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An Adventurer’s Guide to Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas

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Established 1921

With a burst of steam, Hot Springs National Park intertwines nature and history. Nestled in Arkansas’s Ouachita Mountains, it offers therapeutic thermal springs, scenic trails, and historic charm, promising a rejuvenating and unforgettable adventure.


With a burst of steam, the concept of American wellness was born in a tiny pocket of Arkansas. Hot Springs National Park stands out as an entirely different kind of park compared to the vast, rugged landscapes commonly associated with America’s national parks. This unique oasis, nestled in the Ouachita Mountains, offers a blend of natural beauty and historic charm centered around its namesake thermal springs. Unlike the expansive wilderness of other parks, Hot Springs National Park provides an intimate experience where nature and history intertwine seamlessly.

Visitors to Hot Springs National Park can enjoy a variety of activities, from hiking scenic trails to soaking in the rejuvenating waters of the historic bathhouses. The park’s compact size makes it easily accessible, allowing for a rich and varied experience within a relatively small area. The town of Hot Springs itself, with its charming downtown and vibrant arts scene, adds to the appeal, offering a perfect blend of outdoor adventure and urban comfort. Whether you’re seeking relaxation, exploration, or a bit of both, Hot Springs National Park promises an unforgettable journey into the heart of American wellness.

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Getting to Hot Springs

Hot Springs National Park is conveniently located near several major cities, making it an accessible destination for travelers from across the country. The closest major city is Little Rock, the capital of Arkansas, which is approximately 55 miles northeast of the park. Little Rock’s Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport (LIT) is the nearest major airport, providing both domestic and limited international flights.

From Little Rock, visitors can reach Hot Springs National Park by car in about an hour via US-70 W. The drive is scenic, offering glimpses of Arkansas’s rolling hills and lush forests. For those preferring not to drive, shuttle services and taxis are available from the airport, though renting a car provides the most flexibility for exploring the area.

For travelers coming from further afield, Memphis, Tennessee, and Dallas, Texas, are within a reasonable driving distance. Memphis is about 180 miles to the east, and Dallas is approximately 300 miles southwest of Hot Springs. Both cities offer larger airports and more extensive flight options, making them viable starting points for a road trip to the park.

Once in Hot Springs, navigating the town and the park is straightforward. The park’s main attractions are within walking distance of each other, and the town’s compact layout makes it easy to explore on foot. Public transportation, including local buses, provides additional options for getting around, though many visitors find that walking is the best way to experience the charm and character of this historic town.

Human History

The history of Hot Springs National Park is deeply intertwined with the story of human settlement and the pursuit of wellness in America. The thermal springs that define the park have been revered for their healing properties for centuries, long before European settlers arrived in the area. Native American tribes, including the Caddo, Quapaw, and Choctaw, were the earliest known visitors to these springs, utilizing the warm waters for their therapeutic benefits and considering the site sacred.

European exploration of the area began in the 16th century, with Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto reportedly visiting the springs in 1541. However, it wasn’t until the 19th century that the potential of the springs as a health resort began to be fully realized. In 1832, President Andrew Jackson designated the area as a federal reservation, making it the first land in the United States to be set aside for protection due to its natural resources, predating the establishment of the National Park Service by several decades.

The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw Hot Springs flourish as a bustling spa town. The construction of bathhouses and the development of the town’s infrastructure transformed the area into a premier destination for those seeking the purported healing benefits of the thermal waters. The “Bathhouse Row” that visitors see today is a testament to this golden age, with elegant buildings like the Fordyce Bathhouse, now a museum and visitor center, showcasing the grandeur and opulence of that era.

The park’s history is also marked by its role in the evolution of American health tourism. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Hot Springs was a hub for health seekers, including celebrities, athletes, and even notorious figures like Al Capone, who came to the town for both leisure and wellness treatments. The park’s designation as a national park in 1921 helped preserve its historic and natural features, ensuring that future generations could continue to enjoy the benefits of the springs.

Today, Hot Springs National Park stands as a living museum, preserving the rich history of human interaction with the thermal springs while continuing to offer visitors a unique blend of natural beauty and historic charm. The park’s past is a fascinating tale of discovery, development, and preservation, reflecting broader trends in American history and the enduring allure of natural wellness.


Hot Springs National Park, despite its relatively small size, boasts a diverse and vibrant ecosystem. The park is part of the Ouachita Mountains, a region known for its rich biodiversity and unique ecological features. This mountainous terrain, combined with the thermal springs, creates a distinctive environment that supports a variety of plant and animal species.

The flora of Hot Springs National Park is characterized by a mix of deciduous and coniferous trees, reflecting the transitional nature of the park’s location between the eastern hardwood forests and the western pine forests. Dominant tree species include oak, hickory, and pine, with understory plants such as dogwood, redbud, and various ferns adding to the park’s botanical diversity. In spring and summer, wildflowers bloom in abundance, creating a colorful tapestry that attracts nature enthusiasts and photographers alike.

