Hot Springs National Park

This is the first time we’ve visited a town that is also a national park. Or maybe it’s a national park that is also a town? To make matters even more complicated even though all of Hot Springs National Park is in the town of Hot Springs — the entire town is not a national park. And in some places, all you have to do to leave Hot Springs National Park is to cross the street…but even then you’re still in Hot springs. Confused yet?

Hot Springs National Park
Definitely the national park side of town

Honestly, it doesn’t really matter. All you really need to know about Hot Springs is that for centuries people have been flocking to the area to enjoy the natural springs that bubble from the ground. First, it was the Native Americans who called this area the “Valley of the Vapors”. According to local legend, they considered it a neutral territory where different tribes could gather and use the healing waters in peace.

Then in the 1500s Spanish explorer, Hernando De Soto came through the area. There are disputed reports as to whether he spent a few weeks enjoying the springs or simply passed through. If the latter is true he certainly missed out.

A few hundred years later, the Hunter-Dunbar expedition came to Hot Springs to explore the southern reaches of the Louisiana Purchase. It wasn’t long after that in the early 1800s when a permanent white settlement was established. Soon hotels sprang up and people came from all over to seek the benefits of the thermal waters. In 1832, Andrew Jackson declared Hot Springs a Federal Reservation which essentially made it the first national park.
For more history take a look at this in-depth article by the Encyclopedia of Arkansas

Today, the Victorian style bathhouses built in the late 1800s give the part of town called Bathhouse Row an elegant spa-like feel.

Hot Springs National Park
Bathhouse Row

Only one of the bathhouses, Buckstaff, still offers a traditional bathing experience with attendants and a variety of treatments. We decided to skip this rather expensive treatment in favor of a simple soak in the thermal pools at Quapaw. Here you pay $20 for access to five pools that vary in temperature from 95 to 104 degrees. You can stay as long as you like and for an extra ten bucks, you get to visit the steam cave. I feel like I spent the last few weeks in Florida living in a steam cave so decided against that option. The pools were awesome though with smooth stone seats for reclining, complimentary cold spring water to drink, and access to a small cafe. There are no electronics allowed inside the bathing area, but here’s a photo of the outside with its distinctive Spanish style dome.

Hot Spring National Park
The Quapaw Bathhouse

The other bathhouse on the must visit list is Fordyce. While the bath portion went out of business in the 1960s, it underwent a massive renovation about 30 years later and today functions as the national park visitor center and museum.

Hot Springs National Park
Inside the Fordyce Bathhouse lobby

The bathhouse has been restored to what it looked like back in the heyday of the late 1800s.

Hot Springs National Park
Some of the traditional bathing areas in the Fordyce

Not only was it a place for bathing, but the Fordyce featured a gym, beauty parlor, and men’s and women’s lounges. There were also private rooms for treatments in hydrotherapy and some other rather questionable treatments like electrotherapy and mercury treatments.

Hot Springs National Park
Not just for bathing

The architecture both outside and inside the Fordyce was built for luxury. Marble walls and stairs, stained glass ceilings, and intricate tile floors adorn the building.

Hot Springs National Park
This place has fancy floors
Fordyce Bathhouse, Hot Springs National Park
And even fancier ceilings and windows

For our week long stay, we camped at the Gulpha Gorge National Park Campground. While I’m sure there are other options in the area, according to nearly everyone we talked to who has been here, this is the place to be. We got a site right on the river and loved it.

Gulpha Gorge Campground at Hot Springs National Park
A little sun, a little shade, and the river is right behind us.

The only complaint (and it’s a minor one) is that the campground recently underwent renovations that upgraded all the sites to full hook-ups and raised the price to $30/night. While full hook-ups are nice and all, we really don’t need them for a week long stay. It’s always nicer when campgrounds have sites that offer both hook-ups and dry camping. It seems that as the popularity of national parks grows the campgrounds are catering more and more to larger RVs who can’t survive without full hook-ups and less and less to families in tents or couples like us who prefer to be more self-sufficient.

