Soak up some Arkansas charm and take a hike in Hot Springs National Park.
Unlike more isolated Arkansas towns, “The National Spa,” as Hot Springs has long billed itself, has received—and still receives—visitors from across America and around the world. By Arkansas standards, the town is quite cosmopolitan.
Hot Springs is also home to an unusual national park. Most national parks are large natural areas with small resort towns clustered at their borders; Hot Springs is a good-sized town surrounded by a small park.
Hot Springs National Park is located right in downtown Hot Springs; Bathhouse Row is on Central Avenue with the mountains of the park flanking the street. The Visitor Center is located downtown on Highway 7 North or Central Avenue.
First to bathe in the hot springs—by some evidence, 10,000 years ago—were American Indians. Tah-ne-co, they called it. Among warring tribes, the springs were considered neutral ground, a place to talk peace.
The gangster set made Hot Springs a hot spot. During Prohibition, Al Capone headquartered his operations there. On one side were speak-easies, gambling dens and brothels; on the other side, elegant bathhouses run by reputable businessmen and physicians, under the supervision of national park rangers.
These two worlds tragically collided in 1927 when a Hot Springs National Park Ranger was slain by bootleggers while patrolling West Mountain. James Cary was the first National Park Service Ranger to be killed in the line of duty.
During the early years of the Clinton Administration, banners across Central Avenue proclaimed Hot Springs the hometown of Bill Clinton. Not the President’s birthplace, mind you. That distinction belongs to Hope, Arkansas. Hot Springs, some 55 miles southwest of Little Rock, is where young Bill spent his formative years.
To really appreciate the park, plan to spend the whole day: Check out the visitor center in the remarkable Fordyce Bathhouse, walk the Grand Promenade and admire the historic spas on Bathhouse Row, drive the scenic mountain roads, picnic in the park or hike a few of the park’s 26 miles of trails.
Fordyce Bathhouse is an awesome architectural specimen of stained glass, marble and ceramic fountains. The bathhouse closed in 1962 and, after a long vacancy, reopened as the park visitor center in 1989; it underwent a major renovation in 2013. Interpretive exhibits and videos explain the national park, the town, and the traditional bath routine.
Check out the second floor, originally the Men’s Dressing Rooms and Men’s Massage Rooms.
In less hurried times, folks came for a week of soaking. Today’s traveler usually takes one traditional bath of warm and hot soaks, then a brief stay in a steam cabinet, plus an (optional) massage.
Choose a Traditional Bath, a Euro-style routine offered at Buckstaff Bathhouse, a park concessionaire since 1912. The treatment includes: a soak in private tub, a steam cabinet, Sitz tub, application of hot packs, cool-down and optional full-body Swedish massage. Or opt for a contemporary spa experience at Quapawbaths & Spa
European spa culture was not the only facet of resort life important to Hot Springs. So was the idea of hiking your way to good health. Something called the “Vertel System of Graduated Exercise” had proven successful at the celebrated springs of Nauheim, Germany.
In 1915, a color-coded trail system was cut into the Hot Springs hillsides above Bathhouse Row. After a morning of mercury rubbing, ozone inhaling and electro-hydric massaging, spa visitors were encouraged to hit the trail. Thousands hiked, though some took the easy way up Hot Springs Mountain and rented a burro. Handrails along the pathways offered safe passage for hikers and a convenient place to hang laundry.
Hiking for health is making a return and the Hot Springs trails of old are still used for fitness and pleasure. Hot Springs National Park embraces the worldwide “Healthy Parks Healthy People” movement and is working with the local community to promote walking and hiking for fitness and wellness.
Learn more about hiking trails in the park:
HIKE Hot Springs National Park: Hot Springs Mountain & North Mountain Trails
For more information
Hot Springs National Park 101 Reserve St., Hot Springs AR 71901. Call 501-620-6715