In October, my family and I traveled to Arkansas, The Natural State. Our road trip was to Hot Springs National Park, the oldest park managed by the National Park System. “The park calls itself the “oldest area in the national park system” because in 1832, 40 years before Yellowstone became the first national park, President Andrew Jackson set aside the hot springs as a special reservation.” (Excerpt from National Geographic)
The American Spa
The park and city of Hot Springs have long been called “The American Spa” because people have traveled to the city for the natural thermal springs and bathhouses for many years. Hot Springs’ waters are thought to have healing qualities. Since the mid-19th century, everyone from celebrities, presidents, gangsters, baseball teams, and football teams have flocked to the area for the baths. In the present day, folks still come for that same reason. There’s also lots more that draws people to the area.
What’s covered in this article
As I said in my article, Country Inn & Suites by Carlson-Hot Springs, Arkansas, I’ve been visiting Hot Springs since I was a young child. What I didn’t mention was that we honeymooned in Hot Springs as a young couple. Our children have grown up going too. There’s something for everyone when you visit the Hot Springs area. In this article, I’ll cover a few of the attractions and places that are worth a visit. Other follow-up articles posting soon will give additional details on at least two of the attractions and I will share our experiences there.
What to see and do in Hot Springs National Park
While most National Parks are surrounded by forests, woodlands, dunes or other natural sites, this park is different. Located in the heart of the park is downtown Hot Springs…a small city. The initial draw to the park were the natural hot springs that ran through what is now downtown. Rising above Central Avenue, the main thoroughfare, is Hot Springs Mountain, from which the supposed healing waters flow. But, the “spa town” is not just all about the spas. With all that there is to see and do in Hot Springs National Park, a person could easily spend three or four days there; however, if you have only a weekend, you can still see and do a lot.
DIStracted Tip: Several pay parking lots are located on the left side of Central Avenue (as you are headed North). There is parking on the streets but it is very limited. Right before you get to bathhouse row, there are several streets to the right and you can usually find parking places there. Bring plenty of change as there are parking meters.
Baths and Spas!
As I mentioned, the waters of Hot Springs have drawn people for centuries. There’s no better way to rest and relax than a world-famous mineral bath. Historic Bathhouse Row is located in downtown Hot Springs and two of the most popular bathhouses are Quapaw Baths & Spa and Buckstaff Bathhouse Company.
Buckstaff Bathhouse Company
“The only remaining continuously operational traditional thermal bathing facility”. Since 1912, Buckstaff Bathhouse Company has offered mineral baths, hot packs, sitz baths, and steam cabinets. For those wanting a massage, they offer those as well! Buckstaff offers you the privacy of individual tubs. All men’s facilities are on the first floor. The second floor is dedicated to the women’s facilities. The highly trained and dedicated personnel of Buckstaff Bathhouse make sure you are treated like a king or a queen during your visit.
DIStracted tip: No reservations or appointments are accepted. The Buckstaff website states that you should allow approximately 1 1/2 hours for the entire process and longer during peak hours.
You’ll find the hours of operation, a complete list of services, and contact information here.
Quapaw Baths & Spa
“As the newest bath and spa to Hot Springs National Park, and historic Bathhouse Row, Quapaw Baths & Spa offers guests a unique way to experience the acclaimed thermal mineral water in our four large capacity thermal water soaking pools as well as a recently opened private bathing area.” (Excerpt hotsprings.org)
Quapaw Baths & Spa offers a variety of spa services including:
- Body treatments
- Thermal pools
- Private baths
- Steam Cave
On the weekend, Quapaw Café is open and serves a variety of sandwiches, salads, smoothies, and other drinks.
There’s also a boutique where you can purchase natural environmentally friendly products.
Here is where you’ll find more information about the services, hours of operation, and contact information.
Other spa and bath services
There are many other spa and bath services available. Some of the downtown hotels even offer these services as part of their amenities. If you’d like a complete list, simply use this link.
