Around 1.5 million people visit Hot Springs National Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas each year. Compared to giant counterparts like Yellowstone and Yosemite, Hot Springs is a tiny national park. The park encompasses 5,550 acres (22.5 km2) of partially urban park land. Since it’s a smaller park and sees so many visitors each year, we had heard from other members of our #parkchasing community to expect crowds and a different nature experience than we’re used to. While that’s true in some ways, we didn’t struggle at all to find things to see in Hot Springs National Park.
7 Things to See in Hot Springs National Park
1. Dip a finger in the hot springs.
Did you know that the water bubbling up the hot springs in Hot Springs National Park is more than 4,000 years old? A trip to Hot Springs National Park wouldn’t be complete without dipping a finger in one of the steaming pools throughout the park. The water here comes out of the ground at around 140 degrees. It’s too hot for swimming or wading, but still a must-see stop when you visit the park. After all, the Hot Springs are what have brought people to the area for centuries.
2. Climb the Hot Springs Mountain Tower.
Towers on the top of Hot Springs Mountain have a long history in the area. In 1877, a local business owner built the first tower on the mountain. It stood 75 feet and drew tourists to the area and the local bathhouses. A second tower was constructed in 1906. The current tower, built in 1982-1983, the Hot Springs Mountain Tower should also be on everyone’s list during a stop to the national park. Towering 216 feet above the park (and 1,256 feet above sea level) the three observation decks offer 360 degree views of the park and surrounding Ouachita Mountains. If you’re willing to brave them take the lung-burning steps up to the top and back down. The views at the top are worth the reward. No worries if stairs aren’t your thing. There’s an elevator inside the gift shop lobby.
3. Take a bath on bathhouse row.
Even though most of the bathhouses in Hot Springs National Park are now closed, the Buckstaff and Quapaw still operate within the park boundaries. It’s the best way to try a soak in the famous hot springs waters. The Quapaw offers services similar to modern day spas. Treat yourself to private massage, facials, along with a soak in the hot springs water. The Buckstaff offers a more “traditional” hot springs bath experience, with services kept as authentic as possible from when the bathhouse opened in 1912. Men take baths on the first floor, women on the second. Baths last around 45-90 minutes and include a private attendant. Be sure to make a reservation well in advance. Both bathhouses are booked with bathers most days of the year.
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4. Tour the Fordyce.
If you’d like to see the inside of a historic bathhouse but prefer to stay dry, then the Fordyce tour should be among your top things to see in Hot Springs National Park. The Fordyce Bathhouse opened in March 1915. At 28,000 square feet, it was the largest bathhouse on the promenade and now serves as the Hot Springs National Park visitor’s center. Today the inside of the Fordyce has been restored to match what a traditional Hot Springs bathhouse would have looked like during peak operation. Tours of the building can be taken self-guided or ranger-led. As usual, we recommend the ranger-led tour. You’ll get the full story of how and why Hot Springs, Arkansas became the “Wellness Destination of the West.”
5. Discover some Hot Springs history.
Hot Springs National Park has a long and storied history. One of the best things to do at Hot Springs National Park is to get to know the people and places that have shaped the land and city now in the national park. Here are some ways to discover Hot Springs history:
- Start at the National Park Visitor’s Center – you’ll find exhibits about how Hot Springs became our first national park.
- You’ll also learn about the Quapaw and the Caddo tribes, who considered the hot springs valley culturally significant lands for hundreds of years before Euro-American settlers arrived.
- In the 1930’s Hot Springs became a hot bed for illegal gambling and bootlegging activity. Find out about the history of the area at The Gangster Museum of America.
- The National Park Service maintains an exhibit in the visitor’s center on African American’s historic role in the bathhouses of Hot Springs. Prior to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, African Americans could work in the bathhouses on Bathhouse Row, but were forced to use segregated bathhouses for bathing.
6. Hike the trails.
One of the top things to do in Hot Springs National Park is hike the trails. Many of the trails in the park have been around for more than 100 years, traveling up and around Hot Springs Mountain. Take the famous Sunset Trail which circles nearly the entire park boundary. Hike out to Goat Rock or the Gulpha Gorge. Both are good choices before a nice relaxing bath in the thermal water.
7. Grab a brew at the Superior Bathhouse Brewery.
In our last post about ways to enjoy the hot springs in Hot Springs National Park, we mentioned our stop at Superior Bathhouse Brewery. Located on bathhouse row, Superior was the first brewery located inside a national park. They also use the thermal water in the brewing process, something unique to the Hot Springs area. We stopped in for dinner from their full-service menu and a flight of their latest beer selection. Food was great, atmosphere is fun and family friendly. Worth a stop whenever you’re visiting the park!