The author near Hot Springs Tower at sunset (Photo: Emily Pennington)
63 Parks Traveler

Tub Hopping in Hot Springs National Park

This isn't your typical national park, but a day spent on mellow hikes followed by soaks in mineral hot springs makes a visit here really unique


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63 Parks Traveler started with a simple goal: to visit every U.S. national park. Avid backpacker and public-lands nerd Emily Pennington saved up, built out a tiny van to travel and live in, and hit the road, practicing COVID-19 best safety protocols along the way. The parks as we know them are rapidly changing, and she wanted to see them before it’s too late. Hot Springs is her 45th park visit.

A bubbling jet of warm water shot through the tub with surprising ferocity while I kicked my feet up, resting them against the smooth porcelain. As if suddenly transported to a world of 1920s starlets, a bathing attendant waited just outside my taut curtain, ready to bring me more towels, ice chips, or cold water. Buckstaff Bathhouse was hardly your typical national park fare. I tilted my mess of red hair back and tried to relax.

Hot Springs, in central Arkansas, is not like other parks. Established in 1832 as “Hot Springs Reservation,” the area was set aside by Congress before the concept of a national park even existed. The naturally heated spring water was believed to have medicinal properties, steeped in minerals like calcium, magnesium, and potassium, and for centuries, Natives and tourists alike flocked to the warm pools on the western slope of Hot Springs Mountain to cure their ailments.

At first, the soaking facilities were little more than unrefined structures of canvas and lumber, perched over individual mountainside springs or tubs carved into the rock. Since then, grand, multi-story structures adorned with mosaic domes and elegant brickwork began to spring up around the turn of the century as the popularity of the baths soared. Today, Bathhouse Row is still home to eight of the original buildings constructed between 1892 and 1923.

The soaking tubs in the Buckstaff Bathhouse (Photo: Emily Pennington)

Visiting Hot Springs National Park is more like taking a stroll through time than clomping to the top of some Instagram-worthy summit. After my muscle-relieving soak at Buckstaff Bathhouse, I sauntered down Central Avenue, taking in the impressive historic buildings as I made my way onto the Grand Promenade. Lined with carefully lain bricks in a variety of geometric patterns, the promenade was designed to create an aesthetic transition from the bustling spas below to the wooded slopes of the Ouachita Mountains above.

I traversed the rust-colored pathway for a moment before veering off onto the Peak Trail, a half-mile jaunt to the top of Hot Springs Mountain and the 216-foot summit tower of latticed steel that shares its name. As the sun began to dip toward the expectant horizon, I meandered over to a white pagoda and took in panoramic views of the entire city of Hot Springs, stretched out below me and bathed in amber light. Beyond that, the rolling green hills of rural Arkansas seemed to go on forever.

It was anything but a typical day in the park, but as I watched the sky fade from marigold to coral to rosebud, I sensed a deep feeling of calm come over me, one that never would have occurred had I spent the day crushing big miles.

My kinks worked out. My muscles relaxed. My spirit restored.

62 Parks Traveler Hot Springs Info

Size: 5,550 acres

Location: Central Arkansas

Created in: 1832 (Hot Springs Reservation), 1921 (National Park)

Best For: Spa treatments, mineral soaks, historic architecture, short hikes, car camping

When to Go: Spring (40 to 81 degrees) and fall (41 to 86 degrees) have the best temperatures for outdoor exploring and escaping the oppressive heat and humidity of summer months (66 to 94 degrees). Winters (29 to 56 degrees) are generally mild and snow-free.

Where to Stay: If you’re looking to splurge, the Arlington Hotel, located right off Bathhouse Row, is adorned with gorgeous 1875 architectural details and offers traditional bathhouse services at their top-rated spa. If you’re looking to camp inside the park, the NPS operates one campground, Gulpha Gorge, which offers full hookups, flush toilets, and picnic tables.

Where to Eat: Superior Bathhouse Brewery on Bathhouse Row, is the world’s first to use thermal spring water as the main ingredient in their ice-cold craft brews. The joint also serves up pub classics like hearty ½ lb. burgers and chicken wings.

Mini Adventure: Take a hike! Hot Springs is home to 26 miles of family-friendly trails, most of which lead up from the center of all the action – Bathhouse Row. We recommend the mostly flat, 1.7-mile Hot Springs Mountain Trail for its scenic viewpoints overlooking the surrounding Ouachita Mountains.

Mega Adventure: Pamper yourself at the longest continually-running bathhouse on Bathhouse Row. Buckstaff Bathhouse has been in operation since 1912, and their traditional bathing package set in old-school whirlpool tubs and vapor cabinets (starting at $82) will leave your mind feeling like it’s time traveled to the turn of the century and your body feeling relaxed and rejuvenated.

Lead Photo: Emily Pennington