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Field Guide: Hot Springs National Park

Celebrate the National Park Service Centennial with a trip to Hot Springs National Park.

Written By:  Kendall Mitchell Gemmill

Photographers:  Supplied

Lake Ouachita

Celebrate the National Park Service’s 100th birthday in 2016 at some of the nation’s most beautiful and historic natural areas—with such close proximity to Nashville, there’s no reason not to. Many of the 59 national parks are free or cost a modest entrance fee which feeds directly back to the parks. One of the most unique in the system is Hot Springs National Park.


The history of Hot Springs National Park dates back to the Louisiana Purchase, when President Thomas Jefferson sent expeditioners to the area. Visitors soon discovered the bounty of thermal springs and their acclaimed healing properties, which were already legend among several Native American tribes. Congress sought to protect the land for public use, and in 1832 President Andrew Jackson signed the bill that made Hot Springs Reservation—the first federally protected land in the nation’s history. Technically, it could be considered the oldest national park in service—40 years before Yellowstone—but was officially designated (and renamed) Hot Springs National Park in 1921. The namesake geothermal springs flow throughout the park; 47 springs alone cascading down the southwestern slope of Hot Springs Mountain.


For an unrivaled stay, the historic Arlington Resort Hotel and Spa was built in 1875 as the first luxury hotel in the city; it remains the largest hotel in the state, with more than 500 rooms and suites. The hotel is a popular choice for its park access, thermal bathhouse, year-round heated mineral pools, and hot tub built into the Ouachita Mountains. The jungle-motif lobby bar is frequented by locals for the live jazz and dance parties on the weekends. Also of note is its storied past with many famous and infamous guests... you can rent out the Al Capone suite for $350 per night.

If staying outdoors sounds more appealing, the Gulpha Gorge Campground is located in the park at $10 for each campsite reservation. There’s also camping on Lake Ouachita, about 13 miles from Hot Springs, with 40,000 acres of pristine water so clean that even rare freshwater jellyfish thrive there. The area is surrounded by 700 miles of trails in the dense Ouachita National Forest


Hot Springs is a small, Southern town with approximately 35,000 residents, nestled within the bucolic surroundings of the national park. Considered America’s original spa, the area has long drawn travelers seeking the therapeutic properties of its spring water. The town quickly grew to provide for the demand of health-related services. Victorian bathhouses were constructed out of wood in the 1880s and then restructured with brick and stucco in the early 1900s, reflecting the popular European spas of the time.

Historic Bathhouse Row consists of eight bathhouses. Fordyce Bathhouse is now used as the park’s visitor center, while Quapaw Baths & Spa (a more modern-style day spa) and the Buckstaff Bath House are the only remaining, full-service spas in operation. The National Park Service controls the water, sending it in its natural state—approximately 144 degrees—to service the bathhouses and nearby facilities like the Arlington Resort Hotel and Spa.


Get in a day of hiking at Hot Springs National Park. Start your trip from a prime vantage point that doubles as an ideal photo op. Hot Springs Mountain Tower is a 216-foot-high overlook, spanning 140 miles of the Ouachita Mountains. The Sunset Trail (10 miles) is the most scenic and is broken into three segments with varying terrain and views. The shorter routes along the north mountain—Hot Springs Mountain Trail (1.7 miles), Goat Rock Trail (1.1 miles), Dead Chief Trail (1.4 miles), and Upper and Lower Dogwood Trails (1.7 miles), among others—intersect and can be combined for a half day of moderate-level hiking.

The cold springs, which have different mineral compounds than the thermal springs, provide natural drinking water from several fountains stationed in the park. Take a cue from the locals and bring extra canteens to fill with mineral spring water for the return home. It’s a Hot Springs tradition nearly twice as old as the National Park System itself.

If you’re camping inside the park, opt to hike the Caddo Bend Trail (4 miles) with its breathtaking lakeside vistas or take the Geo-Float Trail by boat and tour the quartz crystal mines of Mount Ida.


Stop by the Superior Bathhouse Brewery and Distillery and behold the nation’s first brewery inside a national park. Located on Bathhouse Row, the Superior was converted from an old spa and is the world’s first brewery utilizing the thermal spring water as its main ingredient. There are several craft brews to try as well as gelato and root beer floats for the kids. (Adults: substitute the root beer for a float for one of Superior’s finest stouts.)

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