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?
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.
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.
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.
The bathhouse has been restored to what it looked like back in the heyday of the late 1800s.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
After strolling around for a few hours we walked on the pedestrian bridge over the Arkansas River.
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.