Known as the “Valley of the Vapors” to Hernando de Soto when he arrived in 1541, Hot Springs National Park lies in a small valley of the Ouachita Mountains in west-central Arkansas. With 43 natural springs erupting from the rock, the region is highly sought after for its healing waters, and visitors today can stroll through historic bathhouses that harken to times past.
Enjoy a soak and steam. Residents have for over 100 years or have a brewsky at another of the converted bathhouses. Venture along the 26 miles of trails over Hot Springs Mountain and participate in several informative park ranger tours. Located within a city, this is an unusual national park, but one that celebrates our natural resources while protecting them.
Why Visit Hot Springs National Park?
Very amenable to RVers and campers, Hot Springs has several nice campgrounds that cater to motorhomes and travel trailers. Tent campers can also find plenty of places to stay.
Imagine driving through the beautiful Ouachita Mountains to arrive at Hot Springs National Park, where you can enjoy the history of the area, and then participating in the bathhouse ritual of a tub bath, a sit in the vapor cabinet, application of hot packs, and relaxing in a cooling area, just as they did 100 years ago.
After this afternoon of pampering, you will definitely be ready for a nap in your RV, then a nice meal, either prepared at the campsite or taken at a restaurant in town.
The park and the town of Hot Springs lend themselves to a relaxing getaway. Having your home on wheels with you will give you more time to embrace the slower pace of Victorian times that are still prevalent here. Even your RV will feel pampered when you leave this mountain hideaway!
When to Visit Hot Springs National Park
The good news about visiting Hot Springs is you can do it any time of year. And even when the weather is a bit cooler, you can retreat inside and enjoy a refreshing soak to warm up. Here’s a little more info about the weather in this park:
Hot Springs National Park in the Spring
In terms of hiking through Hot Springs National Park, it’s tough to beat the spring weather. With lows hanging around 50 degrees Fahrenheit and highs ranging from the 50s to the 70s, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more temperate time to explore.
Hot Springs National Park in the Summer
The park is open year-round, but the peak visiting season is in summer. But summer days can be hot and humid, and the heat index occasionally rises above 110 degrees Fahrenheit.
Hot Springs National Park in the Fall
Autumn brings a whole new dimension for hikers in the park, with beautiful fall colors on the trees. The fall months, along with spring, also bring more rainfall to the park.
Hot Springs National Park in the Winter
Because Hot Springs National Park is located within the Ouachita Mountains, winters can be a little chilly. While average lows drop into the mid-20s, the wind chill can often make things feel much colder.
Where to Stay
Even though Hot Springs is small as national parks go, there is one campground within park boundaries. It’s called Gulpha Gorge Campground and has 44 campsites with full hookups, including 30 and 50-amp options. The campground also features restrooms (but no showers or dump stations), and the maximum RV and trailer length is 60 feet.
Staying Outside the Park
If you’re looking for a camping spot outside the park, explore these nearby campgrounds:
- Cloud Nine RV Park: Located about 13 minutes east of the visitor center.
- J&J RV Park: Located about seven minutes east of the visitor center.
- Treasure Isle RV Park: Located on the Ouachita River, about 20 minutes west of the visitor center.
- Caddo Valley RV Park: Located about 45 minutes south of the visitor center.
Invest in a Good Sam Membership and save 10% on nightly stays at Good Sam Campgrounds.
Tips for your Camping Stay
- Campground reservations are accepted up to six months in advance through recreation.gov.
- There’s no entrance fee for the park and plenty of free parking around town.
- Pack appropriately. While it’s a year-round park, summers can be toasty and humid. Dress accordingly while stocking up on insect repellent and plenty of water.
- The park is pet friendly, so long as you keep them on a leash.
- You can find plenty of additional activities in the area through the city of Hot Springs’ website.
How to Get Around Hot Springs National Park
If traveling from Little Rock, take Interstate 30 to Exit 111, which is US 70. Continue west on US 70 to Spring Street in Hot Springs. Take a right turn on Spring, then right on Central Avenue. The National Park Visitor Center is located at 369 Central in the Fordyce Bathhouse.
