A little history of the area…
Hot Springs lies in the Ouachita Mountains and is the home of our first national park (predating Yellowstone by 40 years). Congress established it on April 20, 1832, in order to protect the hot springs which were flowing from the slope of Hot Springs Mountain. Here you will find more than 30 miles of hiking trails, beautiful scenic overlooks, hot water pools and cascades, plus camping sites as well. The history of the area is quite interesting. This was the playground for the wealthy and the mob (Al Capone and Lucky Luciano were well-known at the downtown Arlington Hotel).
Hot Springs National Park is partially located in downtown Hot Springs, Arkansas, which makes it very accessible. The 8 bathhouses which are part of the National Park were the birthplace of the spa industry in America (thought to have medicinal qualities). The rest of Hot Springs National Park lies on Hot Springs Mountain (which preserves the system that feeds the hot springs). The city of Hot Springs starts across the street from Bathhouse Row.
Exploring Hot Springs
The first thing you are going to need to do is find yourself a place to park in downtown Hot Springs. Most of the parking is along Exchange Street. There is a huge parking garage centrally located that is FREE (whereas most other lots charge) that you get to right off of Exchange Street as well. Just point your GPS to 204 Exchange Street.
Hot Springs National Park
Hot Springs National Park Visitor Center and Historic Museum – this is located in the Fordyce Bathhouse. This was considered to be the best bathhouse out of all 8 of the bathhouses. It has been restored to all of it’s glory and is incredibly interesting to wander the halls and exhibits on all of the floors. Set aside at least an hour (if not more for this one). Entrance is free though so be sure to check it out as this is a must-see.
Out of the last 7 bathhouses, there are two of them that actually still function as bathhouses (and they do charge fees for those services which vary). Make sure you make an appointment WELL in advance (weeks before you arrive):
Quapaw Baths & Spa – Has 4 large-capacity public baths and 1 private bath with your own private attendant.
Buckstaff Bathhouse – offers private baths with men’s on one floor and the women’s on another. The tubs are whirlpool tubs and you can finish your experience with a Swedish massage.
The other bathhouses house other various things such as:
Lamar – This houses the Bathhouse Row Emporium so you can shop for anything bath related with a wide variety of scented oils, salts and bath gels.
Superior Bathhouse – Here you can grab a flight of beer and a bite to eat at the Superior Bathhouse Brewery and Distillery. It is very unique as it is the only brewery in the world in a U.S. National Park and the only brewery in the world to utilize thermal spring water in their beer. Be prepared for a line though and they don’t take reservations. You’ll have to plan accordingly. We got seated right at the front window and it made for the best people-watching adventure.
The rest of the bathhouses such as the Ozark, Maurice, and Hale were not open when we were there due to covid or they just don’t open them to the public at all.
The most popular trail is the Promenade Trail which runs behind the bathhouses and is just a half-mile hike on a brick sidewalk. It is from there that you can hook up with other trails. Those other trails are going to be quite steep and on dirt paths so make sure you have the proper footwear before you attempt any of the other trails. You can tag onto Hot Springs Mountain Trail from there and that will take you up a steep trail with switchbacks eventually to the Mountain Tower but make sure you set aside around 2-4 hours as this is quite steep.
There’s access to the Promenade Trail on Fountain Street and the other access on Reserve Street. It really doesn’t matter from what side you start it from.
It is amazing how truly incredibly HOT the water is here though. The water comes bubbling up right out of the ground all over the place and you see these little waterfalls and pools of water. I took my shoes off to stand in what had cascaded onto the pavement and it was too hot for my feet even.
You are also going to want to drive up the mountain into the park which I would do first thing in the morning so you can get some decent parking spots if you want to do some hikes. The entrance is off of Fountain Street (down by the huge Arlington Hotel). It is a one-way road and quite steep with switchbacks (but nothing to freak you out). I wouldn’t pull or drive a large camper up there though.
Pull into the Hot Springs Mountain Tower (will be a left-hand turn). This 216-foot tower (with a glass elevator) will give you breathtaking panoramic views of the surrounding area. There’s a gift shop when you enter as well. You’ll have to pay an admission fee to go up the tower.
