two hours away.

By plane: The nearest airport from Hot Springs is the state’s capital, the Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport Little Rock, which is served by a handful of major airlines. You can rent a car or take a shuttle bus service to Hot Springs from there.

Once in town, you may use rental cars, taxis, or public transportation to move around. Furthermore, many downtown attractions are within walking distance of one another, allowing you to enjoy the scenic cityscape while strolling.

The bandstand area of the promenade at Hot springs
Bandstand area view from the Promenade

When Is the Best Time to Visit Hot Springs?

The best time to visit Hot Springs National Park depends on your preferences and the type of experience you’re seeking. There is no fee for entering Hot Springs National Park.

From August to October, you will find warm weather continues from summer, with highs in the low 90s and lows in the upper 60s. The parks and forests surrounding Hot Springs transform into shades of orange, gold, and red, making it an excellent time for leaf-peeping.

From November to January, the winter temperatures in the mid-50s during the day and around 30 degrees at night. The chillier weather highlights the town’s main attraction—the hot springs. A bonus is you will find it’s the cheapest time for lodging.

man drinking from the magical fountain hot Springs National Park

From February to April you can experience spring. Spring marks the beginning of the tourist season. Highs creep from the mid-50s to the mid-70s, and lows hover around 50 degrees. Early visitors can beat the warm weather crowds and enjoy outdoor activities.

May to July is when summer is high season in Hot Springs. Warm weather and school breaks converge, making it an excellent destination for visitors of all ages.

Healing Spring Arlington Lawn @ Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas

How did These Healing Waters come to be Discovered?

Indigenous American groups such as the Quapaw, Caddo, and Osage have long been aware of the healing properties of these therapeutic waters. Archaeological findings from ancient times substantiate this belief.

Much later, early explorers from Europe came across the hot springs. Hernando de Soto in the 16th century, and later French trappers and traders, all found the magic steeped in the mythical waters. This region became famous as the “Valley of the Vapors” because of the steam that emerged from the heated waters.

The misty hot springs in the ountains of Arkansas
Steaming thermal hot spring

NOTE: You are not allowed to bathe in the hot springs, but there are several other ways to enjoy the thermal waters, including the thermal pools at the Quapaw Bathhouse.

What are some things you can do and see at Hot Springs National Park?

Anyone who tells you Hot Springs is a quick trip would be missing out on all the things this little park has to offer. The small town has plenty to keep you busy.

  1. Take a tour of Bathhouse Row to learn about its history and architecture.
  2. The Bathhouse Visitor Center in the historic Fordyce Bathhouse houses intriguing displays on the park’s history.
  3. Drive or bike along picturesque paths to get panoramic views of the park from all directions.
  4. Experience the hot springs at Quapaw Baths and Spa. The therapeutic advantages are refreshing.
  5. Visit Hot Springs Mountain Tower for breathtaking views of the town, framed by the distant Ouachita Mountains.
  6. Spend some time visiting the historic downtown Hot Springs. It is home to numerous diverse boutiques, eateries, and galleries. Hike several routes to discover the park’s diverse sceneries.
  7. The best way to experience this park is to explore its hiking paths.
Man looking at a statue in the Taking the Waters Exhibit Fordyce Bathhouse Museum.

Experiencing the Rich Heritage of Bathhouse Row

Bathhouse Row was a famous tourist attraction and health resort during the Golden Age, which ran from 1920 to 1940. These Victorian homes in Hot Springs were the center of social life. People from all over the United States would visit Bathhouse Row to enjoy the healing thermal waters. Many thought it could cure everything from rheumatoid arthritis to tuberculosis. Sadly, with the development of modern medicine, Bath House Row declined in the 1950s and 60s. Abandoned many of the baths fell into disrepair.

Main street downtown hot springs bathhouse row

A revival of sorts took place in the 1980s and 1990s. A group of people came together to restore Bathhouse Row to its former splendor. The group has worked on restoring some of the old bathhouses since then. Visitors can tour the historic bathhouses. Either by attending cultural events or experience the thermal waters for themselves at nearby spas and pools. In 1987, they acknowledged the importance of Bathhouse Row. They named it a National Historic landmark for its representation of the American spa industry and important architectural details.

Women peeking out of door in Men's Dressing & Locker Room

Today, charming, historic buildings fill Central Avenue. For us, it created a feeling of stepping back in time. For centuries, people came in droves to use the area’s rejuvenating thermal springs. As the tourist numbers increase, they constructed a series of baths along the western slope of Hot Springs Mountain. Eventually, there were eight bathhouses in the row. Each bathhouse has its own exclusive story and style.

