About 50 miles southwest of Little Rock, Arkansas, the Ouachita Mountains have been a destination for generations. Its mineral water hot springs have been used therapeutically to ease spirits and skin conditions. As one of the first natural areas to be protected by the U.S. government, Hot Springs Arkansas offers a mountain getaway centered around the outdoors with a national park, lakes to paddle along with lots of independently owned restaurants. Here are the top things to do in Hot Springs Arkansas with kids.
Hot Springs National Park
For hundreds of years, the 47 mineral hot springs have attracted people to the area. As early as 1820, the area wanted to preserve the hot springs for public use. Nearly 200 years ago, the first bathhouse was constructed. In 1832, the hot springs of Arkansas were protected as a reservation.
Visiting Hot Springs National Park is one of the top things to do in Hot Springs Arkansas with kids. Each of the eight bathhouses features a different establishment from the official visitor center to a brewery and restaurant to a boutique hotel.
Hot Springs National Park at a Glance
|Year Established: 1921
|Located: Central Arkansas
|Size: over 5,550 acres
|Top Features: Bathhouse Row
Top Things to do at Hot Springs National Park
Lining Central Avenue, eight bathhouses each offer a different architectural style. Some have been adapted into new business while others are in the restoration process.
The Bathhouses are central to the Hot Springs National Park, an urban national park. Though visitors can hike and camp in its 5,550 acres of woodland during their visit. The parkland surrounds the historic part of Hot Springs and offers scenic drives as well.
Fordyce Bathhouse Visitor Center
As the most elaborate and best preserved, the Fordyce Bathhouse was completed in 1915. As the visitor center, it is a great first stop at Hot Springs National Park.
It offers maps to the area along with NPS Junior Ranger booklets. Visitors can inquire if Ranger-led tours are available.
The museum at the Fordyce Bathhouse offers new exhibits along with its restored displays. Visitors can see how patients used the thermal mineral waters over 100 years ago. Back in those days, the mineral baths were used medicinally, and not for relaxation.
The facilities were divided for women and men with the men’s facilities more elaborate than the women’s. The men’s gathering area featured a Tiffany-style sky light. The entire facility features marble surfaces and mosaic tile floors.
Spread over several floors, the facilities at the Fordyce Bathhouse included state rooms to be used before-or-after the bathhouse’s services. The upper floor offers an elegant space that is reminiscent of a grand hotel and features a grand piano.
Additionally, athletes could use the gymnasium. Before 1947, baseball players from the major leagues visited Hot Springs for Spring Training.
Paralyzed patients, like polio suffers and veterans, used the therapeutic mineral baths. The Fordyce Bathhouse offers a special tub for their treatments complete with a ceiling rail that helped move patients around.
Of the eight remaining bathhouses, two offer the opportunity for a mineral bath—the Quapaw Bathhouse (1922) and the Buckstaff Bathhouse (1912). The Hale Bathhouse (1892) is a boutique hotel and the Superior Bathhouse (1916) is a brewery. All are open.
The Ozark Bathhouse (1922) is a cultural center and open for exhibitions only. It features a Spanish Colonial Style.
The Maurice Bathhouse (1912) is almost as ornate as the Fordyce Bathhouse. It is vacant and will be available for lease soon. The basement offered a pool, the only one in a bathhouse.
The Lamar Bathhouse (1923) features Spanish motifs and is open daily. Visitors can explore the first floor store, the Bathhouse Row Emporium that sells bath products along with souvenirs and books.
Scenic Drives in Hot Springs
One of the best ways to see Hot Springs is along its scenic drives. The Hot Springs Mountain Scenic Drive is an original carriage road.
The Hot Springs Mountain Lookout Point features a 1911 pagoda. Drivers can continue along this route to reach the Hot Springs Mountain Tower, a 216-foot tall metal tower. Goat Rock Overlook is at the top of North Mountain and overlooks the surrounding area.
West Mountain Scenic Drive offers several overlooks like, West Mountain Lower Overlook, West Mountain Lower Overlook and West Mountain Loop Overlook.
Hiking in Hot Springs
With 26 miles of trails, the hiking at Hot Springs National Park can be found in two different areas, the North Mountain Trails and West Mountain Trails.
