Part of the inspiration for this blog is how many people reach out to us for ideas, suggestions, or with questions for their own trip. We love when they do this and often probably go overboard in a long response and take over trying to plan their trip for them. Now we can just start putting some of those frequently asked about trips here in a post for them (and all of you) to refer to when interested.
Arkansas and Missouri are two big central states that people ask about a lot because they’re just the right distance from many places, and not quite as hot or cold as other destinations. Their location is fantastic but we have never really found one destination where we’d want to stay for multiple days as a long destination. Branson, MO is obviously a popular destination for many but it hasn’t been a particular draw for us. Don’t get us wrong, these are great states to visit, and quite beautiful to drive through in most places (we are working on a separate post about an Arkansas road trip) but for this post, we will stick just to Hot Springs, AR.
Hot Springs as a town is a lovely little town. There are a few blocks of cute stores and sweet shops, as would be expected in similar small touristy towns. Our main focus on this trip was Hot Springs National Park (HSNP). This is definitely a neat site worth visiting, but will likely be more interesting to adults than kids. Our kids remained interested but kept us moving also. We finished seeing everything we needed to in a half-day or so. If you are planning to do the whole bathhouse experience, that definitely will add more time and make a more complete experience. If we were there without the kids or for a girls’ weekend or something, we may have done more. We could totally see spending a longer time here but there’s only so much interest the kids can hold here.
While it probably deserves a whole post on its own (*note to us*) we need to at least mention the national parks’ Junior Ranger Program. It’s a wonderful (and FREE) program where kids fill out a booklet (with age-appropriate requirements) to have fun while learning about the park. Once completed, a ranger will review and certify the completion of requirements, ceremoniously guide your child through an oath of induction, and award them their own keepsake plastic badge with the parks’ name and logo on it. These are our favorite souvenirs!
Start your visit at the Hot Springs National Park Visitor’s Center, located in the lovely Fordyce Bathhouse, right in the middle of town. Parking in the town can be tricky so the city has built a great parking garage at 128 Exchange Street. RV and camper parking is an even bigger challenge and you’ll likely have to park quite a bit further away.
Once you’ve gone to and toured (free and self-guided) the Fordyce building, walk around town for a stretch. There are nine historic bathhouses right next to each other (referred to as Bathhouse Row) that are worth a walk by at least to take in the architecture and get a feel for things. The design details both inside and outside of these buildings are exquisite.
While we didn’t do any soaking, there are two bathhouses where you can still do so if you’d like. The Buckstaff Bathhouse offers traditional baths similar to those that were taken at the height of the bathing industry. This is much more of a historical practice than a modern-day spa experience. The gorgeous Quapaw Baths & Spa offers four large thermal pools at around 100 degrees that you can experience. If you want to find out more, we found this to be a very helpful site. Benefits of soaking in the hot springs water are said to be: improved circulation, muscle relaxation, pain relief, treatment for skin conditions, boost the immune system, detoxify, and reduce stress.
Be sure to walk to The Display Spring – which is directly behind the Maurice Bathhouse. The spring comes out of a hillside and flows to a shallow pool where you can touch the hot (but safe to touch) water. It comes out of the ground at 147 degrees but it has cooled enough to touch by the time it reaches the pool. While you can touch it, proceed slowly and with caution. It may not be hot enough to burn you but it is still hotter than comfortable.
If you want to taste or even fill a jug of hot springs water for yourself, there’s a filling tap in front of the National Park Service Building which is at the end of Bathhouse Row on the corner of Reserve Street. There will be a few other water fountains and taps here and there as well. You will often find a little crowd around these areas as we saw people filling up multiple large jugs. We’ve heard people will go back and sell these at home for a solid profit based on the belief of the water’s medicinal purposes. The National Park Service does not claim the water is curative, but the park does certify that is safe to drink, so go ahead and “quaff the elixir” as they used to say during the heyday of Bathhouse Row (1880-1950). HSNP does have a few cold springs and two jug fountains are fed by those. That water (while considered naturally safe to drink) is disinfected with ozone, as required by the Arkansas Department of Health. The hot water jug fountains dispense only the hot water, which is safe without any treatment.
*Pro-tip: The Hale/Maurice jug fountain has no parking lot, so fewer visitors use it. The water there cools to lukewarm in the pipe but is still safe. Just let it run until it comes out hot.
