Hot Springs National Park is one of the most popular national parks in the USA and a historic mountain retreat. Located in central Arkansas, it isn’t a typical national park with entrance gates. It’s nestled within Ouachita Mountains in Hot Springs. The park is abundant in natural resources with both indoor and outdoor attractions. It is particularly famous for Hot Springs Soak, which refers to the centuries-old tradition of bathing in ornate bathhouses.
History of Hot Springs National Park
Loyalists consider Hot Springs National Park as the first national park in the USA because it was named the first federal reservation by President Andrew Jackson in 1832. The Congress formally established Hot Springs Reservation in 1916, which became Hot Springs National Park in 1921. But the history of the park actually goes back to around 4,400 years ago. The trapped water under what is presently Ouachita Mountains started bubbling up through faults and folds in the mountains and turned into hot water.
The area currently under the national park became an American territory as part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. In 1804, President Thomas Jefferson sent a hunter expedition to explore Louisiana’s southern reaches. Not long after the expedition, a bustling town started growing around the hot springs, which became famous as the ‘American Spa’ because of the growing bathing industry.
Native Americans believed these waters to have curative properties. In recent history, Hernando de Soto is believed to be the first European to soak in these hot springs in 1541. Believing the water can cure their illnesses, more than a million people came here to soak between 1880-1950. The interest in the healing power of its waters waned with advancements in the field of medicine and science in the 40s and 50s.
Today, soakers mostly come here mainly because of recreational purposes and soaking themselves in the warm waters after a hike. The national park attracts around 1.5 million visitors each year with the Bathhouse Row being the most popular spot in the park with eight bathhouses (only two are functional and open for public). Bathhouse Row was built between 1892-1923. The springs were built and restored based on different architectural styles, including Spanish Colonial Revival and Renaissance Revival. In addition to bathhouses, the park is also home to green expanse, which covers over 5,500 acres.
· The area under Hot Springs national park was reserved for recreational purposes even before the existence of the concept of a national park
· For centuries, it was believed that the water in the national park has healing properties
· In recent history, Spain’s Hernando de Soto was the first European to explore the area
· Father Marquette and Jolliet claimed the area for France in 1673, but it was ceded pack to Spain after the 1763 Treaty of Paris
· Control of the area was given back to France in 1800
· The US took control of the area in 1803 after the Louisiana Purchase
· Hot Springs transformed into a spa town following 1832’s federal protection
· The City of Hot Springs was incorporated in January 1851
Key Facts About Hot Springs National Park
· Although the oldest, the national park is the smallest national park by area (5,500 acres). The lowest elevation in the park is at Bull Bayou (415-feet), while the highest point is at Music Mountain (1,405-feet)
· The park was referred to as the ‘Valley of the Vapors’ by Native Americans and its springs are part of Native American legends
· The hot springs and mountains within the reserve are managed to conserve uncontaminated hot water production and hydrological system behind it
· The national park is one of the most accessible national parks in the US with many hiking trails. It a part of a city unlike most other national parks that are far from developed infrastructure
· Some portions of downtown hot springs are also included in the national park
· There are no fees for admission to the park and pets are allowed even on hiking trails
· Currently, out of eight there are only two facilities still being operated as bathhouses in Bathhouse Row. The rest were turned into the main visitor center, event and art space, emporium, brewery and a hotel, while the eighth is closed for public
· A large area currently in the park was burned in a fire in November 1864 during the American Civil War. The area also experienced other natural disasters, including flooding and lightning strikes
· Hot Springs was among the oldest destinations for baseball spring training
· During the 1930’s, the area was ruled by organized crime
· The hot springs flow out at 143°F/ 61.6°C average temperature, 24/7
· Hot Springs has 26 miles of hiking trails, which are interconnected
· The Gulpha Gorge Campground that allows both RVs and tents
· The hot springs are not a result of volcanic activity and geysers, so its water also does not smell or taste bad
· Geologists are still studying the matter, but they believe that the hot waters are a result of a process that takes around 4,400 years
· 47 thermal springs center the park with a daily water flow of above 850,000 gallons (3,200,000 liters)
· The hot water is rich in minerals, including calcium, silica, potassium and magnesium
· The spring water is not only suitable for soaking, but is also safe to drink. Drinking fountains are scattered throughout the national park
· No federally threatened or endangered species exist inside the park
· A large part of the park is forest with trees like oak, pine and hickory. Some of the trees are more than 130 years old
· Wildlife in the park includes gray foxes, white-tailed deer, nine-banded armadillos, minks, coyotes, opossums, racoons, turkeys and skunks
· Being the oldest national park maintained by the NPS (National Park Service), Hot Springs National Park in 2010 was the first to get its own US quarter
· Around 1.5 million visitors came to the national park in 2019
Climate of Hot Springs National Park
The average temperature in the national park can range between 90°F (32°C) – 27°F (-2.7°C), which makes it important to plan your trip and leave prepared. Days in the summer are mostly hot and humid with the mercury level sometimes rising up to 110°F (43°C), while chilly winds can sometimes drop the feel-like temperature as low as 15°F (-9.4°C). However, on average, the temperature remains mild throughout the year. Most of the rainfall occurs in spring and fall. The best time for warm-weather activities in the park is from May (early) to June (late) and August to October (early).