Two of the most popular tours are the Fordyce Bathhouse Museum & National Park Visitor’s Center and National Park Duck Tours. For those looking for budget-friendly things to do, these rank high on the list.
Fordyce Bathhouse Museum & National Park Visitor’s Center
The Fordyce Bathhouse operated from 1915-1962, when it closed due to declining business. In it’s heyday, Fordyce Bathhouse was declared the best bathhouse in Hot Springs. In 1989, Fordyce opened as the park’s Visitor Center. Guests have the option of a guided or self-guided tour of the building and the facilities. Both are free of charge.
“From the lobby’s marble and stained glass transoms, to the marble partitions of the bath halls, to the stained glass ceiling in the Men’s Bath Hall, you can see why the Fordyce Bathhouse was considered to be the best.” (Excerpt nps.gov)
Your tour, whether by guide or self-guided, takes you through the dressing, massage, and music rooms as well as the gymnasium and several exhibits. Don’t worry about not getting all of the details if you take the self-guided tour. The museum has plenty of signs which explain what you are seeing.
We have done the self guided tour several times. I will share a much more in-depth review, complete with lots of pictures, in another article. Keep an eye out for it.
National Park Duck Tours
National Park Duck Tours are unique to say the least. You board an amphibious vehicle/boat known as a “duck” whose technology dates back to World War II. The duck takes you on an hour and a half land and water tour. Your tour takes you through downtown Hot Springs and out Hwy. 7S. to Lake Hamilton. Your duck then leaves the road and drives right into Lake Hamilton where the next portion of the tour begins. The driver and tour guide will make your ride fun and informative from the beginning to the end which happens to be where it actually started….in downtown.
For contact information and hours of operation, you can find it all here.
Hot Springs National Park has walking trails galore! Most are considered easy; however, there are a few moderate to strenuous trails. Our favorite trail to take is the walk from Central Avenue and up to the “promenade” above the city. The promenade provides some beautiful views of the city.
The National Park Service website has a complete list of the nature trails in Hot Springs National Park. The list provides complete information on the trail length, category, and location.
The Gangster Museum of America
“Take yourself back to the days of the 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s when mineral water, gambling, bootlegging, and other extreme pleasures brought visitors from all over the world to Hot Springs, Arkansas.” (Excerpt from The Gangster Museum of America website).
One of the most famous gangsters to ever visit Hot Springs was Al Capone! During Mayor Leo McLaughlin’s 22 years in office, Hot Springs became a haven for notorious criminals and mobsters, including Owen “Owney” Madden, Charles “Lucky” Luciano, and Al Capone.
The Gangster Museum of America is an historic account of how some of the most notorious criminals in America came to live and play in the mountains of central Arkansas. Guests will enjoy the audiovisual experience of The Gangster Museum of America’s seven galleries.
Pricing information as well as hours of operation can be found using this link.
Mid America Science Museum
Just a short drive from downtown Hot Springs is Mid America Science Museum. Mid-America Science Museum is a hands-on museum that delights both young and old. The museum is Arkansas’ largest hands-on science center and the state’s first Smithsonian Affiliate.
Guests will find over 100 engaging exhibits that explore the wonders of matter, energy, life and perception. The exhibits spark the curiosity of it’s guests and encourages understanding through observation skills, inquiry and discovery learning. We’ve been visiting the museum ever since it opened in 1979 and, with the multi-million dollar recent renovation, there’s something new to discover when we visit again.
The current cost for admission is as follows: Adult: $10, plus tax Ages 3-12: $8, plus tax Senior, 65 and older: $8, plus tax. Teachers and military discounts are available. *Prices are subject to change.
This link will provide you with hours of operation, directions and more information.
Magic Springs & Crystal Falls Water and Theme Park
Magic Springs & Crystal Falls Water and Theme Park is located in beautiful Hot Springs, Arkansas and offers the state’s only theme park, water park and concert amphitheater in one location for one low price.
