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Hot Springs, Arkansas, USA
SeanPavonePhoto | Adobe Stock

From Gangsters to Gardens: Exploring the Rich Tapestry of Hot Springs

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I visited Hot Springs in Arkansas. I knew it was a national park, and there were hot springs (duh). I was looking forward to a bathhouse experience, but other than that, my knowledge was limited. Arkansas wasn’t exactly on my radar for vacations, but I think Hot Springs should be on everyone’s list of places to visit. Not only does it have a national park, but it boasts a rich history complete with gangsters, baseball, and Hollywood, and it was the town where President Bill Clinton grew up.  The surrounding area provides several activities to fill your visit, from stunning gardens to quartz mines. Whether you are heading there for a quick couples getaway or a family vacation, it has something for everyone. 

Getting to Hot Springs, Arkansas

Hot Springs is located in central Arkansas, nestled within Garland County. The Ouachita Mountains form a scenic backdrop to the city, and Hot Springs National Park sits right north of the city limits.

Getting there By Car

Hot Springs is easily accessible by car from many major cities in the region, with several major highways leading into the city.

Approximate travel times by car include:

  • Little Rock – 50 minutes
  • Memphis – 2 hours
  • Shreveport, LA – 3 hours
  • Dallas – 4.5 hours
  • Nashville – 6 hours
  • New Orleans – 7 hours
  • Atlanta – 8 Hours

Flying to Hot Springs

The Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport (LIT) is the closest major airport to Hot Springs. It is located about an hour’s drive from the city. Several major airlines offer service to Little Rock, including American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, and Southwest Airlines. While there is a small regional airport in Hot Springs (HOT), it is smaller and has limited commercial service. Southern Airways Express is the only airline currently serving HOT, with daily nonstop flights to/from Dallas and Memphis. 

Taking a Train to Hot Springs

Amtrak’s Texas Eagle route does not stop directly in Hot Springs. However, it does stop in Malvern, Arkansas, about 20 miles north of Hot Springs. From Malvern, you can take a taxi or rideshare service to Hot Springs.

Where to Stay in Hot Springs

Thanks to its status as a resort town and vacation destination, there are several accommodations to choose from in Hot Springs, from luxury to budget and even more unique. 

Budget Choice – Dame Fortune’s Cottage Court

Cottage Court
Expedia

A traditional “motor lodge,” Dame Fortune’s Cottage Court was recently renovated to create a chic, retro, affordable motel. You won’t have a ton of space, but the space you do have is clean and efficient. Rooms range from deluxe King to petite Queen and have a coffee machine, TV, and WiFi. Located close to downtown, it’s convenient for your Hot Springs stay. 

Traditional Bed and Breakfast Choice – Hilltop Manor Bed and Breakfast

Hilltop Manor Bed and Breakfast
Expedia

This upscale bed and breakfast provides a comfortable stay just minutes from the national park. Cozy up after a day at the bathhouse by a gas fireplace, or enjoy a soak in your private jacuzzi. There is off-street parking, coffee, tea, water, and soda are complimentary, and you’ll love the large daily breakfast served. 

Unique Choice – In the Trees

The Woodcutter Cabin
Expedia

This tree-house mountain resort features private hot tubs and decks among the trees, full kitchens, fire pits, and more- all within the tops of the trees in the Ouachita Mountains. There are hiking trails on-site, as well as access to the Northwoods mountain biking trails, and e-bikes are available to rent. 

Best for Couples – Lookout Point Lakeside Inn

Lookout Point Lakeside Inn
Expedia

This Inn is outside the center of Hot Springs and offers a secluded, boutique stay. With just twelve rooms and the amenities of a large full-service hotel, it’s the perfect place to stay for couples. A two-course breakfast is included with your stay, as are non-motorized watercraft, perfect for use on Lake Hamilton, from the Inn’s private dock. Each room has a deck or terrace overlooking the lake, and three of the rooms are pet-friendly. 

Historic Choice – The Arlington

Arlington Resort Hotel and Spa
Expedia

You will step into history with a stay at the Arlington- Al Capone used to rent out the entire fourth floor when he stayed here, and reportedly, the hat shop in the hotel offered access to an underground tunnel that brought him across the street without being seen. Currently undergoing renovations, it offers suites and regular hotel rooms. There is an onsite restaurant, bar, and spa. All of this is just steps away from the National Park and downtown Hot Springs. 

Things to Do in Hot Springs

Hot Springs is more than just a National Park- and while that is certainly a must-see, there are a variety of other attractions for every interest. 