To reach the North Mountain area, head up the Stephen’s Balustrade, or the Grand Staircase, next to the Fordyce Bath House. The Grand Promenade is an original feature and a paved walk overlooking Central Ave. This area offers several other trails of differing lengths.
West Mountain Area offers more solitude and chances to see wildlife. Visitors can use Whittington Park to access the trails in this area.
Sunset Trail is a 15 to 17 mile loop that can be hiked in sections and travels through the majority of the park.
Biking in Hot Springs National Park
Cyclists can use the paved roads in the park. Biking (along with skateboards and scooters) are not allowed on the sidewalk in front of Bathhouse Row.
The Pullman Trail is a multi-use trail and open to e-bikes.
What to do with Kids and Pets in the Park
The Junior Ranger program guides families through the park. It’s free and takes about two hours to complete. My kids love the patches the Park Rangers present after completing their booklets. Head to a visitor center for more information and a booklet.
Hot Springs National Park welcomes pets as long as they practice the principles of the BARK program.
B–Bag waste and dispose of it in the trash
A–Always leash your dog for their safety and others
K–Know where you can go
History of Hot Springs National Park
Evidence of the paleo-indians has been recorded in the Ouachita Mountains 12,000 to 10,000 years ago. They used this area to quarry novaculite for weapons.
In 1803, this area was acquired by the Louisiana Purchase and President Jefferson dispatched many expeditions to chart the new territory. The Hunter-Dunbar team explored the area and the hot springs were noted.
Soon after in the 1820s the Arkansas Territory decided it needed help to protect the hot springs bubbling to the surface. In 1832 the hot springs became a reservation and is protected by President Andrew Jackson. Notably this area was preserved before Yellowstone National Park.
The Department of the Interior was established in 1849 and managed the Hot Springs Reservation. At first, people dug holes to collect the water into pools and makeshift camps pop up in the area. In 1877, the superintendent started to regulate the area and the first official bathhouses were built. In 1877 the Free Government Bathhouse opened, then the Army and Navy General Hospital opened ten years later.
The Hale Bathhouse dawned a new era when it opened in 1892. It was built out of masonry, outshining the wooden Victorian bathhouses in the area.
In 1901, the springs were enclosed to protect them and the water was collected and funneled through a distribution system. The water is still collected and distributed this way.
Ten years later, the Department of the Interior required the wooden structures be replaced with masonry ones to improve sanitation. The masonry bathhouses added a bit of glamour to the area. The Buckstaff Bathhouse and the Maurice Bathhouse opened that year.
In 1921, the reservation became a national park.
Where to Eat in Hot Springs National Park
Picnickers will find tables along West Mountain Summit Drive, near Short Cut Trail and the Gulpha Gorge Picnic Area.
Superior Bathhouse Brewery
At one end of Bathhouse Row, Superior Bathhouse is now a woman-owned restaurant and brewery. Built 1916, Superior Bathhouse was the smallest and least expensive of the bathhouses at the time.
After sitting vacant for 30 years, Rose Schweikhart pulled together a business plan to open a brewery. The space opened in 2013 and is the only brewery in a national park.
Its beer uses the mineral water, piped into the building from underground. Its extensive menu offers seasonal flavors and the only place to sample its beer is at this location.
Additionally, Superior Bathhouse Brewery offers a menu with salads, sandwiches and burgers. Its appetizers make a great accompaniment to a flight of beer, especially the Bavarian Pretzels.
Kids can sip its house-made root beer. There’s a patio next to the building, perfect for traveling pups and there is a special menu as well.
Located at 329 Central Ave. Open Wednesday to Monday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. (10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday). Closed Tuesday.
Hot Springs Mountain Tower
With vistas overlooking the area, visitors can take an elevator to an open or enclosed observation area. At the top of the 216-foot tower, guests can see the Ouachita Mountains and the Diamond Lakes area. It is one of the top things to do in Hot Springs National Park.
Located at 401 Hot Springs Mountain Rd. Adult admission is $13, kids (5-11) are $9 and those 4 and under are free. Open daily from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. during the summer season with shorter seasonal hours during the rest of the year.
Lodging and Camping at Hot Springs National Park
Gulpha Gorge Campground
- Reservations required
- 40 sites with 30/50 amp service
- Potable water and flush toilets
- No Showers
- Dump Station
- No pull-through sites though some sites can accommodate RVs over 50 feet
The nightly camping fee is $34.