Magic Springs theme park
The theme park area of Magic Springs has attractions for all ages. The Arkansas Twister, Big Bad John, and The Gauntlet are just three of the thrill rides in the park. Family rides are a bit milder and are fun for the entire family. If you aren’t up for the X-Coaster or The Hawk, take a ride on Diamond Mine Coaster, Rum Runner Pirate Ship, or the Ozark Taxi Company.
Younger ones will enjoy the Looney Ballooney, Fearless Flyers, or the Krazy Kars.
Crystal Falls is the water park section of the park. Want to cool off? Head to Crystal Falls! Guests race down Rapid Falls Raceway, slide down the tubes of Seven Falls Slide Tower, or just float along The Magic Springs. Just like at the theme park, Crystal Falls has attractions for every age.
Private cabanas which provide your own personal space with a variety of amenities are available for rent.
Magic Springs & Crystal Falls also offers a variety of skill games and food options, including Smoke on the Water, a barbecue restaurant.
Magic Springs Concert Series
Magic Springs & Crystal Falls is also home to a concert venue. The Magic Springs Concert Series is known for attracting a variety of musicians. Guests can enjoy everything from current pop and country to 80s and 90s hits to Christian artists. According to the site, there are already three very popular artists on the concert series lineup: Tracy Lawrence, Jeremy Camp, and for King & Country!
The park’s website gives you all of the details on pricing, hours of operation, height requirement.
Art, Antiques & Shopping
Dozens of artists and patrons of the arts have transformed some of the historic buildings into galleries and studios. Hot Springs is ranked fourth on the list of 100 Best Art Towns in America! Studios and galleries sell a variety of items such as hand-thrown pottery, magnificent sculptures, gorgeous wooden bowls, and beautiful paintings.
Antiquing is a favorite pastime of many. Guests who enjoy finding unique treasures will be pleased to hear that there are plenty antique shops to explore. Shops carry a wide variety of vintage items, furniture, books, jewelry, china, and more!
Shoppers come with your pocketbooks ready! Shops abound in Hot Springs! Shoppers find merchandise made by locals, in addition to boutiques, a fine cigar shop, and even a Rocket Fizz candy shop. If you’ve never been in a Rocket Fizz, you need to rectify that. They sell old school candies like Clark bars, Pop Rocks, and they even have penny candy by the pound!
Even if you don’t want to take one of the tours at the Visitor’s Center, pop in for a look at the merchandise. They have a variety of handmade soaps, shaving kits, books about the local history, and section for the children in your group.
Hot thermal springs
I’d be remiss if I gave you the scoop on everything there was to see and do in Hot Springs National Park, and didn’t mention the hot thermal springs. when, in fact, that’s how the park came to be! Along Central Avenue are fountains, springs, and even a public fountain where Guests can fill their own bottles and jugs. Whenever we visit the area, we bring along gallon jugs and fill them from one of the fountains.
Some may take a look at the natural springs and some of the fountains and think “no way!”. However, the water is perfectly fine to drink. As a matter of fact, the waters are thought to have healing qualities. Centuries ago, travelers and locals, even if they were adversaries, let one another be so that they could enjoy the springs.
The National Park Services certifies that the water is safe to drink. It is colorless, odorless and tasteless because it lacks much iron and sulphur. The springs are protected by the government and are tested regularly.
DIStracted tip: Several of the souvenir shops along Central Avenue sell the gallon containers. During our most recent trip, I noticed that they were priced at 75 cents each. Because the temperature of the water is quite hot, be prepared! You may need a cloth to wrap around the handle in order to carry it to your vehicle.
That’s not all!?!?
I only touched the tip of the iceberg in this article! In future articles, I will give you an in-depth look at the Fordyce Bathhouse self-guided tour, play a round of mini-golf at one of the local courses, and take you on a scenic driving tour above the park.
Hot Springs National Park is a pet-friendly park. Guests are encouraged to bring their pets on the walking trails. Just remember to pick up after your pets AND yourselves!