It is easy to get excited about a visit to most any National Park. You’ve seen pictures of the Grand Canyon. The wildlife and thermal features at Yellowstone are legendary. At these large parks, you know a bit about what to expect and you know you’re going to love it. Other parks are a little more obscure, such as Dry Tortugas National Park or, our most recently visited, Hot Springs National Park.
It’s not that these sites aren’t worthy of being National Parks, they are just smaller and not as well-known. In fact, we’ve driven across Arkansas MANY times without stopping at Hot Springs NP. I suppose that is partly because of its location (not near an east-west interstate). But, also partly because we just weren’t that excited about it.
Our American West road trip, during the summer of 2017, finally provided the right time for us to stop at Hot Springs. When planning, we were a little confused because the park and the city just kind of blend together. And we weren’t really sure what to expect.
We did a little prior research, but mostly just figured it out once we got there. Hopefully, sharing our experience will help you to get excited and know what to expect.
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The Hot Springs
The Arkansas hot springs have been “famous” for hundreds of years. The American Indians bathed in the springs as early as the 1700s and their ancestors may have been aware of the springs as well.
The spring water averages 143 degrees Fahrenheit and has traces of minerals that, historically, visitors believed to have therapeutic properties. In the 1800s, bathhouses sprang up to allow people to soak in the healing waters.
The first bathhouses were very basic tents or log cabins. Over the years, as the popularity grew, so did the opulence. The bathhouses transformed into luxurious spas. The popularity of the hot springs and bathhouses continued to grow into the 1920s, with most visitors arriving by train, with doctor’s orders for a soak.
By the 1950s, road trips (with multiple destinations) became more popular and medical advances led to the decline of water therapies. As a result, the popularity of the hot spring bathhouses began to decline.
The National Park
Today, Hot Springs National Park blends in almost seamlessly with the city of Hot Springs, Arkansas. This park actually dates all the way back to 1832, well before Yellowstone or even Yosemite. The government set aside land as a US reservation to preserve and protect the natural resource of the hot springs.
Surprisingly, though, the boundaries of this reservation were not marked. Eventually, the government took one side of the main street, what is today known as Bathhouse Row, and the city took the other side of the street. What both parties failed to consider is that the city would continue to grow.
Today, Hot Springs National Park actually surrounds the city, in somewhat of a donut shape. Congress designated Hot Springs a National Park in 1921. It is the smallest US National Park.
Hot Springs NP Visitor Center
An old bathhouse, the Fordyce, is now home to the Visitor Center. Here you will find the park video, exhibits and can tour the old bathhouse.
The video is informative but dated. As Grant said, “1985 called and they want their park video back.” He may have been generous on the year it was made.
The walk through the old bathhouse is interesting. Comparing the women’s facility to the men’s is unreal. There were seven or eight private stalls for the women, all very boring. The men had a glorious central area with a stained-glass ceiling and more private stalls that I could count. It was very obvious who “controlled” the money back when these bathhouses were popular.
An exhibit hall covers the patrons of the bathhouses, the geology of the hot springs and a covered area of one of the natural spring openings.
Bathhouse Row consists of nine old bathhouses that are now in various types of usage. In addition to the visitor center, one is the Park Administration Building, another is a retail shop, two are active bathhouses, one is an art museum, one is a brewery, and the last two are not open to the public.
As you walk along Bathhouse Row, there are informational signs that provide information on each building, its architecture and when it was in use. Along with a stop at the Visitor Center, walking Bathhouse row is one of the main attractions of the National Park.
Behind Bathhouse Row is the Grand Promenade, a wide walking path that separates the buildings from the woods. Toward the far end of the promenade, you will find a few open hot springs and thermal fountains.
Hiking at Hot Springs NP
A National Park that is just a bunch of buildings seems a little odd. But this park does include some natural areas and a few hiking trails. As it was blazing hot, with high humidity, we chose a short loop of trails.
The main hike that we did was the Hot Springs Mountain Trail. We used the Dead Chief Trail and Honeysuckle Trail as well since we started from the Visitor Center and not the parking lot up on the mountain. Tip: If you want to see the natural stuff, but aren’t up for a hike, you can do the Hot Springs Mountain Drive.