We hiked the Goat Rock Trail which was 1.1 miles and had some elevation changes up and down. You’ll have to drive up there to get to it and there is only a small lot so you’ll have to get there early to get a spot. It was a loop though which will drop you back out at the road and you just have to walk a little ways back to your car (depending on which end you came in on). This little lookout below is a small spur trail so be sure to go up there and check out the views. Gulpha Gorge Trail hooks up to Goat Rock Trail but skip it unless you are hiking up or down from the Gulpha Gorge campground. There is nothing really worthwhile to see along the way in my personal opinion.
West Mountain Scenic Park
Now drive to the other side of the park by taking the West Mountain Summit Drive all the way to the very end where there is parking in a loop. Here you can take a hike to get some incredible panoramic views. The best hike to take is the West Mountain Trail so you’ll park at the loop overlook and take the Sunset Trail until you get to the Mountain Top Trail. Then you can choose to go left or right. You will start downhill either way but on the way back, the question in which side is steeper? With that in mind, I would go counter-clockwise as I think that might make it a little easier. Either way, it is going to be a thigh-burner going that last hike up to the top of the parking lot. There are incredible views as you drive up here and a couple of places to pull out and take pictures so take advantage of that as well along the way.
Now that you’ve seen most of the park, take time to explore the downtown area of Hot Springs as there are some fun places to visit.
Downtown Hot Springs
The Pancake Shop – when we got there around 10:00 a.m., it was a huge line with waits of up to an hour. We spent some time shopping in the stores in the general area though while we waited for the call-back to return. It is an incredibly popular place which has been open since 1940. The most popular items are the pancakes which are the size of your plate. The traditional buckwheat comes with or without blueberries, bananas or apples.
The Winery and Bathhouse Row Winery – These are two separate places. Bathhouse Row Winery is right downtown (by the Pancake Shop) and the The Winery is outside of the downtown area which you will have to drive to. If you are a wine aficionado though, you’ll want to be sure to go to both locations as they have different wines at each location that you can’t get at the other and they are really good wines (in our general opinion) although they are sweeter wines. The Winery also has an extensive gift shop with some candles by Malicious Women which are hilarious. The Capone’s Red wine was our absolute favorite. The wine tastings are free as well so find something you like and leave room in your suitcase to take some home!
Fat Bottomed Girl’s Cupcake Shoppe – This place is known for their appearance on the Food Network’s Cupcake Wars. They have a ton of flavors (it is overwhelming to say the least). They also do icing shots and sell other sweets as well. The salted caramel is the top seller and if you park in the free parking garage, you have to walk right next to them on your way back to your vehicle so be sure to pick up some on your way out.
The Ohio Club – This is Arkansas’ oldest bar and this was where mobsters like Al Capone, Bugsy Segel, Lucky Luciano, etc. used to hang out. It was also a stopping off point for some early Major League Ball players (such as Babe Ruth) as they had training in Hot Springs in the early 1900’s. They have live entertainment here and it is worth stopping by just to soak in the history alone. Although we didn’t eat there and just had a couple drinks (including the $31.00 Rolls Royce Margarita which was worth it), the food being delivered to other tables looked amazing.
The Arlington Hotel Resort and Spa – If you aren’t staying here, you should take the time just to step into the lobby to check it out. It has been standing since 1875 and is a sight to behold. During Christmas they also have this massive Gingerbread House on display (about 1,000 pounds of gingerbread, frosting, and candy) in the lobby. They’ve been making one every year for over 30 years and each year they claim to do outdo themselves.
Bubba Brew’s Brewing Company – This place was huge and had incredible views of Lake Hamilton. I guess during the summer season, this is the place to be. Our resort even did daily shuttles to the brewery during the summer as it is so popular. The food was amazing as well as the beers so check it out if you get a chance.
Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort – This is one of the top racetracks in the United States for thoroughbred racing. There was no horse racing happening when we were there, however, we played the slots and actually did quite well. We loved this place and the food wasn’t too bad either! If you go to the First Turn Bar, they have a balcony overlooking the race track.