Hot Springs National Park
One of the larger sites away from the river

On the plus side, we were surrounded on all sides by family and friends! My mom and stepdad had spent the winter in RVing in Arizona and we arranged to meet up as we traveled west and they traveled east. The last time we saw them was at Thanksgiving so of course, it was great to catch up.

Arkansas River
Hi!
Hot Springs National Park
Their cat Bodie enjoying some outside time

On the other side was our friend Jill who surprised us by showing up mid-week! And then a few sites down were our friends Eric and Jeanette. We last saw all of them in the Keys and while we knew we’d all be going through Hot Springs we had made no specific plans to meet so it was a welcome to surprise to end up here at the same time. Sadly, I neglected to take a group photo.

Hot Springs National Park
That’s us in the middle with Jill on the far side and my mom & Charlie on the other side

One of the best things about the campground was the easy access to hiking trails. Not just any hiking trails either but one’s that actually had some elevation gain. Finally! The very first day we convinced my mom and Charlie to hike into town with us. It’s only about two miles each way, but the beginning and the end of the tail require a steep climb up and down. It felt so good to move the legs on terrain that wasn’t flat. (Remind me that I said that later in the summer when we’re climbing actual mountains.)

Throughout the week we also hiked up to the Goat Rock and overlook. The view was so boring that I won’t bother showing a photo, but we did spot some pretty flowers.

Hot Springs National Park
Flowers on the trail

Later in the week, Jill came with us on a hike up to the Hot Spings Mountain Tower. It was about two miles each way to reach the tower (you can also drive) and then for a small fee you get to ride the elevator 216 feet to the top of the tower. Down below we could see the town and surrounding mountains.

Hot Springs National Park
Just to the right of those tall buildings are the bathhouses
Hot Springs National Park
I love this photo even though it’s completely missing the view behind us!

It’s a good thing we did all that hiking because we also stuffed ourselves with both delicious homemade and restaurants meals. Hot Springs has no shortage of restaurants. It would have been impossible to try them all during a week-long visit so we choose the two that were most recommended to us. First was a Latin American restaurant called Rolando’s. If aren’t familiar with Latin American food think Mexican with a twist. I had a goat cheese and scallion quesadilla drizzled with a mango sauce. On the side were spicy pickled cukes that I could have eaten an entire bowl of, and in the middle was a bean and rice mixture that put those tasteless dried out piles of rice and beans usually served at Mexican restaurants to shame.

Hot Springs National Park
Delicious food at Rolando’s

The other place we had to try was DeLuca’s Pizzeria. Tim and I are self-admitted pizza snobs. We really only like a thin crust pizza, the crispier the better. Bonus points if the sauce is homemade and toppings unique. Delucas hit all the marks. We had called to ahead to reserve our dough — they only make a certain amount each day — and when our two GIANT pies arrived the four of use were sure we would be taking a ton home. I’m not even embarrassed to admit that we only brought home four slices. It was that good!

Hot Springs National Park
Pie #1 with Vermont Smokehouse pepperoni. The second one had kalamata olives, roasted portabellos, and fresh arugula!

There are so many more things to do in Hot Springs, but with a few days of rain thrown in, we only had time for one more adventure. It was tempting to go back for more soaking in the hot springs, but with the sun shining we decided to have a girl’s day out at the nearby Garvan Woodland Gardens.

Garvan Gardens
Overlooking Lake Hamilton

It was obvious that the gardens are between seasons with most of the spring blooms gone and the summer flowers just starting to open. It was still gorgeous.

Garvan Woodland Gardens
Azaleas & Pansies

In addition to the Japanse garden, woodland paths, and flowers, we really enjoyed the woodland fairy garden. They even had a miniature replica of Bathhouse Row.

Garvan Woodland Gardens
Bathhouse row for fairies

 

Finally, our last day in town was rainy so we drove over to Little Rock to visit the Clinton Library and Museum. First, we stopped at Lost 40 Brewing for lunch and some mid-day refreshments. Everyone agreed that the beer was good, but the food was incredible. I had the turkey club special that was like no other turkey club I’ve ever eaten. A mound of thinly sliced turkey, thick slabs of bacon, fresh avocado and a layer of pimento cheese all sandwiched between two perfectly toasted pieces of nutty bread. Everyone else said their food was good too but I barely remember what they had because mine was so wonderful. Hmmm…I’m sensing a theme here. Who knew Arkansas was such a hotbed of culinary delights?

