10 Best Things to do at Hot Springs National Park
Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas is unlike the majority of National Parks as it is one of the few parks that offers a mix of outdoorsy and urban activities. The park is focused on its bathhouse row and has quite some history to it featuring many famous guests from former presidents, gangsters like Al Capone, and other celebrities. In this article, we are going to cover the 10 best things to do at Hot Springs National Park.
Hot Springs National Park Quick Summary
Best Time to Go: The best time to go to Hot Springs is during the Fall when the weather is milder. During the fall season. The leaves begin to change colors and the cooler weather makes a dip in the hot springs more enjoyable.
How to Get to Hot Springs: If you’re flying, you’ll want to fly into Little Rock. The airport offers the most flights and is about an hour away from the park.
How to Get Around: You’ll want to have a vehicle, rental car, or use the bus transit in the park. This will make the park the most accessible to you during your stay.
Where to Stay: There are many options for lodging. We really recommend staying at Gulpha Gorge if you want to camp. For lodging the Waterton Resort or Arlington are both good picks.
National Park Pass: While Hot Springs National Park is free. Most are not. If you plan on visiting other National Parks, I highly recommend the America the Beautiful Park pass. It will give you access to over 400+ park systems and all National Parks for $80.
Don’t Forget Leave No Trace: Before heading on your outdoor journey, make sure to review the Leave No Trace principles to help protect and leave these National Parks better than you found them.
Looking for more ideas for your trip to Hot Springs National Park? Don’t miss reading this post!
Hot Springs National Park History
In 1832 Congress had passed legislation to preserve Hot Springs. This was well established before the National Park system. Making Hot Springs the first protected park in the US before Yellowstone.
The government set to preserve Hot Springs solely for its healing thermal waters. It was then when this park was federally preserved for recreational use. Thus, making Hot Springs one of the largest spa towns in the nation.
Fast forward to today, Hot Springs still continues its recreational use offering plenty of variety of activities. From biking, hiking trails, beautiful museums, festivals, and historical architecture. There is something for everyone to enjoy.
Essential Park Information
Park Fees and Permits
Great thing about this park is there is no fee to enter or tour the visitor center. However, to get into the springs you will have to pay for it at one of the bathhouses. Free physical maps are found at the visitor center and online maps of Hot Springs National Park can be found here at NPS.
The majority of National Parks have charges for admission. If you plan on visiting more than 3 parks a year then get an America the Beautiful– Annual Park Pass to get annual access to all the National Parks, Forests, and more for just $80 a year.
Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas is open year-round, gated park roads are open 8am – 10pm. Also, the rest of the park is open 5 am – 10pm. I recommend checking the NPS site for up-to-date information about all the parks
Dogs are welcome in Hot Springs National Park. There are Pet Waste Stations located on both ends of Bathhouse Row and in the campground.
When to Go to Hot Spring National Park
For the most part the park is great to visit all year round. Weather stays fairly mild all year round and there is usually something to do all year. We recommend going in the fall when the weather is cooler and the leaves start to change.
This is one of our favorite times to go to Hot Springs, because of cooler weather. Alos, during this time of year the leaves begin to change colors from green to a golden orange, yellow, and reddish hue.
In the winter the park is covered with lights and there are usually frequent holiday events. The weather is colder usually in the 20s – 40s. This cooler weather makes for a great time to relax and take a dip in the indoor hot springs.
As the weather begins to transition from winter the weather begins to gradually warm up. Springtime is also a great time to go for blooming wildflowers and foliage. Mild rain showers are often more frequent, especially around March through April.
This time of the year is the warmest which makes it usually the most popular time of year. Temperatures like to hang around the 70s-90s and can get a little humid.
Getting to Hot Springs National Park
Hot Springs National Park is located in Hot Springs, Arkansas. It is fairly close to many cities, the largest being Little Rock which is the capital.
If you’re planning on flying into Hot Springs, Little Rock is about an hour away and has the biggest airport in the area. Once you land you’re going to want to rent a car to make the hour drive to the park.