The park’s fauna is equally diverse, with a range of mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians calling the area home. Common mammals include white-tailed deer, raccoons, squirrels, and the occasional black bear. Birdwatchers will find plenty to enjoy, as the park hosts species such as the red-tailed hawk, great horned owl, and various songbirds. The park’s waterways and wetlands support amphibians like frogs and salamanders, while reptiles such as turtles and snakes can be spotted basking in the sun.

The unique thermal springs of Hot Springs National Park also contribute to the area’s ecological diversity. These springs create a microhabitat that supports specialized plant and animal life adapted to the warm, mineral-rich waters. Algae and other microorganisms thrive in the springs, forming the base of a small but intricate food web. The springs themselves, with their consistent temperatures, provide a stable environment that contrasts sharply with the surrounding landscape.

Conservation efforts in the park focus on maintaining this delicate balance between human use and natural preservation. The National Park Service works to protect the park’s ecological integrity through habitat restoration, invasive species management, and environmental education programs. These efforts ensure that the natural beauty and biodiversity of Hot Springs National Park continue to thrive for future generations to enjoy.


The geology of Hot Springs National Park is both fascinating and complex, underpinning the park’s unique thermal springs and shaping its rugged landscape. The park is situated in the Ouachita Mountains, a range formed through a series of geological processes that have spanned hundreds of millions of years.

The origins of the Ouachita Mountains date back to the Paleozoic Era, approximately 300 million years ago, when tectonic forces caused the collision of the North American and South American continental plates. This collision resulted in the folding and faulting of sedimentary rock layers, creating the distinctive ridges and valleys that characterize the region today. The rocks in the park primarily consist of sandstone, shale, and novaculite, each contributing to the area’s geological diversity.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Hot Springs National Park’s geology is the presence of its namesake thermal springs. These springs are a result of rainwater percolating down through the earth’s crust, where it encounters a series of faults and fractures. As the water descends, it is heated by the natural geothermal gradient, reaching temperatures of up to 143°F (62°C). This heated water then rises back to the surface along fault lines, emerging as the thermal springs that have made the area famous.

The mineral composition of the water in the thermal springs is another key geological feature. The water is rich in minerals such as calcium, magnesium, and silica, which are dissolved from the surrounding rocks as the water travels underground. These minerals are believed to contribute to the therapeutic properties of the springs, attracting visitors seeking health and wellness treatments for centuries.

In addition to the thermal springs, the park’s geology is also marked by unique rock formations and mineral deposits. Novaculite, a hard, dense rock formed from ancient marine sediments, is a notable feature of the area. This rock is prized for its use as a sharpening stone and has been quarried in the region for thousands of years. The park’s sandstone and shale formations also display interesting patterns and structures, providing insight into the area’s geological history.

Visitors to Hot Springs National Park can explore its geology through various hiking trails and interpretive exhibits. The park’s geological features are not only visually striking but also offer a window into the dynamic processes that have shaped the earth over millions of years. Understanding the geology of Hot Springs National Park enhances appreciation for its natural wonders and the delicate balance that sustains its unique thermal springs.

Best Places to Stay

Hot Springs National Park offers a range of accommodation options to suit different preferences and budgets, from historic hotels to cozy bed-and-breakfasts and modern campgrounds. Staying within or near the park allows visitors to fully immerse themselves in the park’s natural beauty and historic charm.

The Arlington Resort Hotel & Spa: One of the most iconic places to stay in Hot Springs, the Arlington Resort Hotel & Spa combines historic elegance with modern amenities. Established in 1875, this grand hotel has hosted numerous celebrities and dignitaries over the years. Guests can enjoy luxurious rooms, a full-service spa featuring thermal spring water, and easy access to Bathhouse Row and the park’s attractions.

The Hotel Hot Springs: Located in the heart of downtown Hot Springs, this contemporary hotel offers comfortable accommodations and convenient access to both the park and the town’s vibrant nightlife. The Hotel Hot Springs features spacious rooms with modern amenities, a rooftop bar with stunning views, and an on-site restaurant serving delicious local cuisine.

Hilltop Manor Bed & Breakfast: For a more intimate and charming experience, Hilltop Manor Bed & Breakfast offers cozy, well-appointed rooms in a beautifully restored historic home. Set on five acres of lush grounds, this bed-and-breakfast provides a tranquil retreat while being just minutes from the park. Guests can enjoy gourmet breakfasts, elegant rooms with fireplaces, and a warm, welcoming atmosphere.

Camping and RV Parks: For those who prefer to stay closer to nature, Hot Springs National Park offers several camping options. The Gulpha Gorge Campground, located within the park, provides a serene setting with modern amenities, including full hook-ups for RVs, picnic areas, and hiking trails. Nearby, the Hot Springs KOA offers additional camping options, including tent sites, cabins, and RV sites with full amenities.

The Waters Hotel: Situated on Bathhouse Row, The Waters Hotel offers a blend of historic charm and modern luxury. This boutique hotel occupies a beautifully restored building from the early 20th century and features elegantly appointed rooms, an on-site restaurant, and easy access to the thermal baths and park attractions.

Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort: For visitors looking to combine their national park experience with a bit of excitement, Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort offers upscale accommodations, a casino, horse racing, and a variety of dining options. The resort is just a short drive from the park, making it a convenient base for exploring Hot Springs.