The first part of this hike, from the Visitor Center up Dead Chief Trail, was all uphill and fairly strenuous. We spent a good 15-20 minutes, at least, walking up a significant incline. The good news is that after hiking up real mountains out west, this really wasn’t that bad, other than the humidity!
Once we got to the parking lot at the top, the trail evened out a lot. The view from the parking area is good. There is also an observation tower that you can pay to go up, which we skipped. The Hot Springs Mountain Trail on its own is a 1.7-mile easy to moderate loop. Our route from and back to the Visitor Center was about 2.8 miles and took us an hour and 15 minutes.
We enjoyed getting out and seeing the natural part of the park, but it certainly doesn’t compare to more traditional national parks.
One of the most interesting parts of this park is the on-site brewery! Superior Bathhouse Brewery is the first brewery in a US National Park and the first brewery to use thermal spring water as its main ingredient. Coincidentally, we visited another brewery using thermal water just a couple of days before: Riff Raff Brewing in Pagosa Springs, Colorado.
We tried several different beers. You can get a flight of four (you choose which four) or you can get for an entire tasting of all 18 beers they brew. Grant chose the small flight of four (not much left in the budget by the end of a seven-week trip!). We also ordered pints of a couple of others.
Overall, the beer was tasty. Definitely something we’d drink again! The menu was good as well, with a good selection of appetizers and sandwiches for lunch.
You can read our review of Superior Bathhouse Brewery here.
Thermal Mineral Water Bath
We generally consider getting out and doing a hike our “main” activity at a national park. But, Hot Springs NP is “famous” for hot springs and bathing in the mineral waters. So, we decided that we should follow suit and take a dip!
There are two bathhouses to choose from: Quapaw Baths & Spas or Buckstaff Bathhouse. The Buckstaff has been in continuous operation since it opened in 1912. We chose the Quapaw because they specifically advertised a couples’ soak.
Our Soak at Quapaw Baths
Before our hike, we stopped by the front desk and made a reservation for later that afternoon. We had no problems getting a same-day reservation for a Couples Thermal Mineral Water Bath. There are several options to add salt or bubbles… We chose to add Lavender Salts, which help ease aches and pains. After all the driving and hiking this summer, we knew that would be a good treat!
Upon our arrival, we waited about 10 minutes before someone called us back for our soak. The attendant ushered us into a private room with a bathtub big enough for two and a small area to change. Today, the pipes lead directly from the hot springs to the tub, so our tub was already full of hot mineral water.
The attendant dumped in the salts, gave us the instructions for the jets and left a bell if we needed anything. We were then left on our own for a 20-minute soak.
The water temperature was just about perfect but the jets could have been a little stronger. We enjoyed the soak and the time to relax. When our time was up, we dressed and headed out to the sitting area to cool off.
A cold-press and a cup of cucumber water felt great after a hot soak. That cooled us down in a few minutes. We walked out feeling relaxed and refreshed.
The soaking experience wasn’t bad, but also wasn’t anything super exciting. I don’t believe too much in the “healing powers” of the mineral water, but I do believe in a nice bath, which ours was.
Hot Springs, Arkansas
As a town, Hot Springs is very average. The town is nothing to get excited about, but nothing to avoid either. It’s a good-sized town, with good options for shopping, hotels and dining. In addition to the national park, there is recreation at the lakes.
The downtown area is alive and vibrant, right next to the national park. There are major highways in many directions, making it easy to get in and out, even though there isn’t an interstate nearby.
Hot Springs NP did not disappoint. That said, we were easily able to see and do everything we wanted to in one day. There are several small museums and other attractions that, depending on your interests, could be worth a visit.
We made a weekend out of our trip by also visiting Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site, the President William Jefferson Clinton Birthplace Home National Historic Site in Hope and Crater of Diamonds State Park in Murfreesboro. You can read more about our entire weekend in Central Arkansas here.
I encourage you to visit Hot Springs National Park. The uniqueness is interesting. You can hike, soak in a mineral bath and even enjoy a brewery at a national park! We strongly feel all National Parks, and, in fact, all units of the National Park Service, are worth a visit. The small, lesser-known parks still offer a lot and hold a special place in the history and beauty of our country.