Getting Around Hot Springs National Park
The best way to get around is by vehicle using either your own or a rental. The park doesn’t offer a shuttle service. There are plenty of great online sources for rental cars and if you’re wanting to rent a RV or camper van check out Outdoorsy for a good selection.
Though Hot Springs National Park doesn’t have an official shuttle service. There is a city bus available that can take you around different parts of the city and park. There is a schedule, with rates and routes online here.
Where To Stay in Hot Springs National Park
Hot Springs has various options for lodging and camping. If you’re looking for camping and hotels there are good options in the park. And even more options outside of the park.
Camping in Hot Springs
Gulpha Gorge Campground is the main campsite that is within the park; there are others in the surrounding areas. The campground is located at the base of the North Mountain and is close to many of the trails in the area. It offers 40 campsites all first come first serve basis with full hook ups and bathrooms, but no showers.
Hotel Hale is the most historic hotel in the area. It is a luxurious boutique style hotel that was built in 1892 making it also the oldest building on the bathhouse row. It was remodeled in 2019, features private thermal baths in each room, breakfast, and chilled spring water. Downsides is that this hotel is expensive and there is no on-site parking.
There are many other hotels available in the surrounding areas around Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas as well. Some other popular options we saw were the Arlington Resort Hotel & Spa and The Waters Hotel Hot Springs.
There are a lot of options for Airbnb. Another option would be to stay in Little Rock which is about an hour and then travel into Hot Springs.
RV and Camper Vans
Looking for campers, RVs, or camper vans then check out Outdoorsy. They have a lot of options available to check out and usually some pretty cool selections.
Best Things to do Hot Springs National Park
1. Fordyce Bathhouse Visitor Center & Museum
The first thing I would do at Hot Springs National Park is check out the visitor center. The Fordyce Visitor Center is unique compared to most centers as it is a self-guided museum itself. It is full of history and magnificent architecture with layers of marble, stained glass, and vintage bathhouse equipment. The bathhouse is ultimately a great place to get a map of the entire park with the trails and highlights.
2. Soak at Bathhouse Row
This is the main attraction in the park so be sure to visit the bathhouse row. Presented is a row of bathhouses with various styles of architecture all built around the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Out of the bathhouses two are still in operation, Buckstaff and Quapaw. Fordyce is the visitor center, Superior is a brewery, and Hale, which is the oldest structure, is a hotel and restaurant.
If you’re looking to soak in one of the bathhouses. You have two main options to choose from: the Quapaw and Buckstaff Bathhouse. Out of the two we really liked the Quapaw Spa.
The Quapaw bathhouse was modeled after a Spanish colonial style bathhouse which opened in 1922. They offer various spa amenities from private, couple’s baths, and massages. Our favorite experience was soaking in the large community thermal pools, they offer fresh cold spring water.
3. Walk the Grand Promenade
This trail is a short cobblestone pathway that runs about .7 miles out and back, directly behind the bathhouse row. The Grand Promenade is one of the older trails in National Recreation since 1982 so it is a definite must do. It features many views of the downtown portion of the park and takes you across the Arlington Lawn, be sure to take a stop at the Hot Springs Cascade.
4. Feel the Hot Water Cascade
Right off of the Promenade route and in the Arlington Lawn is the Hot Water Cascade. This is a neat little geological sight with hot spring water flowing into two pools.
It’s really neat if you have children with you as they can touch the warm spring water and they love that. Well worth a visit early in the morning because the hot water creates a steamy foggy view that makes for an unforgettable sight.
5. Garvan Woodland Gardens
These woodlands make up 210 acres that border Lake Hamilton. The Garvan Woodlands feature about 160 different types of azaleas, Asian ornamental plants, and many other wildflowers. In addition to beautiful stone paths, bridges, and waterfalls.
6. The Gangster Museum of America
Learn about the famous criminals that used to hang out in Hot Springs. This museum takes you through the past and explores gangsters like Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, and Owney Madden.