Each of these accommodations provides a unique experience, allowing visitors to choose the perfect place to rest and rejuvenate after a day of exploring Hot Springs National Park. Whether you prefer historic elegance, modern convenience, or a close-to-nature experience, Hot Springs has something to offer every traveler.

Enjoying the Park

Hot Springs National Park offers a variety of activities and attractions that cater to both relaxation and adventure. Whether you’re interested in soaking in thermal baths, hiking scenic trails, or exploring historic sites, the park has something for everyone.

Bathhouse Row: One of the main attractions of Hot Springs National Park is Bathhouse Row, a collection of eight historic bathhouses built in the early 20th century. These elegant buildings, each with its unique architectural style, offer a glimpse into the golden age of thermal bathing. Visitors can tour the Fordyce Bathhouse, which serves as the park’s visitor center and museum, or indulge in a relaxing soak at the Buckstaff Bathhouse and the Quapaw Baths & Spa.

Hiking Trails: The park features over 26 miles of hiking trails, offering a range of experiences from easy strolls to more challenging hikes. The Hot Springs Mountain Trail provides stunning views of the town and surrounding mountains, while the Sunset Trail, the park’s longest, offers a more immersive experience through diverse landscapes. Other popular trails include the Gulpha Gorge Trail and the Goat Rock Trail, each offering unique perspectives of the park’s natural beauty.

Scenic Drives: For those who prefer to explore by car, the Hot Springs Mountain Drive and West Mountain Drive offer scenic routes with breathtaking vistas. These drives take visitors through the heart of the park, providing numerous overlooks where you can stop, take in the views, and snap some memorable photos.

Thermal Springs and Fountains: Throughout the park, you’ll find several thermal springs and fountains where you can see the hot, mineral-rich water bubbling up from the ground. The Grand Promenade, a paved walkway behind Bathhouse Row, offers a pleasant stroll with access to several springs and fountains. The Hot Water Cascade, located near Arlington Lawn, is a particularly picturesque spot where thermal water flows down a series of rock steps.

Historic Sites: In addition to Bathhouse Row, the park is home to several other historic sites worth exploring. The Army and Navy General Hospital, now part of the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences, and the Arts, played a significant role in the park’s history. The Mountain Tower, a 216-foot observation tower on Hot Springs Mountain, offers panoramic views of the park and surrounding area.

Picnicking and Relaxation: For a more leisurely experience, the park offers several picnic areas where visitors can relax and enjoy the natural surroundings. Gulpha Gorge Campground and Picnic Area, located along Gulpha Creek, is a popular spot with picnic tables, grills, and scenic views. The Arlington Lawn, located near Bathhouse Row, is another great spot to relax and enjoy a picnic.

Visitor Programs and Guided Tours: The park offers a variety of ranger-led programs and guided tours that provide deeper insights into the park’s history, geology, and ecology. These programs are a great way to learn more about the unique features of Hot Springs National Park and enhance your visit.

Whether you’re soaking in the historic bathhouses, hiking the scenic trails, or exploring the park’s rich history, Hot Springs National Park offers a unique and memorable experience for visitors of all ages. The park’s blend of natural beauty, historic charm, and therapeutic waters makes it a must-visit destination for anyone seeking relaxation and adventure.


Hot Springs National Park is a unique gem in the national park system, offering a distinctive blend of natural beauty, historic charm, and therapeutic relaxation. Its compact size and accessible location make it an ideal destination for a wide range of visitors, from those seeking a quick weekend getaway to those looking for a more extended exploration of its many wonders.

The park’s thermal springs, which have been revered for their healing properties for centuries, remain the centerpiece of the visitor experience. Bathhouse Row, with its historic bathhouses and elegant architecture, provides a glimpse into the golden age of American health tourism and offers modern-day visitors the chance to experience the rejuvenating effects of the thermal waters.

Beyond the bathhouses, Hot Springs National Park boasts a rich tapestry of hiking trails, scenic drives, and historic sites that invite exploration and discovery. The park’s diverse ecology and fascinating geology add depth to the visitor experience, revealing the dynamic processes that have shaped this unique landscape.

Accommodations in and around the park cater to a variety of preferences and budgets, ensuring that every visitor can find the perfect place to rest and recharge. From historic hotels and cozy bed-and-breakfasts to modern campgrounds and resorts, the options are plentiful and inviting.

As you plan your visit to Hot Springs National Park, take the time to immerse yourself in its rich history, explore its natural beauty, and indulge in the therapeutic waters that have drawn people to this special place for centuries. Whether you’re seeking relaxation, adventure, or a bit of both, Hot Springs National Park promises an unforgettable journey into the heart of American wellness.

In conclusion, Hot Springs National Park offers a unique and enriching experience that stands apart from other national parks. Its combination of natural hot springs, historic bathhouses, scenic trails, and vibrant town life creates a multifaceted destination that appeals to a diverse array of visitors. As you soak in the warmth of the thermal waters and explore the beauty of the Ouachita Mountains, you’ll find yourself connected to a long tradition of wellness and rejuvenation that continues to thrive in this remarkable park.

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