Hot Springs National Park features a boutique hotel in one of its original bathhouses along Bathhouse Row. The Hale Bathhouse was built in 1892 and has been completely renovated.
Each of its rooms is individually designed and decorated. Each of the bathrooms offer the legendary mineral water piped into the tub.
Eden at Hotel Hale is located under a large skylight and features a living wall. It offers a weekend brunch along with an upscale dinner menu.
Located at 341 Central Avenue. Reservations recommended for Eden.
How to Visit Hot Springs National Park
The Visitor Center is located at 369 Central Avenue in the restored Fordyce Bathhouse. The park is open daily from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. The visitor center is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. It is free to enter.
Built in 1911, the Buckstaff Bathhouse remains the only bathhouse to remain operating as a bathhouse since its opening. The Roman Gothic building offers many of its original details and bathing equipment, like jetted tubs.
With an emphasis on the original bathhouse experience, bathers will soak in the original tubs and use the original steam boxes. The services offered operate in a therapeutic circuit. The services are separated with the men’s area on the first floor with the women locker rooms and treatment space on the second.
As a spa treatment devotee, I was interested to experience the Buckstaff Bathhouse. After checking in at the front desk and waiting in the queue (reservtions are not accepted), I rode the antique elevator to the second floor and waited for my bath attendant. She guides several bathers through the circuit at the same time.
My locker was a high-school style locker with a key on a chain that I wore. Each dressing area featured a curtain. Bathing suits are allowed and might be preferred since bathers will be moving around an open area.
My bath attendant wrapped me in a white sheet and I walked over to my individual tub area. Behind a curtain, my original tub experience awaited. With warm water up to my neck, the attendant ensured I was comfortable then turned on a vintage machine that circulated the water.
After soaking for about 15 minutes, the bathing attendant wrapped me in my sheet and I moved to a Spitz Tub, a short tub filled with warm mineral water covering my lower back and abdomen.
After the Spitz Tub, I moved to the Steam Box, an original stainless steel box filled with steam with a hole at the top for my head. I sat in this for about 10 minutes and it is similar to a stream room in a modern spa.
Afterwards, I sat on a nearby table and my bath attendant laid several hot towels across my body as I waited for a masseuse. The massage was brief but through and covered my back, legs, arms and upper body.
Visiting Buckstaff Bathhouse
Located at 509 Central Ave. Reservations are not accepted and bathers are serviced first-come, first-serve. The traditional bathing package is $89 and includes a 20-minute massage. It is open daily from 8 a.m. to 11:45 a.m. and 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.
Note: Children are allowed and receive the same treatments as adults. Not all bathers wear swimsuits so sensitive children might feel uncomfortable.
Garvan Woodland Gardens
With 210 acres to explore, Garvan Woodland Gardens is one of the top things to do in Hot Springs with kids. Created by Verna Cook Garvan, the gardens are located in the Ouachita Mountains. Its rolling terrain is punctuated by water features, like man-made streams and ponds along with small waterfalls.
The Garvan Woodland Gardens feature lots of garden rooms, many with seasonal color, like the 150,000 tulips in the spring or the gourd displays in the fall. Visitors can meander through the garden along shaded paths and over bridges, like its full moon bridge.
The Garvan Woodland Gardens offers several themed gardens to explore, like the Weyerhaeuser Bonsai Garden, Perry Wildflower Overlook and the Three Sisters of Amity Daffodil Hill.
One of the most striking features of the property is the Anthony Chapel. Designed by Maurice Jennings and David McKee, the chapel uses yellow pine and glass to create a space that blends into the surrounding woodlands.
The Evans Treehouse is another standout, located in the Children’s Adventure Garden. Set on stilts, this treehouse borrows design elements from nature and offers a magical space for make-believe.
Located at 550 Arkridge Rd. Open daily from 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. (closed in January). Adult admission is $22, kids (4 -12) are $12 with dogs entering for $5.
Gangster Museum of America
The hot springs bubbling to the surface is what has brought people to the area for countless years. From the first Americans to those in need of relief to athletes, Hot Springs has been a destination. The Gangster Museum of America explores the area’s history, like its criminal undercurrents along with notable figures that spent time in Hot Springs.
