Life In the Big Green Jolly

Embrace local. Explore often.

Embrace local.  Explore often.

Hot Springs National Park

Green pool of water which is a display spring along the Grand Promenade

Eagerly, I push the ON button at the water filling station. It is my first visit to Hot Springs National Park. I am about to get my first taste of fresh spring water.

Hot water spills out of the spigot. Yelping, I yank my hand back and exclaim “The water is hot! Is it supposed to be hot?”

A local woman pauses from filling her 5-gallon jug and smirks. Addressing me with the same tone you might use on your toddler, she explains “Well, you are in HOT Springs National Park, honey.”

And thus begins the adventure in Hot Springs National Park.


Hot Springs National Park, located about a one-hour drive southwest of Little Rock, Arkansas, is a national park like none other that we have visited.

First, the town of Hot Springs and the national park are intermixed. A park almost without borders if you will. Tourists and locals intermingle on the town streets and the park trails. Buildings that are owned by the National Park Service are leased to and used by private entities.

Second, the park is donut-shaped. Look at a map and you’ll see the park has a donut hole in the middle. That land in the center is not park land.

Town of Hot Springs

The town of Hot Springs reminds me of Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Central Avenue – lined with restaurants, gift shops, wax museums, and lodging – is the main road in the tourist district.

Tourists wander its sidewalks aimlessly, stopping often and abruptly to snap a picture of Bathhouse Row. In contrast, cars race from stoplight to stoplight while trying to beat the red light at the next pedestrian crosswalk.

Intermixed with the cars are horse-drawn carriages. These horses are either former racehorses or they have a secret competition with cars. As the horses sprint around a bend and hit a bump, the passengers catch some air with a squeal of delight. Or perhaps it was a cry of surprise. Either way, the horses seem to snicker.

Hot Springs National Park

The national park preserves Bathhouse Row. This quarter-mile stretch of Central Avenue represents the blend of the town and the park.

The buildings on Bathhouse Row are owned by the National Park Service and leased to local businesses such as day spas and lodging. Many of the buildings are not original. Fire and decay (wood and heat from steam are not a great combination) destroyed many of the first bathhouses. What stands there today is a new interpretation of what had been. To see a representation of what the bathhouses looked like in the 1920s, take the self-guided tour at the visitor center.

In addition to Bathhouse Row, the park includes both the pedestrian-friendly Grand Promenade and rugged hiking trails up into its hills. For non-hikers, you can drive one of the two scenic drives – either the Hot Springs Mountain Drive or the West Mountain Drive.

What you won’t find in the park are public hot springs for group soaks. There are a few “display” springs that show off the color of the algae and the heat of the spring water. However, to actually submerge your bones in the hot spring water, you must visit one of the private businesses along Bathhouse Row. Your choices are

  • book an appointment at one of the spas for their full-service bath experience, or
  • book a room at an inn that uses Hot Springs water to fill your private room’s tub

Once you wrap your mind around this distinctive national park, you realize it is something special. It may not be a nature-lovers paradise (it is quite the front-country park), but it still has options for escaping the crowds. The chance to see how the town once tried to outdo European spas combined with the opportunities to hike into the woods makes it a park worth visiting. And for those with kids or seniors in their traveling group, there is plenty to do for the entire family.


Hot Springs

There is certainly the town of Hot Springs and all it’s tourist to-dos. Wax museums, Duck Boat Tours, ghost walks and all the usual tourist trappings.

For actual hot springs (defined as a body of water filled with hot spring water), there are the publically accessible points to the springs and the private baths.

Public Access to hot springs

The public access points for the hot springs are limited to two methods, neither of which can be used to soak your weary travel bones:

  • The display springs
  • The water filling stations

To view the display springs, walk the Grand Promenade trail behind Bathhouse Row. These display springs aren’t for soaking but you can touch the water to feel how hot it is. Or you can trust that the rising steam indicates the water temperature. The algae growing in the springs makes for a great backdrop in a picture.

Green algae on a hot springs rock in Hot Springs National Park
Algae growing in the hot springs

We found three public water filling stations in town. The water is pulled from the hot springs (but cooled to a temperature that won’t scald you) so expect to have a cool-off period before you drink it. We were told there was one filling station that was cold water but we never found it. Looking at a detailed map later, the cold water spring (also known as the Happy Hollow Spring) is located off the Hot Springs Mountain Drive loop.

There is no cost to use these filling stations and people come from all over the area to fill their 5-gallon jugs. One older fellow proudly announced, “I drive over sixty-miles to get this water”. The water is tasty – flat and soft with a hint of minerals. But I can’t imagine driving an hour regularly to fetch it.

Private access to hot springs

If you want to take a bath or soak in the hot springs water, you will have to pay for private access.