Lost 40 Brewing- Little Rock, Arkansas
Beer & good eats ate Lost 40 Brewing

The museum was cool too. It was our first presidential library, and while I’ve been told they are all different, I very much enjoyed the style of this was one. The downstairs featured a chronological history of his years in office while the upstairs featured more personal aspects of the first family’s life.

Clinton Presidential Museum
The Clinton Library

After strolling around for a few hours we walked on the pedestrian bridge over the Arkansas River.

Arkansas River Bridge
Us with the Arkansas River below
Little Rock, Arkansas
The presidential Wetlands are looking especially wet

With that, we conclude our week in Hot Springs National Park. It was definitely different than any other national park we’ve visited. While we enjoyed our stay, I’m not sure we feel the need to make a repeat visit. But we are very glad that we put it on the agenda.

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14 Responses to “Hot Springs National Park”

Comments

  1. John Dews

    We have followed your blog for the almost two years we have been Airstreaming. We were delighted when we saw you were heading to our hometown of Hot Springs and went out to the park at Gulpha Gorge to meet you. You had apparently already left, but I did enjoy seeing your post of your visit on your website. Happy travels!

    John

    Reply
    • Amanda

      So sorry we missed you. It was a rather quick exit on a rainy Sunday morning!

      Reply
  2. Gerri & Mike

    It is certainly not one of the most “talked about” national parks but I think it would rate a visit by us one day. That’s why I love blogging….you learn so much about places from each other.
    Looks like you enjoyed meeting up with family and friends as well.
    Continue safe travels!!

    Reply
    • Amanda

      You’re right, I only knew about this park because of other bloggers. Not a typical national park, but definitely worth a visit – especially if you enjoy soaking in hot springs!

      Reply
  3. Christine LaFreniere

    Great summery of our time at Hot Springs! Loved all the great pictures, especially since I was very lazy about taking them. So glad we had this time together.

    Reply
    • Amanda

      Happy it worked out and we were able to meet up there!

      Reply
  4. Laurel

    Thanks for the great tour guide—we tried to go to Hot Springs NP a couple of years ago but tornado warnings changed our plans. So it’s still on our list. Looks like there are so many fun things to do there! I want to do everything you did. :-))

    Reply
    • Amanda

      Tornados are a definite concern here. While we’ve had lots of rain and lightning storms, so far we’ve managed to avoid any tornado warnings this spring. I was surprised by how much there is to do here. Hope you make it someday.

      Reply
  5. Jodee Gravel

    The old bathhouse is stunning – those floors!!! What a fun stop, the park is beautiful with all the trees. Love the fairy houses at the gardens. How fun to have family and friends join you.

    Reply
  6. David and Sharon (Two Lanes of Freedom)

    Wonderful post. We’ll be traveling through Arkansas in about a month and you’ve placed a pin on our map. Thank you for sharing your travels.

    Reply
  7. Andrea Elkins

    So funny – since we traveled through & explored Hot Springs in April, several other bloggers I follow have also spent time in the area! It seems to be a spring “hot spot” for those of us traveling in the midwest. Arkansas was unexpectedly beautiful, and I foresee stopping in the area again in the future.

    Reply
    • Amanda

      I first heard of Hot Springs a few years ago when a number of bloggers I knew visited. Have been wanting to go since then. You’re right that it seems to be a popular stop for people traveling through or around this area of the country.

      Reply
  8. Bob Martel

    Great post! It brought back memories of our trip there last year. Coincidentally, we also used a rainy day for the Clinton Library visit! While we prefer “dry camping” as well (still going strong without hookups for eight months in a row now!) I have to admit that having an electrical connection (for every one else) is a blessing as it eliminates all those generators!

    Reply
    • Amanda

      Good point about the generators. We’ve been in CGs with electric for so long I forgot all about those things!

      Reply

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