Soaking in Spa City, USA
Resort Romance Thrives in Hot Springs, Arkansas
For centuries, people have been drawn to the steaming mineral waters and magical springs flowing from the hillsides of the Ouachita Mountains in central Arkansas. Long revered as sacred and later renowned as a place of healing, the landscape of Hot Springs has drawn visitors to the town and the celebrated waters of its namesake national park.
Located just 50 miles southwest of Arkansas’ capital city, Little Rock, Hot Springs’ colorful past includes vacationing mob figures and traveling baseball teams. Present-day visitors come to enjoy Spa City, a place of relaxation owing to the hot springs at the center of it all. Couples are enticed by the picture-perfect setting and romantic ways to spend time together.
Over the years, Hot Springs has beckoned to me and my husband for family getaways, first traveling with our parents and then with our own children. The ambiance has grand elements of natural beauty and a lively history alongside traditional and quirky tourist attractions.
This quirkiness keeps us on the lookout for the unexpected. With our teenage sons old enough to barely remember their childhood trips to Hot Springs, it was time for a revisit. As it has in the past, the town revealed new charms and delighted us with familiar favorites. And, it remains just as romantic as it was the first time we visited.
While you might imagine Hot Springs as a landscape full of steaming pools, you won’t actually see many in the town. As the region developed, most of the forty-seven springs were covered by bathhouses and other structures. Hot Springs Creek, which ran down what is known as Bathhouse Row, was pushed underground through a stone aquifer. Today, there are just a few places where springs are visible.
We kicked off our recent visit with a stop at the Hot Water Cascade where mist rises from a verdant hillside. Steamy 147°F water starts near the top, cooling off as it tumbles through leafy ferns and over algae-covered rocks. Basins built at the bottom provide nice spots to sit and soak.
Though my family thought I was kooky, I peeled off my socks and shoes and slipped my feet into the steamy waters. After all, you can’t come to Hot Springs without experiencing its namesake hot springs! The heat was almost too much to bear, as my fair skin turned the color of a boiled lobster.
Once my socks and shoes were back on my pink feet, we voted for what to do next. Should we stroll the Grand Promenade, or should we walk along Bathhouse Row? We were at the starting point for both, so we decided to go down one way and back up the other.
The Grand Promenade is an iconic piece of Hot Springs National Park—a paved half-mile trail that runs parallel to Bathhouse Row and located high on the hillside. No matter how hot and humid the weather in Arkansas may be at the time of your visit, it feels five to ten degrees cooler along this tree-lined walkway.
Soaking in the City
After a sweet stroll along the Grand Promenade, we moseyed down the hill to make our way up Bathhouse Row, in the heart of downtown Hot Springs. Each bathhouse is an architectural wonder with a personality all its own, from the gleaming white stucco of the Quapaw to the colorful blue awnings of the Buckstaff to the art deco Fordyce. While they fell into disrepair over the decades, the National Park Service has worked to restore them in recent years.
We started our visit at the Fordyce, which is the park’s official visitor center. This building serves as a museum, featuring renovated rooms and original artifacts. A trip through the Fordyce is like stepping back in time. It’s easy to imagine sturdy young men working out in the gymnasium and elegant Victorian ladies gossiping in the grand changing rooms. My family liked checking out the quirky vintage “health” equipment from an era when electrified baths seemed like a good idea.
And, of course, you have to take a dip! The Buckhouse is the only one of the eight remaining bathhouses to have operated continuously for more than a century, while the Quapaw and the Hale were recently renovated and reopened as spas, offering soaks and massages (a great way to spend Valentine’s Day).
The most enticing opportunity is found below the Quapaw with its steam cave constructed before the bathhouse itself. Relaxing on the wooden benches set against rock-lined walls, the sauna experience is like no other, with a 104°F temperature coming naturally from the hot spring.
While some of the bathhouses are vacant, others house an art gallery and alluring shopping boutiques. The Superior Bathhouse is home to a brewery, which has the distinction of being the first located within a national park and is the only one to use thermal spring waters in the beer-production process. We met friends at the Superior Bathhouse, and I decided this was the best pub food I’ve ever had.
The mushroom panini dripped with flavor. On the menu are a variety of burgers, including The Fun Guy, and beers with witty names like Space Force, The Beez Kneez, and Foul Play. We rated the brews (which included root beer for the kids) and meals as superior.
Though there’s an eclectic mixture of toys, mementos, clothing, and home goods for purchase, our favorite souvenir to take home is simply water. You may bring your own jugs to fill at the many spigots located around town.
While some hot springs have a sulfuric smell and taste, these do not. Though we could easily get free water, we headed to Mountain Valley Spring Water, which sells our favorite H20, is sourced at a cold spring, and has a slightly sweet taste. They have traditional flat bottled water and many carbonated flavors that you can taste for free. Our teenage sons thought it was funny that our vacation included sampling water.
While Hot Springs National Park is not a traditional national park, there are traditional experiences to be found here, including twenty-six miles of hiking trails and scenic drives. Our favorites are Hot Springs Mountain Drive and West Mountain Drive, which go through woodlands and have scenic overlooks. We came home with lots of photos of our kids sitting on the stone walls—with a panorama of the city below, to compare to photos from earlier years.
The best views are from Hot Springs Mountain Tower. The 216-foot-tall tower has an open-air observation deck located 1,256 feet above sea level. From there, you can see the full city, as well as the rollicking Ouachita Mountains, which look like green waves undulating in the distance.
Outside of the national park, the best landscapes are found in Garvan Woodland Gardens. Located on Lake Hamilton, a hot spot for watersports, this 210-acre botanical garden has ever-changing floral blooms, meticulously maintained by the University of Arkansas. One highlight is the Anthony Chapel, which matches a style of architecture popularized by E. Fay Jones, an Arkansas native who apprenticed with Frank Lloyd Wright. Benches are scattered along the garden’s trails so you can enjoy some quiet time sitting next to your loved one.
Hot Springs provides plenty of entertainment for kids. The Mid-America Science Museum is an unexpected gem with its outdoor dinosaur exhibit and the Motion Gallery, where almost everything moves. We appreciated that it was less crowded and less overwhelming than science museums found in larger cities.
Tweens and teens are likely to appreciate the quirkier side of Hot Springs. The Arkansas Alligator Farm and Petting Zoo, a Hot Springs fixture since 1902, allows visitors to feed meat on a stick to baby alligators.
The Josephine Tussaud Wax Museum (not affiliated with the more well-known Madame Tussauds’ attractions) has a collection of wax figures that primarily date to the 1970s. As you may imagine from the name, Maxwell Blade’s Odditorium and Curiosities Museum will entice kids of all ages. Family fun and beautiful campgrounds can be found at the surrounding lakes, including Lake Catherine and Lake Ouachita.
While our stay in Hot Springs ended all too quickly, we are lucky enough to be able to return again and again, as we surely will. Though we’ve visited more than a dozen times over the years, we have yet to see all that Hot Springs has to offer.