Quapaw Baths offers thermal soaks in a public pool in addition to a private bath experience. Buckstaff Baths offers a modern-day replication of the bath experience offered in the early 1900s. Other day spas along Bathhouse Row offer services as well.

If you want the luxury of soaking in your own tub at your leisure, then check out a night or two of lodging at Hotel Hale. This hotel fills the tub in your hotel room with water directly from the hot springs.

Bathhouse Row

Bathhouse Row is the ¼ mile-long section along Central Avenue that showcases the location of the original bathhouses. Almost all the buildings are leased by the National Park Service to private businesses. Some have been converted to spas, some to boutique lodging, and one has been converted to a brewery.

The Fordyce Bathhouse contains the official park visitor center. Here, you can take a self-guided tour of the old-style bathhouse.

Visit all three floors to view the ‘spa’ experience including the stained glass ceilings and mosaic floors.

Stained glass ceiling over a foyer in Fordyce Bath House
Fancy ceilings in the old bathhouse
Metal box with hole - old style steam room
Old style steam room

Watch the videos and examine the displays to learn about the human history of the hot springs. It is entertaining to read how doctors in the early 19th century were prescribing exercise and outdoor time for therapeutic reasons. We have come full-circle as doctors today write prescriptions for the outdoors.

One thing I am grateful that modern medicine has eliminated is the use of electric shock while sitting in a tub of water.


You can take an easy stroll along Bathhouse Row and the Grand Promenade Trail.

Or pick up a map at the visitor center and explore one of the many hiking trails that will take you away from the main crowds.


Two cyclists on Hot Springs Greenway
Riding the Hot Springs Greenway

Hot Springs Creek Greenway is not part of the national park.

But if you are looking to bike on a trail, check it out. It starts near the convention center and ends a little past Hollywood Park. Parking is available at Hollywood Park.

As of September 2019, it is 2.5 miles in length. Shorter than you might want for cycling but still a pleasant ride. Someday it will connect with other trails and be a greenway worthy of cycling for distance.

The current trail takes you past the farmer’s market, the skateboard and the dog park. Along the way, it showcases a few public art displays.

Metal figures. Male figure shooting arrow, female figure holding arrows
Public art along the Hot Springs Greenway

Carriage Rides

Hot Springs Carriage Company offers horse-drawn carriage rides through downtown.

Scenic Drive

Two short scenic drives exist in the park.

Hot Springs Mountain Drive takes you up North Mountain. The scenery is pleasant and like is knock-your-socks-off gorgeous during prime leaf-peeping season. There are a few parking areas along the drive to get out and enjoy the view or to use a starting point for hiking.

West Mountain Drive takes you near the summit of West Mountain. From here, you can begin the Sunset Trail hike.

Observation Tower

The Hot Spring Mountain Tower is located partway up Hot Springs Mountain Drive. Run by a 3rd party vendor, it costs $12 a person to climb to the top. We chose to skip the climb. When the fall foliage is at its peak, it would likely be worth the price.

Mountain Observation Tower at Hot Springs National Park
Observation Tower



Inside the park is the Gulpha Gorge Campground. All sites have water and electric hookups. But no showers are available. We needed showers and laundry facilities so we did stay at this campground.

If you want showers, check out the Hot Springs KOA located 10 minutes outside the park.


For dinner, go to the Superior Bathhouse Brewery. Their beer is made with water from the hot springs. I have heard that the foundation of a good beer is using good water. Their beer is great. And their food is well-beyond typical pub grub.

Salad in front of two beers at Superior Bathhouse Brewery
Superior Bathhouse Brewery – drink the hot springs as beer

For breakfast, stop by Will’s Cinnamon Shop. All they serve are cinnamon rolls and coffee. After you try one of their treats, you will realize that it is all you really need in life.

Cinnamon bun with Will's coffee mug in background
A not to be missed Cinnamon Roll in Hot Springs, Arkansas

Visitor Center

The visitor center (located in the Fordyce Bathhouse) is an important stop. Allocate time to take the self-guided tour of the old-style bathhouse. Then relax in one of the rocking chairs on the wide front porch and people-watch the crowds on Central Avenue.

Front porch with rocking chairs of Fordyce Bath House

Gift Shop

If you need official park souvenirs, stop at the park gift shop located in the Lamar Bathhouse. It offers spa items, glassware, and the typical park souvenirs such as t-shirts and keychains.


Unlike other national parks, there is no official parking lot for the park. Free parking is available in the parking garage one block off of Central Avenue. If you have an oversized vehicle, there are several fee-based parking lots in the downtown area.

Fast Facts

  • Trip Date: September 2019
  • Name: Hot Springs National Park
  • Location: Hot Springs, Arkansas
  • Cost: Free to enter the park. $$ to use the private hot springs
  • Family-friendly: Yes