7. Hit Up Northwoods Bike Trails
The Northwoods Bike Trails welcome bikers, hikers, and trail runners to over 30 miles of world class mountain bike trails. Located about 5 minutes from downtown Hot Springs National Park, this trail system offers various trails of different difficulty.
8. Go for a Hike
Hot Springs National Park offers over 25 miles of hiking trails around the park. The trails offer a great escape with beautiful scenery of the mountains, trees, and rivers.
Gulpha Gorge to Oertel Trail
The Gulpha Gorge to Oertel Trail is a 3.5 mile out and back trail. Relatively, a lightly trafficked trail that has some moderate inclines but has some nice views and a couple of overlooks. One nice thing about this trail is that if you are staying in the Gulpha Gorge Campground you can use it to get to Hot Springs National Park.
Goat Rock Trail
One of our favorite trails in the park Goat Rock is a 2.4 mile out and back if you’re starting at the Gulpha Gorge Campground. The highlight of this trail takes you up a set of stairs to the top of Goat Rock. At the top of Goat Rock overlook is a scenic view of Indian Mountain, during the fall it is quite a sight with the changing foliage.
The Sunset trail is a 13-mile trail making it the longest trail that loops around the park. It features a lot of history and multiple overlooks. My favorite highlight is Rick’s Pond, also known as the Stonebridge Area. The property was originally owned in 1879 by Samuel W. Fordyce.
In 1909, Fordyce had a cabin built to store his weapons and trophies from his hunts. The sight features a beautiful creek, stonebridge, and pond which makes a great rest stop. Other highlights are sugar loaf mountain and balanced rock be sure to check those out as well
9. Go for a Scenic Drive
Hot Springs Mountain Scenic Drive
Take a drive through this historic route built in the 1880s. It takes you around the Hot Springs and the North Mountains. The top of the drive leads up to the Hot Springs Mountain Tower. Be sure to take a visit and check out the overlook.
Looking for more awesome hiking trails in Hot Springs National Park? Check out my article about the best hiking trails in Hot Springs in each part of the park!
Hot Springs Mountain Tower
Great scenic stop, the tower overlooks the majority of the park and Ouachita Mountains. The tower is accessible with an elevator to take you up to the 216-foot tower. Features a gift shop on the ground level and enclosed viewing at the top.
10. Drink Some Fresh Spring Water
In Hot Springs there are many places where you can fill up a container and sample some of the thermal spring water. If you forget to bring a container or jug don’t worry. You can usually find one at one of the shops or buy a jug from the Fordyce Visitor Center. The park provides this water with no charge. But it is prohibited to sell any of this water. There are a lot of fountains to choose from check them on at NPS
Where to Eat
There are many places to eat in Hot Springs, we had the opportunity to try a few places while we were there and highly recommending the below restaurants.
Great place to grab a quick bite, they are about 5 minutes walking distance from the bathhouse row. They serve grilled cuisine, sandwiches, and steaks. The place can get pretty busy at times so it’s worth showing up a little early or calling in to reserve a table
The oldest club in Arkansas, this was opened in 1905 and has kept its speakeasy style. The club offers pub grub and has a live music venue. We really liked their burgers and grilled chicken sandwiches when we went. They also offer various drinks and cocktails.
Superior Bathhouse Brewery
Located in the bathhouse row, this is a neat brewery that uses thermal spring water to create craft beers. They have some delicious brews and offer a variety from light and refreshing Kolsch to hoppy IPAs. If you’re also hungry they have food as well and serve multiple types of pub grub and salads.
Frequently Asked Questions
How Much Time Do You Need at Hot Springs?
You’ll really only need about two days to do the majority of things at Hot Springs National park.
Hopefully, you found this guide helpful: Best Things to do at Hot Springs National Park. If you have any recommendations or any questions, feel free to leave them in the comments down below. If you believe someone else may find this guide helpful, give it a share. Safe travels!
Editor note: This post was originally published May 05, 2022 and has been updated for more accuracy and comprehensiveness