A walk along Bathhouse Row (map of the area), where eight historic spa buildings dating from 1911 sit in a line like powdered dowagers, is a must. First stop: the Fordyce Bathhouse, which has been repurposed as the national park visitors center. Its original 1915 facilities have been preserved as museum exhibits on public bathing. Next, continue along Bathhouse Row to Buckstaff Bathhouse (three buildings to the south), to experience an old-fashioned spa treatment. Check out Open Springs, behind the Maurice Bathhouse, to see hot water bubbling out of the Earth.
Proceed up Central Avenue to the intersection with Fountain Street to see De Soto Rock, a huge boulder that commemorates both the Native Americans who named the place and Hernando de Soto. De Soto and his party are said to have bathed in the waters of the hot springs in 1541, establishing it as a tourist tradition.
Hot Springs Mountain Drive lies east of Central Avenue and the bathhouses; its counterpart is West Mountain Drive. The mountains aren’t entirely accessible by road, so the best way to fully experience them is on foot.
A surprising 26 miles of trails are packed into the 8.5-square-mile national park, crisscrossing the gentle mountains surrounding the springs.
Most visitors choose Tufa Terrace, a 0.2-mile path skirting the hillside behind Bathhouse Row, to visit cascades of hot springwater splashing down tufa rock formations.
The Upper and Lower Dogwood loops, 1 mile and 0.7 miles respectively, are wonderful in spring, when the trail’s namesake trees are laden with white flowers that glow against the deep green pines.
Sunset Trail covers more than 17 miles, looping around the northwest end of the city of Hot Springs and across West, Music, and Sugarloaf Mountains. Far from the city center, wild turkeys and white-tailed deer can be spotted on this trail. Because it is so long, Sunset Trial is split into three sections: the first (2.9 miles) traverses West Mountain and is easiest to access because of its proximity to the city; the second (2.8 miles) crosses Sugarloaf and is the most scenic (park at the high point on Blacksnake Road); the third (4 miles) passes through old roadbeds that were once part of the Fordyce family estate and ends in the Gulpha Gorge campground.
Most of the wildlife in the park consists of small mammals, but there are 24 species of amphibians—including bullfrogs, tree frogs, and spotted salamanders—and more than 135 species of birds, from great blue herons to golden eagles and ruby-throated hummingbirds. Though there are ponds and creeks, fish are not plentiful. Trees in the park are mostly oaks, hickories, and pines. Hot Springs is also home to more than 100 species of moss.
Goat Rock Overlook rises 40 feet over the 1.1-mile Goat Rock Trail. Accessible by steps, it offers a fine view of the forested flanks of Indian Mountain.
A 0.2-mile path off of Sunset Trail leads to Balanced Rock, a ranger favorite that looks out over western Garland County.
Smart Traveler Strategies
Water from the springs is safe to drink—and it’s free. Visitors are encouraged to bring their own containers to fill. Fountains are located near the corner of Central Avenue and Reserve Street, one on Reserve Street and the other in the Hill Wheatley Plaza parking lot.
Guided tours of Fordyce Bathhouse and Bathhouse Row are available. Group tours can be scheduled at least two weeks in advance; call +1 501 620 6715.
The visitors center is fully accessible, and wheelchairs are available for loan. The Gulpha Gorge Campground has one accessible campsite and accessible restrooms. Blind and visually impaired visitors can feel a model of Bathhouse Row and life-size models of other architectural features in the visitors center. An American Sign Language interpreter is available for regularly scheduled tours with seven days’ notice.
Excursions Outside the Park
McClard’s Bar-B-Q is a local institution that has been endorsed by a range of critics, from the Food Network to one-time regular Bill Clinton. Favorites include the rib, beef, and pork sandwiches. Established in 1928.
Ouachita National Forest, about five miles west of Hot Springs National Park and extending into Oklahoma, features pine-hardwood forests, lakes, springs, waterfalls, the Ouachita River, and plenty of campsites. Open year-round.
Holla Bend National Wildlife Refuge, 60 miles from Hot Springs National Park on the Arkansas River, is home to wintering bald eagles and immense flocks of migratory waterfowl. The refuge offers hiking, boating, fishing, and hunting. The Ozark National Forest lies 20 miles farther down the road.
Buffalo National River, a park that preserves 135 miles of the wild Buffalo River and adjacent lands, lies about 110 miles from Hot Springs National Park.