Back one hundred years ago, Hot Springs was a hot bed with illegal gambling, bootlegging and brothels in this small mountain town. The Gangster Museum details the players of the era, including Al Capone and Charles Lucky Luciano.
With gambling anchoring the evening entertainment, the area also attracted big time acts, like Mae West. In addition to the hot springs and gambling, the area was home to Major League baseball’s Spring Training. Legendary players like Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron came for the therapeutic waters as well.
Located at 510 Central Avenue. Open Sunday to Thursday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Adult admission is $15 ($14 for seniors) and kids (6 to 12) are $6.
One of the three lakes created by dams along the Ouachita River, Lake Ouachita is undeveloped and the ideal location for a guided kayak trip. With 700 miles of shoreline and over 200 small islands, Lake Ouachita is a sanctuary for birds and offers fishing.
During my visit, I used Ouachita Kayak Tours that provided the kayaks and lifejackets. Lisa Logan guided me around the islands as she shared her knowledge of the area. I saw several types of birds and the area was quiet and secluded.
I enjoyed calm waters with only one motorized boat in my view during my kayak trip. Lake Ouachita is the largest lake in Arkansas.
Where to Eat in Hot Springs
In the historic area of Hot Springs, travelers will find lots of dining, many of independently owned in restored, historic buildings.
Best Breakfasts in Hot Springs
The Pancake Shop
This storefront has been flipping pancakes on to diner’s plates since 1940. Guests will find pancakes large enough to cover a plate and include buttermilk, banana, apple, chocolate chip, blueberry and buckwheat. The Pancake Shop also serves made-to-order eggs and omelettes.
Located at 216 Central Ave. Open daily from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m.
The Best Cafe and Bar
In front of the Best Court Cottages, a restored motor court from 1933, is The Best Cafe and Bar. It was rumored that Marilyn Monroe visited Joe DiMaggio at the Best Court during his time in Hot Springs for Spring Training.
The Best Cafe serves an elevated breakfast and lunch in a vintage space. With brunchy cocktails along with barista-made coffee to start, diners have the choice of indoor or outdoor spaces for a leisurely meal.
Breakfast musts include the Creme Brûlée French Toast and the Avotoast. On the lighter side, the Yogurt Parfait is a go-to.
Located at 632 Ouachita Ave. Open Thursday to Monday from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. (closed Tuesday and Wednesday). Lunch is served after 11 a.m.
Kollective Coffee and Tea
In a cozy space favorited by locals and travelers, the Kollective offers an extensive selection of brewed teas along with coffee drinks. Its menu focuses on organic and locally produced ingredients and I sampled the Detox Salad, a mixed green salad with blueberries, raspberries and strawberries along with mixed greens.
Located at 110 Central Ave. Open Monday to Friday from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturday and Sunday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Red Light Roastery Coffee House
Inside an old house, I enjoyed a barista made coffee. The Red Light Roastery Coffee House roasts coffee and it also serves light snacks.
Located at 1003 Park Avenue. Open Monday to Friday from 8 a.m. – 2 p.m.
Where to Have Lunch in Hot Springs
For a true taste of Arkansas BBQ, head to locally owned Stubby’s BBQ, a locals favorite since 1952. Arkansas BBQ blends the favors and meats of Texas and Tennessee BBQ so diners will find pork ribs, brisket and barbecue chicken along with options like ham. The BBQ sauce is sweet and thick and Stubby’s BBQ smokes its meat over wood.
The sides at Stubby’s BBQ are equally as impressive and the stuffed baked potato is a sight to behold (and topped with baked beans and coleslaw). The baked beans are also a stand-out with a sweet ham topping that’s be smoked. The potato and coleslaw both earn a spot on the plate. Diners should save room for the peach cobbler (or take some to-go).
Located at 3024 Central Ave. Open Thursday to Monday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. (closed Tuesday and Wednesday).
For a hand-thrown pizza, SQZBX (called Squeeze Box, a nod to the owners’ musical past) is located in a restored 100-year-old store front with pressed tin ceilings. The pizza joint is in the front and uses the freshest ingredients on its pizzas, like favorites the Margherita Pizza and the Meat Head. Its salad are outstanding, including the Greek and Caesar.
