National parks are generally known for their sprawling wilderness and conservation efforts. Set against the backdrop of the Ozark Mountains, Hot Springs National Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas preserves a unique piece of U.S. history along with offering expansive trails. As one of the smallest and oldest national parks, its most distinctive feature is its urban setting. That also makes it a terrific spring break destination from Oklahoma City. The park is about six hours east of Oklahoma City and visitors to the park will be surrounded by an assortment of modern-day amenities and attractions.
People have been visiting the hot springs in this area since the early 1800s. By the mid-1800s, the U.S. government became aware of this resource and purchased it simply to protect a nature resource. By the late 1800s bathhouses were popping up and visitors were flocking to the area for a therapeutic soak. By 1950, advances in medicine and changes in vacation preferences caused most of the bathhouses to shut down. Now there are a few operating bathhouses and lots of history to be enjoyed at this national park.
Another wonderful thing about this National Park is that there is no entrance fee. So load up the car this spring break and venture out to these family-friendly destinations at Hot Springs National Park.
Fordyce Bathhouse Visitor Center: This Edwardian Era bathhouse preserves the original experience and ambiance of the bathhouses in Hot Springs. The museum is kid-friendly and has plenty of places for the little ones to explore. It is located about halfway down the Grand Promenade, a strip of businesses nearby. The center offers all of the information needed to enjoy your experience and where you can pick up the Junior Ranger program guide to help kids make the most of the visit.
Grand Promenade: Although many of the bathhouses no longer function as bathhouses, their facades have been beautifully preserved. The Fordyce Bathhouse and a host of other shopping are available on this street. Don’t miss this chance to step back in history.
View From The Top: Visitors can drive or hike to the top of Hot Springs Mountain. Whether you choose to stay in the car or set off on foot, the view is definitely worth the climb. The hiking trails start along the Grand Promenade.
Spring Water: Don’t miss the chance to taste the refreshing spring water. There are two dispensers; one at the bottom of Springs Mountain on the north side of the Park and the other on the south side of the Grand Promenade. There is no cost; just drive up and fill up.
Learn more about all these attractions at www.nps.gov/hosp/planyourvisit.
Unique to Hot Springs
Hot Spring Mountain Observation Tower: Located at the top of Hot Springs Mountain, this Tower takes you more than 200 feet in the air for a sky-high view of the surrounding town and mountains. Learn more at hotspringstower.com.
Spring Baths: Bathhouses offer the same types of baths enjoyed during Hot Springs' heyday plus some modern amenities. These are not owned and operated by the National Park Service but are located along the Grand Promenade. The Quapaw Bath (www.quapawbaths.com) is one option. Although it's only open to ages 14 and up, it's a great activity for older kids or a good opportunity for adults to spend some time alone.
Five other must-see stops in Hot Springs:
As with most tourist areas, there is a host of museums and parks that have sprung up around Hot Springs. There is an aquarium, an alligator farm and petting zoo, gangster museum, wax museum and the Magic Springs and Crystal Falls amusement parks. Here are a few unique family and budget-friendly favorites located near the national park.
Lake Catherine and Lake Ouachita State Park Trails: Hiking trails abound at the national and state parks in this area. There are 26 miles in the national park alone. Lake Catherine and Lake Ouachita State Parks also have miles of beautiful trails. When there is a decent amount of rain, the trails at Lake Catherine State Park feature beautiful waterfalls. Learn more at www.arkansasstateparks.com.
Ouachita National Forest: In addition to hiking and camping, the Ouachita National Forest offers fishing, horseback riding trails, picnicking and boating. The National Forest is also an ideal location to enjoy beautiful colors in autumn and blossoming dogwood trees in the spring. Learn more at www.fs.usda.gov.
Garvan Woodland Botanical Gardens: These Gardens are located on a 210-acre peninsula overlooking Lake Hamilton. This is a perfect place to let the kids run and enjoy the outdoors. If you decide not the visit the Gardens, the Anthony Chapel is worth the stop. Situated in a mature pine forest, the chapel is made completely of wood with glass walls. There is no charge to walk up to the chapel. Learn more at www.garvangardens.org.
The Pancake Shop: This is a wonderful place for a budget-friendly breakfast but it is a popular place so be prepared for a wait. Learn more at www.pancakeshop.com.
Superior Bathhouse Brewery: Stop by for a pick-me-up on the north end of the Grand Promenade. Enjoy typical diner food and a brew or an old-fashioned root beer float. They are also busy and there is usually a wait but it is a nice place to relax after an afternoon of walking. Learn more at www.superiorbathhouse.com.
Parking: There is a free parking garage on Exchange Street, a short walk from the Grand Promenade.
Driving: Hot Springs, AR is about a six-hour drive from Oklahoma City. Half of the drive is on I-40 and the other half is mostly on two lane roads. Come prepared with extra snacks, a map in case your cell phone loses reception and plenty of patience.
Take a Breather: If you are looking to break up the drive, consider stopping at the Ft. Smith National Historic Site. The museum is amazing if you are interested in Oklahoma and southern history. There are plenty of picnic tables and green grass if you need a place for lunch and running around. Learn more at www.nps.gov/fosm/index.htm.
The numerous campgrounds around Hot Springs are very inexpensive compared to hotels. Gulpha Gorge Campground is managed by the National Park Service but does not take reservations. Lake Catherine and Lake Ouachita State Parks are very close to Hot Springs and offer very nice facilities. Both of these parks take reservations.