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Extraordinary Wicker seating area in the Assembly Room-Fordyce Bathhouse-Extraordinary Hot Springs National Park
Wicker seating area in the Assembly Room-Fordyce Bathhouse-Hot Springs National Park

Step Inside all Eight Historic Bathhouses on the Row

Eight historic bathhouses line the renowned Bathhouse Row in Hot Springs National Park. Seven of these bathhouses welcome the public and provide a range of experiences.

Lamar Bathhouse

1. Lamar Bathhouse

This bathhouse is home to various park facilities and services. It accommodates offices for Resources Management staff, houses the archives, provides storage spaces for the museum collection, and even has a small research library. Additionally, you can visit the Bathhouse Row Emporium, which is operated by America’s National Parks. The Emporium is open every day from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm, except on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day, when it remains closed.

On April 16, 1923, they replaced a previous wooden Victorian structure with the current Lamar Bathhouse. What I found most interesting we how the building was named after U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar. He was the Secretary of the Interior when the original bathhouse was constructed in 1888.

BuckStaff Baths Bathhouse
BuckStaff Bathhouse

2. Buckstaff Bathhouse

Stepping into the Buckstaff Bathhouse is like stepping back in time. Long considered the Crown jewel of Bathhouse Row. This establishment has been the sole bathhouse that has remained operational since 1912. This is the place if you are looking for a traditional bathing experience reminiscent of the early days. If a bath isn’t your cup of tea, they have spa services like massages, facials, and body treatments also available. Soothing music creates a peaceful atmosphere for guests to enjoy.

Ozark Bathhouse on Hot Springs Bathhouse Row
Ozark Bathhouse on Hot Springs Bathhouse Row

3. Ozark Bathhouse

The Ozark Bathhouse is now a cultural center. It features rotating exhibits of contemporary art from the park’s Artist-in-Residence Program. Admission is free. Designed by Architect George Mann in the Spanish Colonial Revival style. It stands out from the other bathhouses with decorative stucco facades, showcasing arched windows, and a red tile roof.

4. Quapaw Baths and Spa

Built in 1922, it replaced two earlier bathhouses, the Horseshoe and Magnesia, on Bathhouse Row. Designed in the Spanish Colonial Revival style, it is one of the longest bathhouses on the row. The bathhouse began to deteriorate after it closed in 1984. However; it was the first to be revitalized when it was leased for adaptive reuse by the park service.

Travel Guide to Hot Springs' Mystical Beauty of the Quapaw Bathhouse

Just like the Buckstaff bathhouse, the Quapaw Baths and Spa now offer modern spa and therapeutic services. It’s the perfect place to decompress while fully immerse oneself in the spa experience. The Quapaw is open every day, except Tuesday, from 10:00am – 6:00pm. We called in advance to arrange the couple’s bath, where you get a private bath. It includes a 20 minute soak with a 10-minute cooldown. Before leaving, we enjoyed a cucumber water for hydration. I would try next time to include either a massage or an aromatherapy treatment. Definitely a highlight for us.

Fordyce Visitor Center entrance in Hot Springs National Park
Fordyce Visitor Center

5. Fordyce Bathhouse

The Fordyce Bathhouse is now the main visitor center and museum. The museum provides an in-depth glimpse into the history of the spa industry in Hot Springs. Visitors can take guided tours and see the original equipment and facilities. We spent a great deal of time walking from room to room reading the interpretive kiosks. It was fascinating. I could imagine those that came here seeking relief from their diseases such as rheumatism and arthritis. Some rooms included elegant details, such as colorful mosaic tiles and mahogany furnishings.

Maurice Bathhouse bathhouse row Hot springs NP

6. Maurice Bathhouse

The Maurice Bathhouse is currently closed. People regarded the Maurice Bathhouse as the most elegant of all the bathhouses when it was built in 1912. It has been vacant for 45 years. The park service hopes to have it become a commercial space in the future.

Hale Bathhouse on Bathhouse row in Hot Springs NP
Hale Bathhouse on Bathhouse row in Hot Springs NP

7. The Hale Bathhouse

This bathhouse, which was originally constructed in 1892, serves as the oldest structure on Bathhouse Row. They repurposed it into a luxury hotel that still preserves its historic allure. Exclusively, the Hale Hotel has nine custom rooms in this hotel on bath house row. Guests staying in one of these rooms also benefit from the fact that the hotel pumps the mineral water from the hot springs directly to the bathtubs in the guest rooms. 

Superior Bathhouse interactive sign Hot Springs Travel Guide

8. Superior Bathhouse

Originally opened in 1916, it is the smallest bathhouse in the row. Today, the Superior Bathhouse operates as a brewery and taproom. It’s a great place where visitors can sample local craft beers while enjoying the historic setting. The brews are, of course, made from the authentic thermal hot springs waters. Sample a beer flight if time permits.

In the Fordyce Bathhouse, five patrons are being assisted by two African American bath attendants.

