National Parks

From Hots Soaks to Hot Cakes: Top 9 Things to Do in Hot Springs Arkansas with Kids

 

 Ozark Bathhouse
The Ozark Bathhouse along Bathhouse Row in Hot Springs Arkansas. credit: Catherine Parker

The Ouachita Mountains have been a destination for generations and are located about 50 miles southwest of Little Rock, Arkansas. With its rolling mountain scenery and mineral hot springs, this area has eased spirits and skin conditions alike. 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. 

Table of Contents

Top 9 Things to Do in Hot Springs Arkansas

Visit Hot Springs National Park
Walk Along Bathhouse Row 
Take a Scenic Drive
Visit Superior Bathhouse Brewery
Head to the top of Hot Springs Mountain Tower
Tour Garvan Woodland Gardens
Visit the Gangster Museum of America
Paddle Lake Ouachita
Breakfast at The Pancake Shop

Hot Springs National Park at a Glance

Year Established: 1921
Located: Central Arkansas
Size: over 5,550 acres
Top Features: Bathhouse Row

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.

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Fordyce Bathhouse interior
Inside the Hot Springs National Park visitor center at the Fordyce Bathhouse. credit: Catherine Parker

Lining Central Avenue, there are eight bathhouses, each offering a different architectural style. Some have been adapted into new businesses while others are in the restoration process. 

The Bathhouses are central to the Hot Springs National Park, an urban national park. However, visitors can hike and camp in its 5,550 acres of woodland during their visit, located at the edge of the historic core. The parkland surrounds the historic part of Hot Springs and offers scenic drives as well.

Fordyce Bathhouse Visitor Center

The Fordyce Bathhouse, completed in 1915, is the most elaborate and best preserved. As the visitor center, it is a great first stop at Hot Springs National Park. 

It offers maps of 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 and restored displays. Visitors can see how patients used the thermal mineral waters over 100 years ago. Back then, mineral baths were used medicinally, 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 skylight. The entire facility features marble surfaces and mosaic tile floors. 

The Fordyce Bathhouse’s facilities, spread over several floors, included staterooms for use before or after the bathhouse’s services. The upper floor offers an elegant space 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, such as polio sufferers and veterans, used the therapeutic mineral baths. The Fordyce Bathhouse offered a special tub for these treatments, complete with a ceiling rail that helped move patients around. 

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Bathhouse Row
Along Bathhouse Row in Hot Springs National Park. credit: Catherine Parker

Bathhouse Row

Of the eight remaining bathhouses, two offer mineral baths—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 is 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 soon be available for lease. 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, which sells bath products, 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.

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The Grand Promenade
The Grand Promenade is just up the stairs from Bathhouse Row. credit: Catherine Parker

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 opportunities to see wildlife. Visitors can access the trails in this area through Whittington Park.

Sunset Trail is a 15 to 17-mile loop that can be hiked in sections and travels through most of the park.

Biking in Hot Springs National Park

Cyclists can use the paved roads in the park. Biking (along with skateboards and scooters) is not allowed on the sidewalk in front of Bathhouse Row. 

The Pullman Trail is a multi-use trail and is open to e-bikes. 

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Junior Rangers
The Carful of Kids earn Junior Ranger badges, a free program that enriches our national park experience. credit: Catherine Parker

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. 

BARK program

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

R–Respect wildlife

K–Know where you can go

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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. 

This area was acquired by the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, 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 popped 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, and ten years later, the Army and Navy General Hospital opened. 

When it opened in 1892, the Hale Bathhouse dawned a new era. 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 replaced with masonry 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. 

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Superior Bathhouse Brewery.
The only brewery in a national park, Superior Bathhouse Brewery. credit: Catherine Parker

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 in 1916, It was the smallest and least expensive bathhouse at the time. 

After sitting vacant for 30 years, Rose Schweikhart devised a business plan to open a brewery. The space opened in 2013 and is the only brewery in a national park. 

Its beer uses mineral water piped into the building 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, especially the Bavarian pretzels, make a great accompaniment to a flight of beer. 

The Superior Bathhouse Brewery also brews homemade 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 
  • Year-round 
  • 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.

Hotel Hale

Hot Springs National Park features a boutique hotel in one of its original bathhouses along Bathhouse Row. The Hale Bathhouse, built in 1892, has been completely renovated.

Each room is individually designed and decorated. 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 are 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. 

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Buckstaff Bathhouse

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’s locker rooms and treatment space on the second.

My Experience

As a spa treatment devotee, I was interested in experiencing the Buckstaff Bathhouse. After checking in at the front desk and waiting in the queue (reservations are not accepted), I rode the antique elevator to the second floor and waited for my bath attendant. She guided 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 move 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 that covered 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.

Afterward, 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 thorough and covered my back, legs, arms and upper body. 

Visiting Buckstaff Bathhouse

It is located at 509 Central Ave. Reservations are not accepted, and bathers are serviced on a first-come, first-served basis. 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. However, not all bathers wear swimsuits, so sensitive children might feel uncomfortable. 

