As dynamic and picturesque today as when it launched 185 years ago, this park remains one of the state’s best-kept secrets.
If you want to branch out from the typical vacation ports of call—pricey Aspen, say, or a sleepy beach resort in south Florida—the vast, forested state of Arkansas is definitely worth considering. Why? Because it’s home to a rare national treasure: an entire park devoted to hot springs.
Clusters of geothermal pools can be found in western states like Colorado and New Mexico, but none represent as important a milestone in the National Park Service catalog as Hot Springs National Park. The remarkable land was set aside by the government in 1832, making it the oldest federal reserve in the U.S.—it predates even Yellowstone, traditionally recognized as the country’s first national park.
Here are a few ways to incorporate Arkansas’s natural wonder into your itinerary on your next mountain-town adventure.
Take a bath
Much of the city’s delightful architecture has been preserved in charming Neo-classical and Spanish-style museums along Bathhouse Row. But there’s one bathhouse that has operated continuously since 1912, making it the city’s longest-running facility. Equipped with steam cabinets, needle showers, whirlpool tubs, and Swedish massage therapists, Buckstaff Baths offers separate floors for men and women, and the no-reservation policy works in favor of travelers who wish to take a spontaneous trip to the healing waters. Doors open daily at 8 a.m., but many locals like to queue up beforehand, so show up early!
Treat yourself to a facial
If you’re in need of something more full-service, head to Quapaw Baths, a contemporary, European-style spa facility. Like at Buckstaff, the thermal water is piped directly into the soaking pools. But the menu also offers foot scrubs, steamy facials, herbal-infused towel wraps, and something called a Chocolate Rose Mudslide. Despite its appetizing name, the treatment incorporates a full clay body mask, followed by MicroSilk treatment, which uses tiny oxygen bubbles that reach into the pores to promote skin cell growth and reduce wrinkles.
Be wowed by the local art scene
For culture lovers, Hot Springs National Park has also made a name for itself as a serious art destination. That’s most apparent at the Ozark Bathhouse, a 1922 Spanish Colonial Revival building of white stucco and red clay tile. Though it ceased operating as a bathhouse in 1977, it reopened in 2014 as a fine art gallery. Meanwhile, other galleries spread across Central Avenue come alive every first Friday of the month for “Gallery Walk,” when local artists open their studios for mingling and live music.
Tackle the Sunset Trail
The city of Hot Springs is built right into the park itself, so getting into nature isn’t hard to do. One popular route, the Sunset Trail, leads to several impressive mountain overlooks that face away from the city entirely. On its own, the 8.9-mile loop is doable for beginner or moderate-level hikers. But if you’re seeking something more rigorous, try coupling it with adjacent trails for a complete 14-mile loop all the way around Hot Springs National Park. Climb the Hot Springs Mountain Tower for a 360-degree view of the Ouachita Mountains: it's one of the best overlooks in the entire state.
Reward yourself with beer
Another reason Hot Springs National Park appeals to more than just bathers? Its micro-brewery. Superior Bathhouse Brewery incorporates real water from the springs into its pale ales and golden stouts, resulting in a immersive experience of the park’s unique hydrosystem that doesn’t involve an hour-long soak.