Nestled in the Ouachita Mountains of central Arkansas lies one of the more unique towns in the Deep South. Hot Springs, Arkansas, really has a lot to boast about. Not only is it one of the larger towns in Arkansas, but it also has the adjacent Hot Springs National Park as its biggest claim to fame. Hot Springs is so unique, in fact, that its inextricable link with surrounding nature makes it one of the only National Parks in the United States to include an urban street.
There’s an incredible history to both the town and the National Park, and the natural geothermally heated springs that emanate from Hot Springs Mountain are the focal point. They were used by indigenous peoples for thousands of years, as they believed the hot waters to possess healing properties. After they were discovered by European-American explorers who also perceived healing effects from the water, it became something of legend.
Over time, more and more people traveled there to experience the hot springs for themselves. A town was built around the water sources, and hotels and bathhouses were built to accommodate weary travelers. While the waters attracted the sick, the luxurious mountain resort with entertainment also became a popular vacation destination for the wealthy.
The boom as a travel hotspot turned it into a town similar to modern-day Las Vegas. It even captivated the interest of gangsters like Al Capone, who came to Hot Springs to partake in illegal gambling and other prohibition-era funny business.
Nowadays things have calmed down a bit, but the history still remains. It was designated as a protected land, and later a national park, in order to preserve the waters and surrounding mountains. It’s actually one of the smallest national parks by area, but includes Bathhouse Row – the historic bathhouses that line Central Ave at the western base of Hot Springs Mountain.
We decided to travel there to explore and learn about this history ourselves. As it turns out, despite the small size of the park there’s quite a lot of vacation rental properties and exciting things to do there. Here are 7 travel ideas from our trip that we think you should check out if you decide to visit:
1. Take a hike!
The mountains in Hot Springs National Park offer some excellent hiking opportunities, and a great way to familiarize yourself with the area! On the western side of Hot Springs Mountain, behind Bathhouse Row, there are shorter trails available that will get you up close to some of the springs.
If you want a more challenging hike that shows you some of the remote areas of the park, you can hike the Sunset Trail, which takes you over Music Mountain, Sugarloaf Mountain, and more. It’s quite long in total at about 15 miles, but we walked back through the city to cover just the western half of the trail in 8 miles.
2. Stop at the Hot Springs Mountain Tower
At the top of Hot Springs Mountain there’s a tower that will take you up over 200 feet for a full panoramic view of the area. It can be accessed by car or by hike, and features an elevator ride to the top, so it’s relatively accessible for most people. The views at the top are spectacular and definitely worth the trip!
3. Tour the Fordyce Bathhouse
Along Bathhouse Row the original bathhouses remain for the public to view. Some have even been repurposed, such as the Superior Bathhouse, which is now a brewery. The Quapaw Bathhouse actually offers bath and spa services so you can experience an authentic hot spring bath!
But, the Fordyce Bathhouse has been preserved exactly as it was in the early 1900’s and is open for guided tours. At the time it was considered the best on the block, and the tour lets you see exactly what was so special about it. Granted, I thought a lot of the amenities seemed more like medieval torture devices than luxury spa treatments, but it also shows how far things have come technologically.
4. Eat at the Ohio Club
You can’t say you got the full Hot Springs experience without getting closer to the deeply rooted gangster history of the area. One of the best places to do just that is at the Ohio Club – Arkansas’ first bar and infamous gangster hangout. It’s also conveniently located right across the street from Bathhouse Row. The Ohio Club was visited by just about every gangster in the early 1900’s, including the infamous Al Capone, and the Club has retained a lot of its Jazz Age charm. You can even take a photo with Al on the bench outside!
5. Get breakfast at The Pancake Shop
Just down the street from the Ohio Club you’ll find The Pancake Shop, which is arguably the best breakfast spot in town. The fresh food and a traditional breakfast joint atmosphere are sure to satiate even the hungriest of brunchers. After you’ve filled your gullet you can head next door to The Savory Pantry, where you can shop for and even taste test delicious gourmet foods for your own kitchen.
6. Stay at The Arlington
Tucked into the side of Hot Springs Mountain, right in the heart of the action, you’ll find one of the most historic and luxurious hotels Hot Springs has to offer – The Arlington. Comfort-seeking patrons have enjoyed their stays at the lavish hotel resort since 1875 (it’s been rebuilt twice since then). If you’re not able to stay at the Arlington (that’s the best way to experience it), at least take a walk through the lobby and common areas. The architecture of the building is staggering. Truly, the Arlington is one of the best places to stay in Hot Springs National park.
7. Bottle some spring water to take with you!
No trip to Hot Springs can be complete without taking some of the world-famous water home for yourself. Most gift shops have vials available for purchase (or jugs, if you’re so inclined), and you can use the fountains in the park to fill up with the pristine water. It’s clean, drinkable, and best of all it’s free!
Those are our favorite things to do in Hot Springs, but there’s so much more to do even beyond this list! Have you been there? What are your favorites? Let us know!