The hot season lasts from the start of June to mid-September with daily temperatures hovering around 83°F (28°C). July is the hottest month with average temperature varying between 71°F-91°F (21-32°C). The cool season starts from late November and lasts until late February with average daily high temperature staying below 58°F/14 °C. January is the coldest month with temperature ranging between 32°F to 51°F (0-10 °C).
From early April to early August is the wetter season when there is a 32 percent chance of rain any day. May has the most wet days (a wet day is defined as a day when there is at least 0.04-inches liquid precipitation). Almost all the rest of 8 months are usually dry with on average only 7 wet days. Snowy season starts from mid December to early March with around 1-inch snowfall on average, which in January it’s 2.7 inches. Early march to early December is usually snowless.
When to Visit Hot Springs National Park?
Rainless days with average temperatures varying between 65°F and 80°F (18-26 °C) are considered to be the best time to visit the national park. It’s pleasant between early May until late June and from mid of August to early October, but the ideal time depends on your activities. Since most visitors go there to soak up in Hot Springs, they need to pick a time when the weather is warm enough so that they don’t start shivering when drying off. This makes the warmer months a more favorable time for soaking without having to worry about inducing shivering.
August has highs in the 90s and lows in the 60s, which drop to mid-70s and 50s respectively in October. Forests surrounding the park turn into shades of gold, red and orange from green, making this cooler time suitable for exploration and hiking.
The average high temperatures in these cooler months hover around mid-50s and can drop to 30s. Many consider these months to be the best for soaking in Hot Springs, but you have to be dressed in layers to prevent shivering and maintain a comfort level.
These months mark the tourist season with highs ranging from mid-50-70s and lows around 50s. Those who visit early are likely to avoid the crowd and enjoy outdoor activities with more privacy. However, rain is also common in these months, so make sure to have a look at the weather forecast and leave prepared.
School break along with warmer weather means a high season, which also means you have to pay more and reserve activities in advance. Hot Springs fishing challenge also takes place during this period.
What to Bring and Things to Know
· It can get hot and humid in the summer, so make sure to stay hydrated, dress accordingly, use a parasol and wear a hat
· Staying hydrated is not such an issue with water available throughout the park at spring-fed taps
· Hot Springs is an urban park surrounded by roads, attractions, shops and diners and with a network of beautiful hiking trails and mountains.
· Everybody is welcome and there are no entrance fees, while free parking is also available at a garage at 128 Exchange Street.
· Reservations are not allowed at the Gulpha Gorge campground, which is a first come, first served facility.
· Hikers planning to camp should arrive early at the fee station to confirm the availability of campsites (40 in total).
· Soaking in hot springs is only allowed in Buckstaff and Quapaw bathhouses and you cannot soak in outdoor hot thermal springs.
· Visitors can learn about the history of the park at several stops along the Bathhouse Row.
· Pets are allowed in the park, including all the trails and federal buildings. However, visitors need to keep their pets leashed and must pick up after them.
· Hot Springs isn’t the only national park in Arkansas. Visitors can also explore seven other National Park Service units as well as 52 state parks.
Activities, Lodging and Camping in Hot Springs National Park
Being the second-smallest national park in the US, you don’t need a lot of time to explore it and can plan trips ranging from 1-day trip to a 3-day long trip. A day’s trip is enough to stroll along the Bathhouse Row plus Grand Promenade and shop on the busy streets. A 3-day trip can incorporate one day reserved for sightseeing including historic attractions, one for hiking and the last day for relaxation and spa.
Taking a relaxing bath is perhaps the most common reason why a large number of visitors come to Hot Springs National Park. Although the entire national park is devoted to hot springs, you cannot soak outdoors and are limited to two soaking spots along Bathhouse Row. One of these is Buckstaff Baths. It’s operational since 1912 and is equipped with whirlpool tubs, steam cabinets, needle showers as well as Swedish massage therapy, whith separate flows for men/women. Since no reservations are required, visitors can take a spontaneous trip, but you need to show up early because of locals queuing up beforehand, especially in the warmer months.
Those looking for even more ‘full-service’ bathing might want to consider Quapaw Baths, which is a European-style, contemporary spa facility. Just like Buckstaff Baths, you get thermal water in the soaking pools, but here the menu also includes steamy facials, foot scrubs, Chocolate Rose Mudslide and herbal towel wraps. Although Buckstaff Baths and Quapaw Baths are the only two functioning bathhouses, you can still explore other areas, including Fordyce Bathhouse Visitor Center (Renaissance Revival building).