Crystal Ridge Distillery – There is so much to choose from here and they do tastings every 30 minutes. You can’t choose what you want to taste though as the tastings are already pre-chosen but we were able to finagle a couple of extra tastes of stuff we thought we might really like.
Other potential places to visit that we did not go to in the downtown area:
Exploring Outside of Hot Springs
The countryside outside of Hot Springs is beautiful so if you get a chance, be sure to get out and explore. A few places that we went are:
Garvin Woodland Gardens – This is a MUST SEE. We went during covid so they scaled their Christmas lights and decorations down to cut down on the crowds but in the past, it is my understanding that it was one of Arkansas’ most impressive holiday events. Even without the millions of lights during covid, it was still impressive regardless.
Make sure you check out Anthony Chapel which is there as well (although you don’t have to pay an admission fee to see this at it is right next to the parking lot). Even if you aren’t a fan of botanical gardens or walking out on the nature trails, this building is truly stunning and an architectural masterpiece. It is a chapel designed by Faye Jones and Maurice Jennings. Jones was an apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright and Wright believed that buildings should integrate with nature the surroundings around them. This is one of the most popular wedding sites in the country and for good reason. You don’t have to be religious to enjoy this work of art.
Try your hand at mining at one of the many self-mining operations around Hot Springs. We stopped at:
Ron Coleman Mining – Dig for crystals (about 30 minutes away)! With it being New Years Day, there wasn’t much open but Ron Coleman Mining certainly was! It was pouring rain that day too (not just little drops of rain but great big drops of rain that made it hard to even see). They gave us a few rules and set us out there to dig. We brought some of our own gear but they have cheap gear to rent and buy as well so you really wouldn’t have to bring anything but some towels (to cover your car seats when you are done) and a change of clothing. YOU WILL GET VERY DIRTY even if it isn’t raining. This orange clay will not come out of your clothes too so wear some black leggings (ladies) and anything you don’t care about because it will stain your clothes and shoes unless they are black. Bring a collapsible bucket (I put one right in my suitcase) and some large baggies to put your finds in as well. There are cleaning tables there to rinse off your rocks to see if you found anything worth keeping. On our way back on the shuttle from the airport, the attendant grabbed my carry-on bag to throw it up onto the shuttle (we brought an extra carry-on as putting our finds in our checked baggage would have made them overweight). He exclaimed, “What in the world do you have in there? Rocks??” I replied, “Yes indeed!”
Crater of Diamonds State Park – This is about an hour outside of Hot Springs. This is the only place on the entire North American continent where you can dig for diamonds for a fee and keep what you find! This is a great place to go when it is raining out as the rain will wash the sediment away and leave the diamonds on the surface sparkling. There’s no shade though as you can see from the pictures. More than 75,000 diamonds have been found here since 1906. A Colorado woman found an 8.5-carat white diamond in 2015 that is now worth $1 million. A word of warning though…come here with very low expectations and you won’t be disappointed. The diamonds that people were finding were so tiny that I was shaking my head in disbelief how they even saw them. There is equipment for rent at extremely reasonable prices so just come there for the experience of having a once-in-a-lifetime chance at digging for diamonds. We bought our tickets in advance to make sure we had a spot that day.
Lake Catherine State Park – This is about a half hour outside of Hot Springs. This is usually a very busy state park and if the lot is full, they turn people away. On New Years Day, a lot of people do the annual First Day hikes so if you visit around the holidays, keep that in mind. We had no issues finding a spot later in the day in late December. We did a loop out to a little waterfall and it was beautiful.
One place that we did not get a chance to go to that we really wanted to visit was:
McClard’s Bar-B-Q Restaurant – We were so pumped up to go here as we travel all over the country in search of incredible BBQ places. We had checked the website and the hours and we were good! Unfortunately, we arrived there and there was a sign on the door stating they were closed for the holidays. This place is world-famous though. Named one of the Top 10 BBQ restaurants by the Travel Channel and #1 in Arkansas. It is a 4-generation operation at that. If you get a chance to go here or have gone here, leave us a comment below and let me know what you thought.
We flew back out of Memphis on our way back and of course we had to stop at Graceland but Memphis will be another blog in and of itself in the near future.