Hot Springs, Arkansas isn’t necessarily considered a hot destination (see what I did there?), but it is definitely worth a visit. The natural thermal springs are an attraction, but there is more to do than just take a bath. Downtown Hot Springs is quaint and feels like you’ve stepped back in time. Many of the buildings are over 150 years old and house new shops and restaurants. Last month, I spent one perfect day in Hot Springs on my first solo road trip. Here you’ll find where to stay, where to eat, and what to make sure you don’t miss in Hot Springs, Arkansas!
History of Hot Springs
For over a thousand years, Native Americans visited the area to mine for stones. They used these stones to create weapons and tools. The thermal springs did not go unnoticed, though. Supposedly “the Valley of the Vapors” was a neutral area where all tribes could come to enjoy the waters. Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto is said to be the first European to visit the hot springs in 1541. Early in the 19th century, explorers Hunter & Dunbar stumbled across the hot springs and recorded their findings. There was a log cabin and several “huts” built over the springs, where presumably people would come to soak.
Hot Springs Reservation & Hot Springs National Park
President Andrew Jackson designated Hot Springs as the first federal reservation in 1832. This was decades earlier than Yellowstone National Park, which is commonly known as America’s first. Word began to spread and Americans started to visit Hot Springs regularly. What started as a very rustic encampment quickly turned into a vacation destination. By 1888, Bathhouse Row was completed and the area became known as “America’s Spa.” Hot Springs National Park was officially named in 1921, five years after the National park Service was created. The thermal waters aren’t the only attraction, though. There are also over twenty miles of hiking trails and a tower you can climb!
A haven for gangsters and outlaws
Because Hot Springs is so remote, it became a popular hideout for infamous criminals. Al Capone, Frank Costello, Bugs Moran, and Lucky Luciano were all known to visit Hot Springs in an effort to “lay low.” Being difficult to reach isn’t the only reason it was such a popular retreat for mobsters, though. It is well documented that two families controlled an intense illegal gambling scene in Hot Springs. Corruption and illegal activity were rampant in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Although it continued through the first half of the 20th century, the federal government cracked down on illegal gambing in the 1960s. You can go to the Gangster Museum of America during your visit to Hot Springs. The reviews on the museum are varied, so I chose not to.
Arguably one of the biggest attractions in Hot Springs, Arkansas is Bathhouse Row. Constructed between the 1890s and 1920s, these Victorian-era bathhouses stand as a tribute to the golden days of “America’s Spa.” There are eight bathhouses, but only two are operational today – Buckstaff Bathhouse and Quapaw Baths & Spa. Buckstaff Bathhouse offers the most traditional bathing experience. It is the only one in continuous operation since its opening in 1912. Quapaw Baths & Spa is more contemporary, although the private baths still feel like you’ve stepped back in time. Below is a bit more about each of the bathhouses – it’s all quite interesting!
Today, Lamar Bathhouse serves as a NPS-run gift shop, offices for park employees, research library, and park archives. However, it was opened in 1923 and was a favorite because it offered soaking tubs in different lengths. It was closed in 1985.
The Ozark Bathhouse is a beautiful and imposing Spanish Colonial Revival building. However, the interior is quite small compared to the broad exterior. Historically, the Ozark Bathhouse catered to a more middle-class crowd and was less extravagant. It closed in 1977 and today it is the Hot Spings National Park Cultural Center.
The Quapaw Bathhouse was built on the site of two previous bathhouses in 1922. It closed in 1984 but reopened as a spa in 2008. This was the spa I visited during my time in Hot Springs – you can read more about it below!
The Maurice Bathhouse opened within a few months of the Buckstaff Bathhouse in 1912 and was quite large. There was a gymnasium, a roof garden, and two elevators. In the 1930s they added a pool in the basement – the only bathhouse on the row to have a pool. The Maurice Bathhouse is currently empty and is available for lease! The National Parks Service is committed to preserve the natural and cultural resources of our nation – so they will only lease the building to a worthy tenant.
The Fordyce Bathhouse now serves as Hot Springs National Park’s Visitors Center. This is where you stop in to pick up a map, learn more about the park, and talk to a ranger. (I love national park visitors centers – I mention it here multiple times!). Originally, the Fordyce Bathhouse opened in 1915. It is the largest bathhouse on the row and was also the first one to close in 1962.
The Hale Bathhouse is the oldest structure on Bathhouse Row, having been completed in 1892. Although it closed as a Bathhouse in 1978, it is now open as a 9-room boutique hotel. You can stay and bathe in the thermal waters right in your modern hotel room.
The current Superior Bathhouse opened in 1916 and closed in 1983. It was the smallest bathhouse, had the lowest prices, and also only offered basic services. The Superior Bathhouse is currently home to the only brewery in a US National Park! It is also the only brewery in the world to use thermal spring water to brew their beer. I had lunch at the Superior Bathhouse Brewery – you can read about that below.
How to spend a perfect day in Hot Springs, Arkansas
Where to stay
Hot Springs has all the options for lodging. I chose to stay at the TownePlace Suites because I used Marriott points. However, you can find many economy options on Booking.com here. Although downtown is where the bathhouses are, there are tons of options in other parts of the city. Hotel Hale and The Arlington are both right downtown and would be the perfect location. Of course, if you have a family, Airbnbs are always a solid option. There are several in and around Hot Springs, Arkansas.