Getting closer to nature is easy in the park as the city is built into the national park itself. There are many hiking trails to choose from with the Sunset Trail being one of the most popular. The 8.9 miles trail is suitable for hikers of all types. More experienced hikers can combine it with adjacent trails, which makes it a 14-miles hike that takes them around the national park. Hikers who want to experience an amazing 360-view of Ouachita Mountains can climb the Mountain Tower, which offers one of the best overlooks in Arkansas.
The Ouachitas offer around 26 miles of trails and most of them overlap with each other. The Hot Springs Mountain trail (1.7-miles loop) provides the much-needed shade in summer, while visitors with mobility issues can hike on the fully-flat and easily accessible Whittington Trail (1.2-mile) on the West Mountain. Sightseeing is also possible from the comfort of your car on the Springs Mountain Drive and West Mountain Summit Drive.
Local Art and Culture
In addition to its hot springs, the national park is also known as an art destination. Culture-lovers can visit Ozark Bathhouse, a Spanish Colonial Revival building revived in 1922 made of red clay tile and white stucco. It was reopened as a fine art gallery in 2014 after being closed in 1977 as a bathhouse.
Most visitors come to Hot Springs to relax and have a good time. Although there is a small hotel inside the national park, many hotels close by the park offer better facilities, including soaker tubs with fresh water coming from the springs. Visitors only need to cross a street or two to get inside the park. Hotel Hale, Arlington Resort Hotel and Spa and Gold-Inn Hot Springs are among the most popular lodging options.
Gulpha Gorge Campground allows campers to truly experience the national park with prices starting from $30/night. The campground is located only two miles from downtown and is insulated from the hustle and bustle of the city. However, it does not operate on a reservation basis, so you need to get there early. The facility operates on a first come, first served basis and has 40 sites for tents and RVs. Each site has full hookups, a picnic table, water and grill, but the restrooms don’t have any showers. Campers usually go for a morning hike on the 0.6-mile Gulpha Gorge Trail (adjacent to the campsites).
There are plenty of restaurants a quick walk away, so grabbing a bite should not be an issue. A budget-friendly diner is located less than a mile away from the visitor center, which is perfect for a breakfast. Fat Bottomed Girl’s Cupcake Shoppe can be reached by walking across the street on Central Avenue from Bathhouse Row. Lassis Inn restaurant received James Beard Foundation’s Classics Award and claims to offer the country’s best fried catfish.
The Ohio Club is also situated on Central Avenue and is a great place to enjoy music along with an after-hike meal. Most trails on the West Mountain, North Mountain and Hot Springs Mountain have tables and grills, making them great picnic spots.
There are many hotels, restaurants and shops in downtown Hot Springs, many of which are right across the street from one of the most popular destinations, the Bathhouse Row. Summer is the busy time, while spring and fall remain the local secrets when spas and trails are less crowded, room rates are low and the temperature/humidity is at a comfortable level.
How to Get to Hot Springs National Park
The national park is around a 5-hour drive from many major cities, which is why most visitors come here by car. Distances from major cities are as follows:
· Little Rock (State Capital) – 55 miles
· Memphis (Tennessee) – 188 miles
· Dallas – 288 miles
· Oklahoma City – 309 miles
· Interstate 30: Coming from Texas
· Interstate 40E: Coming from Fort Smith
· Route AR 10: Coming from Fort Smith (more scenic views)
· Public transport: Shuttle service, train and bus
Visitors wanting to hop on an airplane can fly to Hot Springs Memorial Field (a small airport). You can take a commercial flight to/from Dallas and rent a car to get to the national park. Arkansas’s largest airport is the Little Rock National Airport. You can reach the park from there using a shuttle service or by renting a car, which takes around an hour.
People who are into water recreation might want to consider staying at Lake Ouachita State Park, which is only 15-miles from Hot Springs. The State Park offers 90 campsites (both tents and RVs) and crystal-clear water that makes scuba diving possible. Non-divers can choose from other fun water activities, including swimming and kayaking. If you just want to enjoy the beauty of the lake and a luxurious stay, Mountain Harbor Resort and Spa is a great option and a well-equipped hotel with breathtaking views.
St. Patrick’s Day Parade (world’s shortest) is held in mid-March, while visitors flock from around the world in October for the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival. The park remains open throughout the year. Visitors driving through Little Rock can stop in the capital and visit its local attractions., including the Little Rock Central High School, which is a National Historic Site. Other historical attractions include William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum and ESSE Purse Museum.
Hot Springs National Park is one of the most accessible parks in the US and is essentially a city nestled within mountains. Despite being the second smallest US national park, it still manages to attract around 1.5 million visitors each year and there is a lot to dig into in the park. Visitors can choose between different guided tours as per their liking as well as opt to roam around on their own. No fees and free parking in a designated garage means anyone can visit the national park any number of times they like, whenever they like.