The Ozark Bathhouse is open on weekends, operating today as the Hot Springs National Park Cultural Center. It displays artwork from the park’s Artist-in-Residence Program and other temporary exhibitions. Operated by volunteers from the park’s non-profit supporting organization, it is only open for special occasions and on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday afternoons. Located along Bathhouse Row and with free admission, if it is open while you are there it’s definitely worth checking out.
After touring the bathhouses and exploring the area we recommend going to the Superior Bathhouse Brewery, the first brewery in a national park. It’s on Bathhouse Row which makes it so convenient. They also use thermal spring water as their main ingredient for all of their beers.
*Pro-tip from our kids – Just like the beer the adults might drink, the world-famous Root Beer Float was a delicious treat, and like everything else here, is made with the hot springs water.
For additional dining options, we’ve gotten many strong recommendations for The Pancake Shop right down the road, and how do you go wrong with a great pancake house?! Similarly, as it’s hard to pass up great BBQ, we’ve only heard rave reviews of ‘World-Famous McClards BBQ’. With the perfect weather we had when visiting, we choose to sit outside on nearby Lake Hamilton for dinner at Trejo’s Mexican Restaurant, which was exactly what you’d expect from a Tex Mex chain restaurant (this is the 4904 Central Ave. location). The food was not outstanding and it wouldn’t be our first recommendation at other locations, but it was still good and with a lovely view on the lake and a great margarita happy hour, what else really matters?!
When you are done with seeing the town or are interested in something different, a short drive up to the Hot Springs Mountain Tower is in order. The elevator brings you to an observation deck 216 feet off of the ground, 1,256 feet above sea level overlooking Hot Springs National Park, the Ouachita Mountains, and more. The view is nothing spectacular but still very pretty, and a lot of interesting historic news and stories of famous people who have visited. Major league baseball players were the most common, but also gangsters like Al Capone, and politicians including Bill Clinton at a young age. The ride up in the elevator to the top of the tower was around $10 for general admission with discounts for kids and other groups and, though I didn’t notice it on their website, we used our National Parks pass for a discount. It’s a neat thing to do but also a bit overpriced compared to similar experiences we’ve had at other places in our view.
Another option beyond the main national park area in town is Garvan Woodland Gardens and their Anthony Chapel. The Gardens are the #1 rated site on TripAdvisor for all of Arkansas! The chapel is stunning in its timber and glass construction and is a beautiful sight to see. The site is the botanical garden of the University of Arkansas and is a must-see for flower and plant lovers.
A few other activities to consider:
Boating – if getting out on Lake Hamilton is on your list, Kahuna Bay Boat Rentals has a great location and will get you outfitted for tubing or water skiing.
Cocktails – The Ohio Club, built in 1905, touts itself as the Oldest Bar in Arkansas and has a vivid history.
Gangsters – There’s a long history of organized crime in Hot Springs, AR so you can take a look at the Gangster Museum of America and read more about the history here. A few doors down from The Ohio Club is the building that was the old Southern Club, a casino built in 1893 where the likes of Al Capone, “Lucky” Luciano, “Bugsy” Siegel, Frank Costello, and many other mobsters frequented (as well as most Major League Baseball players of the early 20th century who came to enjoy the benefits of the bathhouses. The building now houses Josephine Tussaud Wax Museum, which isn’t really our thing and doesn’t have the greatest reviews but may still be worth seeing if it interests you.
Theme & Water Park – love thrill rides and water slides? Magic Springs may be the place for you.
Children’s Museum – The Mid-America Science Museum has some pretty good reviews, and anything with a dinosaur is a hit with our Popcorn so we may have to make it a stop on our next trip
Where to Stay: There are a number of options to choose from including the large and beautiful Arlington Resort Hotel & Spa. We decided to stay just a bit further from the main street area, at TownePlace Suites, Hot Springs. We love that the rooms have a kitchenette or full kitchen, there’s a great patio with a fire pit for enjoying a cool evening, and a nice guest laundry if you need to get some clothes cleaned. There’s a free breakfast along with a pool and fitness center. For all that and a very reasonable price point, it was perfect for us. We should note that you will find our lodging recommendations often are Marriotts as their rewards program just can’t be beaten, and the fantastic room upgrades we often get because of it makes a big difference after all being in the van all day.
We’re working on another post with some of the great destinations within a few hours of Hot Springs to extend your trip, so watch for that coming soon.
What would you add to our Hot Springs list above? For a central location, we’ll certainly go back again and are anxious to hear (and share) your suggestions as well!