According to local lore, travelers from all over the world used to trek to Hot Springs, Arkansas, to bask in its healing waters, convinced that a single soak in one of the town’s bathhouses would be enough to cure anything that ailed them.
Drawn by Hot Springs’ combination of being a home to a national park, its 7-hour driving distance from Austin and its promise of healing after a brutal and tumultuous year, I, in late November, booked a weekend getaway to experience the springs and all that surrounds them with my family.
What we would discover was an easy-to-navigate national park centered around the town’s Central Avenue where steaming springs, bubbling baths and the brilliant hues of brown and orange foliage reflecting off the local lakes would steal our hearts and soothe our souls.
Of the nine national parks my family visited in 2020 (we are on a slow-but-steady quest to see them all), Hot Springs National Park was the easiest to explore with kids––and it’s simple to experience in a day or two.
One rite of passage in Hot Springs is to “quaff the elixir,” aka drink the spring water right from the source. Several steaming-hot thermal spring fountains are accessible, including one in front of the Libbey Memorial Physical Medicine Center and another in front of the National Park Service Administration Building, both on Reserve Street. You can even purchase a souvenir glass water bottle at Bathhouse Row Emporium, a national park shop.
Another must-do for visitors is feeling water from the thermal springs, which, despite exiting the ground at 147 degrees, is cool enough to touch by the time it reaches the local pools. The Display Spring, located behind Maurice Bathhouse, and the Hot Water Cascade, located at Arlington Lawn, are both within blocks from each other near Bathhouse Row.
Don’t miss a stroll down the half-mile Grand Promenade, a beautifully landscaped brick walkway that offers lovely views of downtown. For a longer jaunt, try out one of the park’s 26 miles of hiking trails. Seeking panoramic views? Climb to the observation deck of Hot Springs Mountain Tower, where you can peep 140 square miles of surrounding Arkansas countryside including the Ouachita Mountains.
Visitors can easily enjoy Hot Springs National Park without immersing themselves in the water, but for me, experiencing one of its famous bathhouses was a must-do. Although Bathhouse Row consists of eight bathhouse buildings constructed between 1892 and 1923, only two remain operational today.
The first is Buckstaff Bathhouse, which has been in continuous operation since 1912 and spans 27,000 square feet on three floors. The second is Quapaw Bathhouse, which opened in 1922, closed in the 1980s and reopened in 2008 as a family-oriented spa.
Buckstaff Bathhouse was closed while we were in town (hours are 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday by appointment only) and the Quapaw Baths reservation list was full due to reduced capacity, but I was able to put my name on the walk-in list at Quapaw to access the public pools. After about an hour’s wait, I received a text that I could enter; I paid my $20-per-person admission, changed into my swimsuit and made my way to those healing pools I had heard so much about.
Dating back 4,000 years, the waters that flow through Quapaw Bathhouse’s four soaking pools are apparently high in silica, calcium, magnesium, free carbon dioxide, bicarbonate and sulfate – I don’t know what that means, but it sounds important. The pools themselves range in size and temperature but reminded me of a chain of giant hot tubs where each indulgent dip was better than the last. Early settlers regarded these springs a “peaceful, neutral site dedicated to healing,” according to Quapaw, and after my solo, childless hour there (children under 14 are not allowed, dang it) I felt more zen than I had in months. The bathhouse is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday-Monday; COVID-19 precautions are in place and reservations are recommended.
Brewing Up Fun
In addition to its healing waters, Hot Springs has another claim to fame – it’s home to the first brewery in a U.S. national park.
Housed in a historic bathhouse and helmed by founder and owner Rose Schweikhart,
Superior Bathhouse Brewery uses thermal spring water as the main ingredient in its beers, which range from the easygoing Maddens No. 1 blonde ale to the delightfully hazy Space Force IPA.
Menu items include a starter of blistered shishito peppers (mild peppers in chili-lime seasoning and flame-tossed, served with house ranch), the hearty Rose’s burger (half-pound burger with onion-bacon jam smothered in porter cheddar) and the surprising bulgogi banh mi (thinly sliced marinated steak or char-grilled chicken with cilantro, green onion, ginger-chili mayo and jicama namasu on French bread).
As a fan of craft beer and fun places, Superior Bathhouse Brewery was an instant favorite for me. It’s open Wednesday-Monday;
In The Area
For our stay, we booked an Airbnb on nearby Lake Hamilton, where we enjoyed spectacular views and swirling white clouds atop the burnt orange sunset reflected off the water from our private dock. Fishing and s’mores were favorites, of course, too.
Around the corner the kids also enjoyed the thrill of their first go-cart experience at Funtrackers Family Fun Park. Three of our kids who are big fans of the “Bobby Bones Show” also enjoyed visiting his hometown of Mountain Pine and snapping pics by the sign commemorating it as such.
Somewhere along the way, we noticed an ad for Hot Springs that read: “Our national park has thermal waters, bathhouses and a brewery. Top that, Yellowstone.”
We haven’t hit Yellowstone yet, but we can attest to Hot Springs’ healing nature and rejuvenating atmosphere. Like those who trekked here a century before with the hope of peace and healing, we can’t wait to visit again and celebrate calmer, simpler times.
If You Go
Hot Springs, Arkansas, is a 7-hour drive from Austin.
The Arlington Resort Hotel & Spa is a historic hotel in the heart of the city just steps from Hot Springs National Park. With 500 rooms and suites, it is the largest hotel in Arkansas. Sites such as airbnb.com also offer a variety of lodging options, including the Lake Hamilton cabin where we stayed.
Hot Springs National Park is the main attraction here. It’s easy to navigate and centered around the city’s Central Avenue. It’s great for kids, too, although young children are not allowed in the two remaining operational bathhouses.