In the back of SQZBX, diners will find its brewery with a host of seasonal beers. The back also offers a beer garden with a mural.
Located at 236 Ouachita Ave. Open Sunday to Thursday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Best Treats in Hot Springs
A mainstay in Hot Springs since 1975, this full service bakery offers a full array of baked goods. From breakfast pastries like turnovers to cookies and bars to die-for cupcakes, Ambrosia Bakery is the destination for sweet lovers. I sampled its Key Lime cupcake that was so rich it tasted like cheesecake and it featured a chocolate bottom.
Located at 307 Broadway St. Open Monday to Saturday from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Bailey’s Dairy Treat
In an original roadside Moderne walk-up, Bailey’s Dairy Treat is the place for an afternoon cone. Visitors will find ice cream treats using vanilla soft serve like sundaes and root beer floats.
It also offers grilled items like burgers. Bailey’s Dairy Treat is popular with locals, especially families.
Located at 510 Park Ave. Open Monday to Saturday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Dinner and Cocktails in Hot Springs
J and S Italian Villa
For an elevated dining experience, the J and S Italian Villa offers an Michelin Star Created Menu. Its pasta is made in house daily and its recipes are adjusted to the seasons.
Its appetizers set the stage for a meal worth savoring and the Charcuterie Board is picture worthy. J and S Italian Villa offers an array of soups and salads, like a lobster bisque and Beet and Goat Cheese Salad.
For entrees, the pasta is excellent and cooked to perfection. Diners will find Pappardelle and Lasagna. With a range of seafood, beef and chicken, diners can enjoy specialities like Veal Ossobuco, Sea Bass and Grilled Lamp Chops.
Dessert is a must and there are several stars. The Limoncello Cake and the Tiramisu sparkle. The cheesecake is a standout and is in the New York Style.
Located at 4332 Central Ave. Suite B. Open Monday to Thursday from 5 p.m. – 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 p.m. – 10 p.m.
Step into a throwback to the early days in Hot Springs. The Ohio Club opened in 1905 and became a favorite with the locals and the infamous alike. Al Capone and Lucky Luciano both saddled up to its bar, now an antique.
Legendary performers played at the Ohio Club, like Al Jolson and Mae West. And then there was the baseball players of the golden years of Baseball, in for Spring Training.
Located at 336 Central Ave. Open Thursday to Tuesday from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. and past midnight on the weekends (closed Wednesday).
Where to Stay in Hot Springs
Dame Fortune’s Cottage Court
Located north of Hot Springs National Park, Dame Fortune’s Cottage Court sports a restored Mid-Century Modern Motor Court vibe from the road tripping heyday of the last century. Completely restored with lots of original details, the property features individually decorated rooms, some with a vintage travel vibe.
Playing homage to its origins, the brick exterior and original windows are used throughout. Guests park outside their room on the gravel drive. With its rooms in a row, the doors are painted turquoise adding to its charm.
The Dame Fortune’s Cottage Court offers a two queen room, perfect for family road trips. The updated linens pair delightfully with its MCM furnishings and vintage travel art.
In the bathroom, guests get original tile work along with vintage bathing fixtures. Modern conveniences include a mini fridge, a coffee maker and complimentary Wifi and water.
Located at 609 Park Ave. This property does not feature a pool or free breakfast, though coffee shops are located nearby.
What to Buy in Hot Springs
Mountain Valley Spring Water
Bottled since 1871, visitors should grab a bottle of the Mountain Valley Spring Water. Sold across the area or stop by its visitor center at 50 Central Ave. Open Monday to Saturday from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. and Sunday from 9 a.m. – 4 p.m.
Bathhouse Soapery and Caldarium
With a focus on wellness and mineral bathing, visitors can take a bit of Hot Springs home with a purchase from Bathhouse Soapery. Its storefront is across from Bathhouse Row in an elegantly restored building.
Its products are available in a dizzying amount of scents and include some seasonal options. From facial products to bath products, visitors can sample scents and there is a selection of men’s products.
Located at 366 Central Ave. Open Sunday to Thursday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 10 p.m. to 8 p.m.
100 Things to do in Hot Springs Before You Die by Cassidy Kendall
Written by a local journalist, here is nearly everything to do in the region.
Disclosure: This article was credited after a Press Trip.