Hot Springs, Arkansas, may not get the attention of other national park towns or vacation destinations in the south and midwest. Despite the lack of hype, you may consider this one of the most unique experiences within the national park system. Plus, the area offers many other fun activities such as high-stakes horse racing and do-it-yourself mining! Read on as we take a closer look.
About Hot Springs, Arkansas
Hot Springs, Arkansas, has changed hands several times in the early days of American settlement. It eventually became part of the United States in 1803 as part of the Louisiana Purchase. Native Americans had visited the site for thousands of years, drawn by its warm waters and resources. This attracted settlers from the east.
The federal government first moved to protect parts of the area in 1832, creating the Hot Springs Reservation. That’s 40 years older than our first national park, Yellowstone!
Development continued through the 19th century, despite significant damage from the Civil War and a fire in 1878. The bathhouses that make up the park’s iconic “Bathhouse Row,” built shortly after 1920, became the final generation of several in the town.
Hot Springs officially became a national park in 1921, the 18th in the fast-growing system. Despite this, the resort town became a well-known hangout for organized crime in the 1920s and 1930s. The luxury accommodations and plentiful illegal gambling drew infamous gangsters like Al Capone, Frank Costello, and Bugs Moran.
Hot Springs also became a popular destination for none other than “the Great Bambino,” Babe Ruth. He was just one of the dozens of top baseball players who made pilgrimages to the town in the early 20th century. You can check out the town’s vast baseball history on the Hot Springs Historic Baseball Trail, which commemorates significant events and sites.
In the years since the last bathhouses closed in the 1960s, the National Park Service has carefully managed growth in the town of approximately 39,000 residents. It has become a tourist destination that draws people to many other regional attractions.
Best Time of Year to Visit Hot Springs, Arkansas
Hot Springs’ location in central Arkansas allows visitors to check out this charming town and national park year-round. The hot and humid summers can have temperatures in the 80s and 90s. Still, this remains the most popular time of year for visitors. The mild winters generally have highs in the 50s and lows in the 30s. Those looking to avoid the heat and crowds can visit in late winter and early spring before the tourism surge.
Hot Springs National Park
Today, Hot Springs National Park protects several of the iconic bathhouses and public fountains that drew visitors in the town’s prime. In addition, the park includes a series of hiking trails and other activities.
Unlike most national parks, Hot Springs has to give away its primary natural resource — the thermal spring water that’s drawn people for thousands of years. The park relies heavily on manmade structures that harness the water making this place unique. While you may not get the vast expanses of Glacier or Big Bend National Parks, you can visit Hot Springs for a one-of-a-kind national park experience.
Can You Drink the Water in Hot Springs, Arkansas?
Absolutely! Drinking the water draws many people to the national park. It’s known as “quaffing the elixir,” and visitors have done it for more than 150 years! You’ll find more than half a dozen thermal fountains throughout the park and several more cold water taps.
You will see both locals and tourists filling up bottles and jugs, hoping to take advantage of the supposedly health-preserving properties of the water. Whether you believe this or not, the water is entirely safe to drink, so give it a try!
Best Things to Do in Hot Springs, Arkansas
Hot Springs, Arkansas, has many great things for visitors to do, both within the national park and the beautiful surrounding areas. We rounded up our favorites.
Soak in the Hot Springs
Before you conjure up an image of slipping into a secluded natural hot spring somewhere in the mountains overlooking the town, we have some bad news. Unfortunately, Hot Springs, Arkansas, doesn’t have any outdoor surface hot springs — just two antique bathhouses, the Buckstaff and the Quapaw. Bathhouses like these played a critical role in the heyday of Hot Springs and the town’s attraction to the country’s upper crust.
The Buckstaff offers a variety of spa services. A 20-minute whirlpool mineral bath starts at $38. You can also get a complete bathing package, including a loofah and full body massage, for between $80 and $100.
The Quapaw offers a more communal element, with no-reservation access to its public thermal pools starting at just $20. You can get a private mineral bath for $30. The Quapaw also offers the special “steam cave experience” — essentially, a sauna where the flowing hot springs water provides the heat.
Visit the Fordyce Bathhouse Visitor Center
The Fordyce was once among the luxury bathhouses that peppered the town. But these days, it operates as the Hot Springs National Park visitor center. You can start your visit to Hot Springs here to learn more about how the park came to be and speak with a ranger about activities. You can also take a peek at what the bathhouse used to look like in a series of restored rooms!
Hike to the Mountain Tower Observation Deck
Treat yourself to panoramic views of Hot Springs, the Ouachita Mountains, and the Diamond Lakes area from this open-air observation deck. At the top, nearly a quarter-mile above sea level, you will find 360-degree views and 140 square miles of Arkansas countryside. The current iteration of the Mountain Tower was built in 1983, but observation towers have existed at this site for more than 140 years.
Getting to the tower is half the fun! Hot Springs National Park offers various hiking trails that wind around Hot Springs Mountain and North Mountain. Both the Hot Springs Mountain Loop Trail and the more strenuous Peak Trail take you directly to the tower.
However, you can access these trails indirectly from any number of the park’s other connecting trails. It allows you to craft a hike that’s a perfect length and difficulty level for you and your fellow travelers. Those not up for a walk can also drive directly to the tower.
Dig for Genuine Arkansas Quartz Crystals
Hot water isn’t the only thing that famously comes out of the ground in this part of Arkansas. The area is well known for its quartz crystal deposits, which you can mine at several locations in the Hot Springs area. Don’t worry too much about the “mining” — it’s mostly just digging through excavated dirt above ground. You may love this unique and active way to get yourself a souvenir you’ll treasure for life!
Oaklawn Casino Resort and Horse Races
If you hit it big in the quartz mines or just feel lucky, take a trip to nearby Oaklawn Casino Resort. Oaklawn houses the nationally-renowned horse racing track that’s been in operation for more than a century. Races happen here in the first half of the year, generally between January and May.
Whether you’re betting or just enjoying the entertainment and majesty of these amazing creatures, it’s a worthwhile trip for those who love horses or gambling. The casino itself also includes slots, table games, and sports betting. For those looking to stay overnight, the hotel offers rooms with views of the racetrack as well as its own Astral Spa for some pampering.
Who Is Hot Springs, Arkansas, For?
Though not the biggest or most popular, Hot Springs, Arkansas, offers a national park and hot spring experience unlike any other in the United States. From bathhouse pampering and baseball to organized crime history and premier horse racing, just about everyone will find something of interest in this humble mountain resort town.