A National Park inside a city? Well, almost. The city of Hot Springs, Arkansas was founded right up against Hot Springs National Park (which happens to be the smallest National Park in America) to capitalize on the tourists coming to the area for a dip in the healing hot spring waters. Cy Young, John F. Kennedy, Billy Sunday, President Herbert Hoover, Helen Keller, Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Frank & Jesse James, and Scarface himself, Al Capone, were among the celeb fans of the springs in Hot Springs, so a visit here will put you in fantastic company. It's definitely one of the more unique National Parks, loaded with fascinating history crammed into a tiny area.
Some tips for visiting Hot Springs National Park:
-Hot Springs National Park is small, but because it's developed, there's a lot to dig into here. The visitor center offers guided tours, so you can choose one that speaks to your interests and start from there. -There's no NPS parking, so find something along a street, in the garage a block off of Bathhouse Row, or in a private lot downtown. -You can taste the hot springs water at one of the spigots in the park. The National Parks Service has deemed it safe to drink, and even though in the past, the mineral water was considered "curative", the NPS doesn't make any guarantees that it's medicinal. Plus, it's free to drink! -You can also bathe in the mineral water at one of the bathhouses. A guide will take you through the traditional experience of visiting a bathhouse and make sure that you're totally relaxed and comfortable the whole time... and some places even offer optional massages!
There are 47 pools at Hot Springs, but the main attraction in the park is Bathhouse Row. The street is lined with old bathhouse buildings in a variety of architectural styles. Many have been turned into shops and spas. Stroll down the Grand Promenade behind Bathhouse row and dip your feet into one of the public fountains.
The border between the city of Hot Springs and the park itself is kind of blurry, which is actually a cool thing. Plus, because the park was such a massive tourist draw back in the day, there are tons of historic restaurants and buildings. One of the most notorious is Maxine's. Named for former owner Maxine Temple Jones, who ran a cathouse out of the building, this music venue and boisterous bar is pretty much a guaranteed good time. Order a few decadently topped hot dogs, some cheap beers, and enjoy whatever show happens to be going on that night... if you're lucky, you'll get a taste for what the place was like when Maxine ran the show with one of their monthly burlesque nights.
Back in the day, Hot Springs attracted all sorts of people. The small town, Southerner locals mingled with sports stars, Hollywood greats, politicians, and even mobsters. The Gangster Museum is dedicated to the salacious history of the notorious mafioso greats who spent time here, including Meyer Lansky, Frank Costello, Albert Anastasia, and Lucky Luciano, who was arrested and detained by Hot Springs police.
Fordyce Bathhouse is actually the Visitor Center for Hot Springs National Park, but from 1915-1962, it was the most opulent bathhouse on Bathhouse Row. It had a bowling alley, a concert hall, and tons of massage rooms, fancy state rooms, and a nice gymnasium as well. Today, it houses exhibits on the history of the park, and is a great place to learn what Hot Springs (and a bathhouse) looked like at the height of the park's popularity.
Not only can you drink the hot springs water, you can also drink beer made with it, at Superior Bathhouse Brewery! Does that make the beer healthy? Maybe. Is their beer delicious? For sure. Plus, their brewery/taproom is located in a historic bathhouse. They offer everything from stouts to saisons to shandies, plus they have guests beers on tap and kombucha. Order a flight of beer, a meat and cheese plate, or a sandwich, and if you're with kids or non-beer drinkers, get them a glass of root beer, or something from their onsite gelato bar!
Located in a historic, turn-of-the-century Craftsman-style mansion built by a Hot Springs local who rubbed shoulders (and partied) with Al Capone, Hilltop Manor Bed & Breakfast is a luxurious getaway. Only 2.5 miles from Bathhouse Row, the B&B offers comfy and well-furnished suites, a stunning patio and great room with a giant fireplace, and, of course, delicious homemade breakfasts.
There’s still plenty of nature to explore in Hot Springs National Park, too. Hike part (or all) of Sunset Trail to get the full experience. It passes the park’s highest point, a peaceful pond, wildflower fields, wildlife and more. Hot Springs is also a prime destination for bird-watching- you can see cardinals, finches, wrens, eagles, hawks, chickadees, woodpeckers and much more.
Located at the top of the park's Hot Springs Mountain, the Hot Springs Mountain Tower offers 360 degree views of the region. Hike up the mountain to the observation deck, or drive to the top to take in the views. There are some historical exhibits and a nice gift shop here in addition to the observation decks, so take your time exploring, and definitely consider taking the trail up. It starts right behind Bathhouse Row and it isn't too long... but it is a bit steep!
If you're looking for a solid breakfast to kickstart a day of exploring Hot Springs, then you'll want to make a stop at the Pancake Shop. This local favorite closes at 12:45, but a trip here is worth it. The menu isn't huge, but they do everything right. A variety of French toast and pancake options, plus eggs, omelettes, homemade sausage, bacon, and a great cup of coffee are all you really need!
If location is important to you when you're looking for a hotel, then you'll want to book a room at the Arlington Resort. It's smack dab in the middle of downtown/the park, and it oozes Jazz Age glamour, since it was built in 1924. The rooms are elegant, the lobby bar is renowned (and features live music on Friday and Saturday nights), and they have an onsite bathhouse.
And, if you're looking for a really close encounter with history, it's said that this hotel is super haunted. Be on the lookout for apparitions in old-timey dress, especially a girl in a pink dress in the lobby, a bride staring into the sky in one of the towers, and Henry Tweedle, a former bellman, on the fourth floor. If you're a fan of gangsters, try and stay in room 443; that was supposed to be Al Capone's favorite room, for its view of the Southern Room across the street, since he liked to keep an eye on things. If you see the elevator doors on the fourth floor open with no one inside... it just might be ol' Scarface heading to his usual room. Otherwise, just be alert for disembodied giggles and ghostly hands tapping your shoulder.
Buckstaff Bathhouse is the only continuously operating bathhouse left in Hot Springs National Park. An hour-long traditional whirlpool mineral bath is only about $33, and is as classic as it comes. You can add on Swedish massages, moisturizing treatments, manis, pedis, or facials for an additional fee.
Of course, even though there are great B&Bs and resorts in Hot Springs, camping in a National Park is as American as apple pie. Gulpha Gorge Campground is the perfect place to set up camp. It's cheap, perfect for tents and RVs, and even though there are no showers, you don't really need them if you're planning on taking a mineral bath, right?
There's no bad time to visit Hot Springs National Park. Spring and summer are spectacular, with mild weather and less crowds, but summer is great for hiking and exploring as well. Keep in mind that Oawlawn Racetrack attracts huge crowds during races, and rates can spike. Winter isn't a bad time to visit (the springs are naturally warm, and Arkansas winters aren't intensely snowy or anything) either.