Step Back in Time at the Fordyce Bathhouse Museum & Visitor’s Center

It felt like being transported to the early 1900s when I walked into Fordyce Bathhouse. In the old days, bathhouses weren’t just places to relax, they were opulent sanctuaries. Many of the rooms now have intricate details of the original design, thanks to the restoration team. Imagine what it was like decades ago when people were searching for miracle treatments. I found it fascinating as we went from room to room. Each new room providing insight into the daily routines of those seeking to find rejuvenation through treatments.

Man sits on a bench thinking in solitude-Grand Promenade Hot Springs
Grand Promenade

Stroll the Grand Promenade

This promenade is a paved trail that runs along the backside of historic Bathhouse Row. From this raised walkway, there are scenic views of the city and the surrounding forest. The trail is wheelchair accessible, running about 1.5 miles. Reading the informational placards scattered along the route gave us more insight into the geology and history of this place. From this pathway, we could also access many of the trails.

Stevens Balustrade Shell Fountain Hot Springs National Park
Stevens Balustrade Shell Fountain

We made a quick detour down the stairs behind the Maurice Bathhouse to find the Stevens Balustrade Shell Fountain. Another hidden gem you can find here is the display springs.

TIP: Bring a water container and fill it up at the water filing station. There are many hot/cold water stations spread throughout Hot Springs National Park. Some supply hot, some cold water.

Mountain Observation Tower Hot Springs National Park
Mountain Observation Tower Hot Springs National Park

Scenic Drive and Overlooks

We did both the Hot Springs Mountain Scenic Drive and West Mountain Scenic Drive. On the West Mountain side, there are a few overlooks to stop at on the way to the top. This side of the mountain does not have any facilities. The Hot Springs Mountain Scenic road was originally a carriage road carved out of the mountain in the 1880s. Once you reach the top, we marvelled at the views from the historic Hot Springs Mountain Pagoda.

Hot Springs Mountain Pagoda Overlook
Hot Springs Mountain Pagoda

Ride to the Top of the Hot Springs Mountain Tower

This 216-foot observation tower stands high on North Mountain. There are several routes to get to the tower. First you can hike the mile-plus trek up the mountain from the grand promenade. On the flip side, we chose to drive the narrow switchback road up the mountain to the tower parking area. Even on this holiday weekend, there were plenty of parking spaces. The tower base is a gift store with lots of merchandise to peruse. Inside the store, we purchased our tickets to ride the elevator to the top. Once we reached the top, we got 360-degree panoramic views of the area.

Get out on the Trails

Hot Springs National Park offers a variety of trails for visitors to explore. Some of the popular trails we found in the park include:

  1. Peak Trail: We began this moderate hiking trek from the Grand Promenade. It climbs to the summit of the highest peak-Hot Springs Mountain. It’s a great walk on a cool day, approximately 1.5 miles long. Good panoramic views of the cityscape.
  2. Sunset trail: Sadley, we did not get an opportunity to do this 10-mile-long trail. It is a hard hike to the peak of Music Mountain. Other campers told us it was worth taking the time to do. It will be on our next trip for sure.
  3. Gulpha Gorge Trail: We followed a small watercourse on this easy trail. It took us through the park’s forests. It was only about a mile long. There is a short loop that takes you to a waterfall and there are splendid views of the entire park.
  4. Hot Springs mountain Trail: This was the most challenging trail for us as it goes to the top of Hot Springs mountain. It is a very long ten miles. There were many places where we stopped just to admire the stunning views.
  5. Dead Chief trail: This 2-mile moderate trail takes you to the historic Dead Chief’s Cemetery. Much of the trail traverses through the heart of Hot Springs National Park forest.

I always make a point of stopping by the Visitor Center to get trail maps and information. In addition, we welcome insights from park rangers about any trail problems.

Escape to Lake Ouachita or Lake Catherine

Both lakes have access to fishing, boating and camping in the state park. Choose Lake Catherine if you are looking for convenience to amenities. It is close to Hot Springs, only a short 20-minute drive. Great hiking trails that are dog friendly. The 0.5-mile Falls Trail rewards you with views of the waterfall. On a cool morning, we had the place all to ourselves. In warmer weather, I can imagine this being a great swimming hole.

Angler on the Lake

Lake Ouachita, on the other hand, is more undeveloped, with fewer amenities. This lake is perfect for boating, canoeing, fishing, or simply relaxing. It is a longer journey from Hot Springs, but it offers some of the best bass fishing in the state. In December, there were hardly any people on the beaches and trails. Again, we loved that the trails are dog-friendly. The 3.8-mile moderate Caddo Bend Trail was a good choice for us. Easy trail to following through the forest (yellow blazes) with beautiful views of the lake.