Where to eat
Start with coffee and a breakfast sandwich at Kollective Coffee. I had a hazelnut latte and a bagel – both were delightful! Since everything is very walkable, I highly recommend making your way to Superior Bathhouse for lunch and a beer. The tacos were great and I tried one of their beers – it was fantastic. I’m not a beer connoisseur by any means, but I loved it. It is also woman-owned, which is cool. While I’m sure there are plenty of options for dinner, I recommend eating at Eden. It is at the Hotel Hale and is right on the main street, so very convenient.
Of course no perfect day in Hot Springs, Arkansas would be complete without taking the waters! There are three ways to experience the spring water in Hot Springs. You can visit one of the two operating spas, touch the hot thermal water, and also fill up your water bottle with cold spring water.
Soak in the water at a spa
As mentioned above, two bathhouses on Bathhouse Row are still operational. I visited Quapaw Bath & Spa and would highly recommend it. While they have a public pool that is walk-ins only, I opted for a reservation. I chose to do the Quapaw Package – a private bath, massage, foot scrub, and scalp massage. Buckstaff Bathhouse is the other spa, but they were closed on Mondays (the only day I was there). I think in the future, I’d like to try them both to compare. Everything I’ve read says that Buckstaff offers a more “traditional” experience – whatever that means!
What should you expect when you book the Quapaw Package?
When I arrived and checked in, they checked my temperature and I filled out a health waiver. Because of the pandemic, you must wear a mask in all public areas except the pool. However even in the pool you have to stay distant and they keep the numbers limited. Once I was checked in, I was given a robe and slip-on rubber shoes and shown to a dressing room. Each guest receives a locker with a key to lock up personal belongings. Undress to your comfort level – keep in mind you’ll be wearing your robe in public areas of the spa. It doesn’t bother me (half a lifetime of competitive cheerleading and years living in a sorority house), but not everyone is comfortable.
You will probably have a few moments to grab some water or coffee before they escort you to the private bath area. From there, attendants run your bath water and add aromatherapy salts if you paid for those (I did, of course). They set a timer and let you get in the bath yourself.
Although there was an older woman arriving at the same time as me and they offered to help her. If you are concerned about mobility, there are bath attendants to help you in and out of the bathtubs. Enjoy the bath! The timer is only 20 minutes and it goes by quickly. I’m sure it isn’t healthy, but I honestly could have lounged in there for hours. After the timer ends, you dry off and step out into the waiting area. There, the attendants give you cool cucumber water and a cold towel with peppermint oil to cool off. It was delightful.
After a few moments to cool off, the bath attendants escort you back to the waiting area. If you were just there to get a bath, you can head straight to the changing room. I chose to get more spa services, so my massage therapist brought me to another room. The massage room was more modern than the bath room (ha) and felt like a typical spa. Once I was finished, I hung out in the waiting area for a while, sipping water and soaking in the ambiance. I highly recommend doing a package with a private bath during your perfect day in Hot Springs!
Touch the thermal water
There are two places in Hot Springs National Park where you can touch the thermal spring water. Behind Maurice Bathhouse you’ll find the Display Spring. This spring flows out of the hillside and into a small pool. There was a bench there and it was quite relaxing. The other location is at the north end of Bathhouse Row in Arlington Lawn. It is called the Hot Water Cascade – real original names here. You can watch the steamy water run down the hillside and gather in two large pools. Even though the water cools off by the time it reaches the pools, be aware it is still hot! You can see the thermal water at several other springs, too – so be on the lookout.
Drink the cold spring water
Not all of the springs are hot, though! There are a few places in the park and just outside it to fill up with drinking water. Bring a reusable water bottle and fill up. I watched several people fill up huge jugs of water in their car at the fountain by the park office. It was interesting! The water was refreshing, too.
Hiking and other activities
If spas aren’t your thing….get off my blog. Just kidding! But seriously, who doesn’t enjoy going to the spa??? Sorry – no – seriously, I’ll continue. There are other things to do in and around Hot Springs other than the waters. Hot Springs National Park itself doesn’t have an abundance of hiking trails, but Lake Ouachita State Park has more. In addition, you can boat on Lake Ouachita. I climbed the Hot Springs Mountain Tower in the morning before my spa treatment. There is an elevator, I just chose not to take it because I hate elevators. Unfortunately, the weather was pretty cloudy and rainy so the view wasn’t great. However, you can see for miles on a clear day! There is also a cool museum at the top with exhibits on the geology of the springs, the gangster history, and the native americans who once lived on the land.
I hope I’ve provided you with all the information you need to have a perfect day in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Have you been to Hot Springs before? I’ll be honest, I chose it for my solo road trip because it was driving distance. I was able to add another state to my list (Arkansas) and another national park in one trip! I’m not sure you can really spend a full week there unless you love the outdoors. However, it is definitely worth a visit!
If you need other short National Park trip inspiration, check out my other itineraries. Last year I was able to visit Southern Utah right before the pandemic struck. You can read about my trip here. I also have a 3-day itinerary for Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Parks. You could explore both of those locations (Utah and Wyoming) for years and not see all of them, but I hit the highlights.