Most people associate the United States National Parks with wide-open spaces, abundant wildlife and soaring vistas.
So Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas, whose boundaries lie within the small southern city of the same name, may come as a surprise.
Welcome to Hot Springs, Arkansas!
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More than 180 years later, the park — home to 47 hot springs whose waters bubble up from deep within the Earth — continues to draw visitors. Some come for the thermal baths whose high mineral content is said to be therapeutic. Others come to take in the stately architecture of Bathhouse Row, where eight historic bathhouses (mostly constructed in the early 20th century) line Central Avenue. Still others come to explore the park’s 40-plus kilometers of hiking trails and the gentle slopes of the Ouachita Mountains.
There’s plenty to do in this town in central Arkansas, about an hour’s drive southwest of the capital city of Little Rock. The boyhood home of former U.S. President Bill Clinton, Hot Springs has a quaint downtown historic district that is full of one-of-a-kind shops selling antiques, clothing, toys and more. The town hosts live horse racing from late January through May at historic Oaklawn, and two annual music festivals: the Hot Springs Music Festival in June and the Valley of the Vapors Independent Music Festival in March.
But the first stop on any visitor’s agenda should be the National Park visitor center and museum in the Fordyce Bathhouse. When the three-story Edwardian structure in the center of Bathhouse Row was built in 1915, it was the largest and, with its marble walls and stained-glass skylights, arguably the most elegant. The Fordyce Bathhouse closed in 1962, but found new life in 1989 when the National Park Service took up residence. Now, you can see exhibits in one of the former dressing rooms. Visitors can also tour its grand third-floor music room and the gymnasium.
Like the Fordyce, most of Hot Springs historic bathhouses have been repurposed. The former Superior Bathhouse, for instance, now hosts a brewery and distillery that utilize the thermal water in its brews.
One of the best-preserved bathhouses is the Buckstaff, thanks in part to the fact that it has operated continuously since 1912. It offers a traditional European-style bath ritual consisting of a 20-minute soak in an oversized tub filled with 38-degree-Celsius water, hot packs for up to 20 minutes, a 10-minute sitz bath and a brief session in a steam cabinet. Swedish massages and manicures and pedicures are also available should you want a little extra pampering.
For a more contemporary experience, the Quapaw Baths and Spa, also on Bathhouse Row, has private baths, four thermal pools and a host of spa services. The early 1920s structure was built over a thermal spring. It includes a small man-made cave with walls that radiate the water’s heat to create steam.
Several hotels offer spa services, too. They include the Arlington Resort Hotel, which operates its own Thermal Water Spa. Guests at the elegant 1924 landmark (the third incarnation of the hotel) have included former U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, baseball legend Babe Ruth, singer/actress Barbra Streisand and gangster Al Capone (who favored Room 442).
After “taking the waters,” you may consider a jaunt up to Hot Springs Mountain Tower. The panoramic views from atop the nearly 66-meter-high steel structure stretch for 225 kilometers.
Before you leave Hot Springs, be sure to fill up a container with the city’s signature spring water. Fountains throughout downtown spout the mineral-rich liquid. It’s the ultimate souvenir, and it’s free!