Last Updated on July 3, 2023
National parks are popular tourist attractions known for their stunning landscapes and diverse wildlife. However, not all national parks are created equal in terms of size. In fact, the smallest national park in the United States is Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas, which covers only 5,550 acres but boasts some of the oldest hot springs in the world.
Last year, I had the pleasure of visiting this park and was impressed by its unique features, including the historic Bathhouse Row, scenic hiking trails, and of course, the therapeutic hot springs, making it a must-visit destination for anyone interested in natural history or seeking a peaceful retreat. Despite its size, the park offers a diverse range of activities for visitors, such as birdwatching, fishing, and exploring geological formations, making it a hidden gem among national parks.
The park was established on March 4, 1921, to preserve the natural hot springs and the surrounding area. The area has a long history of human use, with evidence of indigenous people visiting the springs for thousands of years.
In the 1800s, the hot springs became a popular destination for people seeking healing and relaxation. The town of Hot Springs grew up around the springs, with bathhouses, hotels, and other amenities built to serve visitors. The popularity of the hot springs led to concerns about the potential for exploitation and damage to the area, which eventually led to the establishment of the national park.
During World War II, the Army used the park as a training ground for soldiers. In the 1950s and 1960s, the park underwent a period of modernization and redevelopment, with new facilities and infrastructure added to accommodate the increasing number of visitors.
Today, you can explore the historic bathhouses, hike on the park’s trails, and enjoy the natural beauty of the area. The park also has a rich cultural history, with many events and festivals celebrating the area’s heritage.
I stayed around 3 days in the campground and spent it hiking around the trails throughout the park and was amazed by the intricate details and diversity of its natural wonders.
The bathhouse row is a must-see attraction within the park, offering a glimpse into the luxurious spa culture of the early 20th century and showcasing the architectural beauty of the historic bathhouses
The town itself is charming and vibrant that offers a unique blend of history, natural beauty, and modern amenities. It is also a popular destination for foodies, with a thriving restaurant scene that features local and international cuisine. The town is particularly known for its barbecue and Southern comfort food.
Whether you’re interested in spa treatments, outdoor activities, or just relaxing in a quaint Southern town, Hot Springs has something for everyone. Here are some cool things to do and see:
- Soak in the Hot Springs – There are two bathhouses that are still in operation today in Hot Springs National Park: the Buckstaff Bathhouse and the Quapaw Bathhouse.
The Buckstaff Bathhouse is the only bathhouse on Bathhouse Row that has been in continuous operation since it first opened in 1912. The bathhouse offers traditional thermal mineral baths, as well as other spa services such as massages and body treatments.
The Quapaw Bathhouse, which originally opened in 1922, was restored and reopened in 2008 as a modern spa and bathhouse. The Quapaw offers a variety of services, including thermal mineral baths, hot stone massages, and aromatherapy.
You must reserve in advance if you would like to take advantage of their services.
- Hike the Trails – The park has over 26 miles of hiking trails, ranging from easy walks to more challenging hikes. The trails offer stunning views of the surrounding forests, hills, and streams.
- Visit the Visitor Center – The Fordyce Bathhouse, located on Bathhouse Row, has been converted into the park’s Visitor Center. Visitors can learn about the history of the hot springs, the park, and the surrounding area. I loved the museum and feel that I am back in time when I was walking around inside.
- Drive Scenic Loop – The 8-mile scenic loop takes visitors through the heart of the park and offers stunning views of the natural beauty of the area. Along the way, there are several overlooks and picnic areas.
- Go Birdwatching – The park is a great place to go birdwatching, with over 170 species of birds recorded in the area. The best time to visit for birdwatching is in the spring and fall.
- Visit the Gangster Museum – The Gangster Museum of America offers a unique look at the history of organized crime in the area, including the infamous Al Capone.
- Take a Boat Tour – Visitors can take a guided boat tour on Lake Hamilton, which offers beautiful views of the Ouachita Mountains and the surrounding forests.
Hot Springs National Park offers two campgrounds for visitors: Gulpha Gorge Campground and the National Park KOA. I personally stayed at Gulpha Gorge and I took someone’s last-minute cancellation and was able to stay. It gets really busy during summer, you should make a reservation way in advance.
Gulpha Gorge Campground is located in the heart of Hot Springs National Park and offers 40 sites for tent and RV camping. The campground is situated along a creek and is surrounded by the natural beauty of the park. Each site includes a picnic table and fire pit, and there are restroom facilities and drinking water available on-site.
The National Park KOA is located just outside of Hot Springs National Park and offers a variety of camping options, including tent sites, RV sites, and cabins. The campground has a swimming pool, playground, and other amenities, as well as a store and laundry facilities. The KOA is open year-round and reservations can be made online or by phone.
Both campgrounds offer easy access to the park’s hiking trails, scenic drives, and other attractions. They are also located near the town of Hot Springs, making it easy to explore the area’s restaurants, shops, and other amenities.
The best time to visit Hot Springs National Park depends on what you’re looking for and what activities you want to do. Here’s a breakdown of the different seasons and what they offer:
Spring (March – May): Spring is a great time to visit Hot Springs National Park, with mild temperatures and blooming wildflowers. The park’s hiking trails are particularly beautiful during this time of year, and birdwatching is also popular.
Summer (June – August): Summer is peak tourist season in Hot Springs, with warm temperatures and plenty of outdoor activities to enjoy. The lakes in the area are great for swimming, boating, and fishing, and there are many events and festivals in town.
Fall (September – November): Fall is another great time to visit the park, with cooler temperatures and stunning fall foliage. The hiking trails are particularly beautiful during this time of year, and there are several festivals and events in town, including the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival.
Winter (December – February): Winter is the quietest time of year in Hot Springs, but it can also be quite beautiful. The park’s thermal springs are particularly appealing in the winter, and the hiking trails offer a different kind of experience in the snow. There are also several holiday events and festivals in town.
Ultimately, the best time to visit Hot Springs National Park depends on your personal preferences and what you’re looking to do. Keep in mind that summers can be hot and crowded, while winters can be chilly and quiet. Spring and fall offer a nice balance of mild weather and outdoor activities.