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Anthony Chapel at the Garvan Woodland Gardens
The Anthony Chapel at the Garvan Woodland Gardens. credit: Catherine Parker

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. Their rolling terrain is punctuated by water features, like man-made streams, ponds, and small waterfalls. 

The Garvan Woodland Gardens features garden rooms, many with seasonal colors, 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 property’s most striking features is the Anthony Chapel. Designed by Maurice Jennings and David McKee, it uses yellow pine and glass to create a space that blends into the surrounding woodlands. 

Evans treehouse in Garvan Woodland Gardens
The Evans Treehouse in the Childrens Adventure Garden. credit: Catherine Parker

The Evans Treehouse is another standout in the Children’s Adventure Garden. Set on stilts, it borrows design elements from nature and offers a magical space for make-believe. 

Located at 550 Arkridge Rd. Open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. (closed in January). Adult admission is $20, kids (4 -12) are $10 with dogs entering for $5.

Gangster Museum of America

The hot springs bubbling to the surface have 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, including its criminal undercurrents and notable figures who spent time there.

One hundred years ago, Hot Springs was a hotbed of illegal gambling, bootlegging and brothels in this small mountain town. The Gangster Museum details the era’s players, 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. 

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Lake Ouachita

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 Tour,swhicht provided 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.

During my kayak trip, I enjoyed calm waters with only one motorized boat in view. Lake Ouachita is the largest lake in Arkansas.

The Pancake Shop in Hot Springs
The Pancake Shop in Hot Springs credit: Catherine Parker

Where to Eat in Hot Springs

In the historic area of Hot Springs, travelers will find many restaurants. Many of which are independently owned and located in restored, historic buildings. 

Best Breakfasts in Hot Springs

The Pancake Shop

This storefront has been flipping pancakes onto 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 elevated breakfast and lunch in a vintage space. Brunch cocktails and barista-made coffee are served to start, and diners have the choice of indoor or outdoor seating for a leisurely meal. 

Breakfast musts include Creme Brûlée French Toast and Avotoast. For a lighter option, 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 5 p.m. 

Red Light Roastery Coffee House 

I enjoyed coffee made by a barista inside an old house. The Red Light Roastery Coffee House roasts coffee and serves light snacks. 

Located at 1003 Park Avenue. Open Monday to Friday from 8 a.m. – 2 p.m. 

The Supreme Potato at the Stubby’s BBQ credit: Catherine Parker

Where to Have Lunch in Hot Springs

Stubby’s BBQ

For a true taste of Arkansas BBQ, head to locally owned Stubby’s BBQ, a local favorite since 1952. Arkansas BBQ blends the flavors 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 impressive. 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 been 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 daily from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

The Antipasto Plate at SQZBX. credit: Catherine Parker

SQZBX

For a hand-thrown pizza, SQZBX (called Squeeze Box, a nod to the owners’ musical past) is located in a restored 100-year-old storefront 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 salads are outstanding, including the Greek and Caesar. 

In the back of SQZBX, diners will find its brewery, which offers 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. 

Bailey's Ice Cream in Hot Springs
Bailey’s Dairy Treat is a vintage roadside stop. credit: Catherine Parker

Best Treats in Hot Springs

Ambrosia Bakery

A mainstay in Hot Springs since 1975, this full-service bakery offers an array of baked goods. From breakfast pastries like turnovers to cookies and bars to to-die-for cupcakes, Ambrosia Bakery is the destination for sweet lovers. I sampled its Key Lime cupcake, which was so rich it tasted like cheesecake and featured a chocolate bottom.

Located at 307 Broadway St. Open Tuesday to Saturday from 8 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 can find vanilla soft-serve ice cream treats 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. 

J and S Italian Charcuterie Board
The Charcuterie Board at J and S Italian Villa. credit: Catherine Parker

Dinner and Cocktails in Hot Springs

J and S Italian Villa

For an elevated dining experience, the J and S Italian Villa offers a Michelin-starred 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 specialties 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. to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. (closed Sunday).

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interior of Ohio Club
The Ohio Club opened in 1905. credit: Catherine Parker

Ohio Club

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 were 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.

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 many 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 rooms 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 the MCM furnishings and vintage travel art.

In the bathroom, guests enjoy original tile work and vintage bathing fixtures. Modern conveniences include a mini fridge, a coffee maker and complimentary Wi-Fi 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, Mountain Valley Spring Water is available in bottles across the area or at its visitor center at 50 Central Ave. It is open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 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 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.

Located in Central Arkansas, Hot Springs is home to a national park, one of the top gardens in the U.S. along with lots of outdoor activiites. Here are the top things to do in Hot Springs Arkansas | Hot Springs National Park | Where to eat in Hot Springs

Catherine Parker has a passion for travel and seen all 50 U.S. States. As a former flight attendant with one of the largest airlines, there isn't a North American airport that she hasn't landed in at least once. Since clipping her professional wings after 9/11, she combines her love of the open road with visiting architectural and cultural icons. She is based out of Central Texas dividing her time between writing and restoring a pair of 100-year-old houses. She shares her life with her three kids and her husband.

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