Hot Springs National Park: The Complete Guide

Hot Springs National Park Visitor Center
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Hot Springs National Park

Address
369 Central Ave, Hot Springs, AR 71901, USA
Phone +1 501-620-6715

While most national parks span hundreds of miles and feel far removed from cities and a fast-paced lifestyle, Hot Springs National Park challenges the status quo. The smallest of the U.S. National Parks—at 5,550 acres—Hot Springs National Park borders the city of Hot Springs, Arkansas, a town that's turned a profit from tapping into the park’s main resource—mineral-rich waters.

Hot Springs National Park is actually “the oldest park in the national park system,” as the park existed as a special reservation (thanks to President Andrew Jackson) 40 years before Yellowstone became the nation's first national park. The lands were settled by Native American tribes who believed in the water's natural healing powers. Then, the federal land was eventually designated a national park in 1921.

Today, this urban park protects eight historic bathhouses along Bathhouse Row and is surrounded by shops, restaurants, and other attractions. The park boasts a network of hiking trails, some of which give you a panoramic view of the city, and only one campground, should you want to rough it after a long soak.

Things to Do

Hot Springs National Park is unlike many of the nation's wondrous parks, but just because it lies within city limits doesn't mean there's a shortage of things to do. This park boasts both indoor and outdoor activities to keep families busy for a day or weekend outing.

Be sure to tour the elegant buildings lining Central Avenue in the town of Hot Springs. The four city blocks of Bathhouse Row take you by Lamar, Buckstaff, Ozark, Quapaw, Fordyce, Maurice, Hale, and Superior bathhouses. The bathhouses offer a step back in time, with historic renderings and architecture, some house local businesses, and only two, Buckstaff and Quapaw, offer privately-operated spa and bathing services.

Along this road, you can also check out the giant boulder, DeSoto Rock. It commemorates the Native Americans who first settled the area, as well as the explorer Hernando De Soto, the first European to bathe in the waters of the hot springs in 1541.

Hot Water Cascade, located on the hillside at Arlington Lawn, is the largest visible spring in the park. This 4,000-year-old spring gurgles with water that is heated deep within the earth and then seeps out through faults in the rocks. Check out the rare blue-green algae that thrive in the hot water here.

Best Hikes & Trails

Many of the hikes in Hot Springs National Park are short and sweet, causing real enthusiasts to scoff at their abbreviated length. However, there are a few trails worthy of venturing out onto, as you can see the sites, and then combine them with other trails for a longer outing.

  • Gulpha Gorge: This quick 1.2-mile round-trip walk takes you through the traditional terrain of this park. Surrounding woodlands are rich in dogwood and redbud trees, wildflowers, and several species of birds.
  • Hot Springs Mountain Trail: This 3.3-mile urban trail is moderately trafficked and used by hikers, walkers, and joggers, as it provides some after-work exercise with its 672 feet of elevation gain. Access this trail via Stephen’s Balustrade (Grand Promenade) behind the Fordyce Bathhouse.
  • Goat Rock Trail: Goat Rock Trail offers a 2.4-mile casual jaunt through forests and wildflowers to Goat Rock Overlook. A sign at the end leads you to stone steps that reach the summit and its sweeping views.
  • Tufa Terrace Trail: This .2-mile trail is not as much of a hike as it is a spectacle of springs that aren’t well-publicized. The trail starts above the Grande Promenade and is named after the massive tufa (calcium carbonate) deposits seen around it, created by the spring.
  • Sunset Trail: One of the most demanding trails in the park (and maybe the only one), this 13-mile loop is for expert hikers only, taking you up 2,372 feet in elevation. This 6-hour jaunt offers a nice opportunity to connect with nature. Make sure to bring plenty of water, food, and sunscreen.

Where to Camp

Gulpha Gorge Campground, the only campground in the park, represents the epitome of urban camping. There's just enough forest to make it feel like you're out of town, while still having city amenities due to its close proximity. This campground accommodates both tent and RV campers and each site comes equipped with a picnic table, pedestal grill, and water access. On-site restrooms are available, but there are no showers. Gulpha Gorge Campground remains open year-round and is filled on a first-come, first-served basis. Reservations are not accepted.

Where to Stay Nearby

There are many hotels, motels, and inns located near Hot Springs National Park. Most of them cater to park visitors in search of the city's healing hot water resource. If hotels aren't your thing, you can also book a stay in a private residence, many of which are listed for rent on Airbnb.

  • The 1890 Williams House Inn is a unique place to stay. The historic Victorian-style main house offers six luxury guest rooms and the carriage house offers three. Each room comes with free wifi, jetted tubs, a microwave, and a small fridge. A full breakfast is served each day and coffee service is delivered to your room.
  • Hotel Hot Springs has a lot of rooms—200 to be exact. And it's located within walking distance of historical downtown. The hotel offers king rooms, double queen rooms, and ADA rooms, as well as an event center, for weddings and special events, and a conference center. There's a sports bar and grill on-site and a complimentary shuttle service is provided to town locales.
  • The Arlington Resort Hotel & Spa is the largest hotel in Arkansas with almost 500 rooms. Since 1875, this property has been housing guests who come to soak in its thermal bathhouse (now combined with a spa and salon). Just outside the hotel's doors, you can access historic Bathhouse Row, as well as museums, art galleries, and restaurants.
  • Hot Springs Treehouses is nestled on a forested ridge about six minutes from downtown Hot Springs. It's a unique getaway, offering six treehouses for couples and one larger house for families, complete with a full kitchen. The treehouses sit on stilts, giving you a bird's eye view of the tree canopies just outside the window.

How to Get There

The closest international airport to Hot Springs National Park is located in Little Rock, Arkansas. From the airport, head west on I-30 to the town of Hot Springs. If you are driving in from the south, take ARK-7 to Hot Springs. And from the west, you can take US 70 or US 270.

Accessibility

The park makes sure that people of all ability levels have access to their unique offerings. The Fordyce Visitor Center, Gulpha Gorge Campground, other park buildings, and all park bathrooms have wheelchair-accessible ramps. Bathhouse Row has a paved four- to five-foot-wide looped walkway. And, for visitors who are temporarily disabled, the park has two wheelchairs available for loan, free of charge.

Tips for Your Visit

  • There is no entrance fee for Hot Springs National Park. However, there is a per-night camping fee with steep discounts given should you have a Golden Age Senior Pass or an Access Pass.
  • The park is open year-round, but autumn is the most spectacular time to visit when the surrounding mountains reveal stunning fall foliage colors.
  • July is particularly hot and crowded in Hot Springs, Arkansas. If you plan to come in the summer, visit early in June or once school is back in session in early September.
  • Take a side trip to Ouachita or Ozark National Forest, Holla Bend National Wildlife Refuge, or Buffalo National River where you can take part in recreational opportunities, including boating, camping, hiking, and wildlife viewing.
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Hot Springs National Park: The Complete Guide