From Native Americans to aching ageds and the elites, Hot Springs and its healing waters have been a destination for centuries. The history is fascinating, but don’t let it get in the way of fun. In addition to dipping your toes into the past, Hot Springs offers many contemporary treasures—a perfect getaway for girl friends, couples, or just a solo sojourn.
Taking the Waters
Native Americans bathed here and quarried novaculite for tools in the surrounding Ouachita Mountains. In 1820, the federal government set aside the spring area for public use. Hot Springs received national park status in 1921. The new park encompassed the town’s 47 hot springs; today it includes not only the spring area and historic Bathhouse Row, but swaths of forested mountainsides with 25 miles of hiking paths.
First stop should be the park’s Visitor Center in the 1915 Fordyce Bathhouse. Taking a tour is a must—from seeing the big bathtubs to equipment that would look at home in a torture chamber, it’s a fascinating peek into the past.
For an all-in experience, visit the 1912 Buckstaff, the only continuously operating facility of the eight historic bathhouses. You’ll be soaked, scrubbed, wrapped in sheets and sweated under hot packs, showered, and pampered. For a more contemporary interpretation, soak in a variety of pools at the Quapaw and finish up with a relaxing massage or spa treatment. In the old days, a variety of doctors’ offices were located across the street from the bathhouses. Now you’ll find cool boutiques, an oxygen bar, coffee shops, and the usual souvenir shops.
Breath of Fresh Air
For a bird’s-eye view of downtown Hot Springs and the surrounding mountains, drive up Hot Springs Mountain to the Tower. On a good day, you can see up to 140 miles. Exhibits here provide a great timeline plus stories about famous visitors: gangsters, politicians, celebrities, and baseball players.
My favorite back-to-nature spot is Garvan Woodland Gardens. From acres of native plants to manicured flower beds, visitors can walk approximately four miles of trails. The gardens are beautiful any time of year, but spring is particularly spectacular thanks to the 150,000 tulips.
In addition to the bucolic settings and water features, two constructions on the site stand out. The almost-six-story Anthony Chapel, with floor-to-ceiling glass walls and skylights, takes advantage of the forest outside rather than relying on stained glass. In the Children’s Adventure Garden, a four-level suspended tree house beckons not only youngsters but adults to explore.
Homes Away From Home
My Hot Springs home was the Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort. Spectators have flocked to Oaklawn to watch thoroughbred racing for over a century. Just open this spring, a seven-story luxury hotel provides the perfect spot close to the action.
In addition to the adjacent track, the complex features a casino, luxury spa, and The Bugler, its signature restaurant. Overlooking the track, this is the ideal place for an elegant meal and a great view. Across the street from the track is The Reserve, an impressive 1890 mansion on four acres. Now a 12-bedroom B&B, the home is lavishly decorated and perfect for a special stay. Enjoy champagne and pastries at 4pm and a gourmet breakfast in the morning.
Another excellent accommodation is Lookout Point Lakeside Inn on Lake Hamilton. Kayaks, canoes, and paddleboats are provided, and lemon ricotta pancakes are often a special feature of the included breakfast. The Hale Hotel, in the oldest surviving bathhouse, puts you right in the middle
of historic Bathhouse Row. Its restaurant is excellent for evening dining—reservations necessary.
Go retro at the Best Court, a 1930s motor court with a 21st-century update. The Best Café serves a great breakfast along with a big dish of nostalgia.
Hot Springs hits the spot on so many levels. You get to experience history while taking a bath and exercise while walking through a native Eden. Entertainment, casino games, shopping … you’ll find it all here. Hot Springs must be the best place to get in hot water!