Tips for Hiking: Be sure to wear sturdy hiking shoes or boots. Bring plenty of water and snacks, especially on longer hikes. Apply sunscreen and insect repellent.

National Park Duck Tours amphibious vehicle n Hot Springs Arkansas
National Park Duck Tours-amphibious vehicle

Explore by Land and Water: National Park Duck Tours

If quirky tours are your thing, this one’s a must-do. While it skips the National Park, it offers a thorough exploration of the historic downtown. The tour’s highlight is when the amphibious vehicle seamlessly transitions into Lake Hamilton for an entertaining cruise. For an engaging and fun way to discover the area, this option is worth considering.

Anthony Chapel-Garvan Woodland Gardens
Anthony Chapel-Garvan Woodland Gardens

Hot Springs Travel Guide: What Else Can You Do Here?

Hot Springs is a great place to visit for a weekend getaway or a weeklong vacation. This list is just a glimpse into the many things to see and do in Hot Springs.

  1. Gangster Museum of America: I did not know that Hot Springs was a hub for gangster activity. I especially liked the exhibits about Al Capone and Lucky Luciano. Many of their illicit activities were fascinating.
  2. Maxwell Blade’s Theatre of Magic: Who doesn’t like magic? We recommend as one of the best family friendly activities. The 300-seat theater hosts a two-hour magic extravaganza. The presentation features a terrific blend of large-scale illusions, close-up magic, and comedic routines that are ideal for entertaining children.
  3. Mid-America Science Museum: An ideal place for curious minds of all ages to explore the wonders of science and technology. With plenty of hands-on science activities on everything from dinosaurs to space exploration. The Bob Wheeler Science Skywalk is the highlight of this museum.
  4. Garvan Woodland Gardens: Any nature enthusiast should visit this 210-acre botanical garden. The walking trails boast a wide selection of plants and flowers in the gardens. Our favorites were the Japanese garden and children’s garden.
Camilia Flower-Garvan Woodland Gardens
Camilia Flower-Garvan Woodland Gardens

Where To Stay in Hot Springs National Park

There is a wide variety of places to choose from for your stay in or near Hot Springs National Park. On this road trip, we were pulling a 21-foot North Trail travel trailer. I had reservations for the Gulpha Gorge campground, but they cancelled us last minute because of a site maintenance issue. Luckily, we got into the KOA a short distance from the park.

  1. Gulpha Gorge campground: an ideal location for those that want to stay in the park. It offers tent and RV sites in a wooded setting along Gulpha Creek, with restrooms and picnic areas. Only a few of the sites have electrical hookups. Amenities include restrooms, showers, picnic tables and a dump station. It’s a good idea to make reservations in advance, especially during the peak summer season.
  2. Arlington Resort Hotel & Spa: For those that want to indulge in a little luxury, this historic hotel dates back to 1875. The hotel offers a range of accommodations to suit every traveler, from cozy guest rooms to spacious suites. Bask in the hotel’s renowned spa, stepping back to a bygone era.
  3. The Reserve at Hot Springs: Experience real southern hospitality in this restored country estate mansion house. As you pass through the private gate, a breathtaking garden landscape immediately embraced you, meticulously designed to captivate your senses. A high end retreat for those looking for something extra special.
Gulpha Gorge Bridge water view
Gulpha Gorge Bridge Credit: National Archives

Where To Dining in Hot Springs National Park

There are lots of restaurants to choose from in Hot Springs. One of our favorites was Taco Mamma’s. Because we were camping, we didn’t want anything special for supper. Keeping things simple, we each received a combo plate to split. My order came with beef sopes and a beef enchilada. Additionally, the sides included refried beans and cilantro lime rice. Hubby ordered a chicken burrito and fish tacos. It was all delicious!

  • Superior Brewing: Even if you don’t eat, at least try one of the 18 craft brews made from the hot spring water. The place has a laid-back, positive vibe and is pet friendly. I loved that they offered bar-style seating by the windows, with views of downtown. Try a beer flight to sample different brews.
  • The Pancake Shop: Good fluffy pancakes for breakfast. This place is small, so you may have to wait, but it is so worth it.The service was great and the food was tasty.
Sunrise Early Morning Fog on the Lake
Sunrise Early Morning Fog on the Lake

Final Thoughts Travel Guide to the Legendary Waters at Hot Springs National Park

This serene park is ideal if you are looking to unwind and rejuvenate. Hot Springs National Park quickly caught our attention thanks to its remarkable scenery and historic bathhouses. No matter what you decide to do, we hope our travel guide will give you a sneak peek into this urban park. You are sure to find activities and have a fantastic time. I know we will be back!

What surprised you the most on your Hot Springs visit? Was it something specific about Bathhouse Row, the natural surroundings, or perhaps the overall atmosphere?