Hot Springs National Park 

The smallest National Park in the country, Hot Springs National Park, is unique in its shape, as it has a city in the middle of it, making it an O shape. Despite being only 5550 acres, there are several hiking trails, biking, fishing, and forty-seven hot springs to explore. There is one campground, one hotel within the national park, and the country’s only brewery within a national park, Superior Brewing, located in an old bath house.

Bathhouse Row in Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas
Quapaw BathsBram | Adobe Stock

Two bathhouses are still in operation, both located in the national park- Quapaw and Buckstaff. Buckstaff offers a traditional bathhouse experience, while Quapaw has thermal pools and private baths as well as modern spa treatments. Whittington Park Trail and The Grand Promenade are fully accessible.

Garvan Woodland Gardens

Garvan Woodland Gardens
garvangardens.org

Garvan Woodland Gardens are 210 acres of gorgeous woods and gardens dotted with stunning architecture to blend in with the trees. These include the Anthony Chapel, a stunning structure designed by Maurice Jennings and David McKee, and an awe-inspiring four-level treehouse built in 2018. Kids will love exploring and climbing, and adults can savor the wildflowers and soak in the lake on a four-and-a-half-mile boardwalk. Several trails around the gardens are ADA-compliant, making them accessible to all. 

Mine for Crystals at Avant Mining

Full disclosure: I did this activity, and I thought that I would need a hard hat and be riding in a mining train- the entire time I was digging, I was singing “Dig Dig Dig” from Snow White- it is NOT like that at all. Check-in at the entrance and get tools to help you dig for mines. The talented workers of the mine have already loosened the earth so you can dig for mines, so the hardest work is already done. They offer different packages, from $25/day for public mining or anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000/day for private digging. You can expect to find crystals that match the amount that you pay. 

Spend the Day on A Lake

Ouachita Kayak Tours
Ouachita Kayak Tours | Facebook

The three main lakes in Hot Springs – Lake Hamilton, Lake Ouachita, and Lake Catherine, all offer adventure-filled activities for those looking for a more active day. You can rent a boat, go on a guided kayak tour, fish, or simply wade or take a swim. 

Where to Eat in Hot Springs

Hot Springs has a variety of restaurants, cafes, and bars to choose from during your visit. 

Best for a Beer – Superior Bathhouse Brewing

Superior Bath House Brewery
superiorbathhouse.com

The only brewery within any national park, Superior Batthouse has a pub-like menu and an extensive beer list – all brewed right in the backroom of the former superior bathhouse. Beers include a chocolate graham cracker porter, a hazy IPA, and, for non-beer drinkers, a ginger seltzer. The patio is large and features a smaller menu than indoors, but just as delicious.

Best for Lunch – Kollective Coffee and Tea

Kollective Coffee in a snow storm
@kollective | Instagram

Enjoy organic, local, and fresh products at Kollective Coffee and Tea. Try a “grown-up grilled cheese,” detox salad, or a special like a falafel wrap (which was the special the day I was there and was absolutely amazing). You can’t miss their homemade hummus, either. Wash it all down with a pour-over coffee or organic tea. 

Best Pizza – DeLuca

Enjoy a piece of New York City in Hot Springs. Owner Anthony Valinoti found himself in Europe after his parents died within days of each other to try to reset, and it was during his stay in Italy that he realized traditional pizza was his calling. He learned how to cook from his Italian host, and then DeLuca’s Pizzeria was born. Enjoy delicious pizza, salads, and drinks. 

Best Breakfast – Best Cafe 

Part of the Historic Best Court hotel (where Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio stayed when visiting Hot Springs), Best Cafe offers creme brulee French toast, a whipped yogurt bowl, Confit Pork Belly Skillet Hash, creamy gouda grits, and much, much more. It is open to the public, not just to guests staying at the hotel. 

Best Traditional Experience – Pancake Shop

A Hot Springs staple since 1940, the Pancake Shop delivers a traditional dining experience, complete with bottomless cups of coffee served in a simple ceramic mug. Choose from buttermilk, apple, banana, chocolate chip, and buckwheat pancakes, eggs, cereals, breakfast meats, and juices. Open daily from 6 a.m. to 12:45 p.m., and the menu is strictly breakfast. 

Best for Live Music – The Ohio Club

Arkansas’ oldest bar, the Ohio Club, was a speakeasy during prohibition, turning its facade to the Ohio Cigar Club, and those in the know knew to go to the back to gain entrance to the bar.  Post-prohibition, It is said to have been frequented by notorious gangsters like Al Capone, Bugsy Siegel, and Lucky Luciano, as well as local legends and major league baseball players who trained in Hot Springs during the early 1900s. Mae West performed here in the mid-1930s.  The club features live music seven nights a week, focusing on blues, jazz, and classic rock.

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