Hot Springs National Park has made it easy on RVers when they arrive in town, as well, with RV and bus parking available one block south of the national park’s visitor center. There is also city transit if desired.
Places to Go
There are plenty of places to visit at Hot Springs National Park. Here are some of the best places to stop.
Started in the early 1800s as mere tents covering individual hot springs, these bathhouses later became ornately designed buildings, each with its own personality. Today these eight structures line one street with its own designation as a National Historic Landmark District within the park.
- Buckstaff – It’s still used as a bathhouse today
- Ozark – Today, it houses the Cultural Center
- Quapaw – It’s still used as a bathhouse today
- Superior – Today, it is Superior Bathhouse Brewery
Early reviews proclaimed Fordyce Bathhouse to be the best in Hot Springs. Now, it’s the home of the national park’s visitor center and features a historic museum. Individual visitors do not need reservations to enjoy a self-guided tour of this bathhouse.
Superior Bathhouse Brewery
It’s the first brewery located within a national park! Located in the Superior Bathhouse on Central Avenue, it has a colorful history as the “people’s bathhouse.” Now, the hot thermal waters are used to brew beer.
Things to Do in Hot Springs National Park
Hot Springs National Park is full of things to do. You won’t get bored while you’re there. Here are some of the things you can do on park grounds.
As one of the smallest national parks, Hot Springs is easily accessible. You can easily visit each of the bathhouses on Bathhouse Row on foot and stroll down the Grand Promenade to window shop at all of the boutique shops and unique stores in downtown Hot Springs.
With 26 miles of trails and paths, you can enjoy hiking the natural surroundings of Hot Springs Mountain. Here are a few of the trails available:
- Carriage Road – 0.1 mile
- Dead Chief Trail – 1.4 miles
- Floral Trail – 0.7 miles
- Goat Rock Trail – 1.1 miles
- Honeysuckle Trail – 0.5 miles
- Hot Springs Mountain Trail – 1.7 miles
Soaking in the Hot Springs
The thermal waters of Hot Springs National Park are being enjoyed and preserved in separate bathhouses. While they don’t feel like natural outdoor springs, they are more protected from pollution and provide a much cleaner bathing experience.
These natural resources astound us at their course of travel far underground, then re-emergence superheated here in the middle of Arkansas. They bring with them healing properties and bountiful hope, both in the past, present, and future, because of Hot Springs National Park’s existence.
Scenic Drives and Overlooks
Exploring the park by car is one of the best ways to get a lay of the land. There are numerous scenic drives on North Mountain, West Mountain, Sugarloaf Mountain, and Hot Springs Mountain. Each drive offers numerous overlooks that are perfect for sightseeing and photography.
What to Bring and How to Prepare
- Make sure you have a bathing suit to enjoy as much hot spring soaking as possible during your visit.
- The bathhouses are a bit of a drive from the campground, so towing a toad or dinghy is advised if visiting in a motorized RV.
- Bring and wear good walking shoes to explore Bathhouse Row and downtown Hot Springs.
- Get a good hiking backpack for when you’re ready to hop out of town and explore the park’s hiking trails.
Brief History of Hot Springs National Park
Indigenous peoples have indulged in the hot springs here for thousands of years, but it wasn’t until President Jefferson sent an exploration party to study the flora and fauna of this region that Hot Springs got on the government’s radar.
They found Native American tribes like the Choctaw, Cherokee, and Caddo saw the benefit not only with the waters’ healing properties but with the temporary peace between tribes that was agreed upon when all were luxuriating in the hot springs.
Soon others arrived, improving upon the rustic tent structures that sprouted over the most prevalent springs. Cabins and huts soon became large buildings with troughs that brought water from Hot Springs Creek on the hillside to these “bathhouses.”
Eventually, a town grew around the hot springs, and as Arkansas became a territory, locals realized the need to protect this precious commodity. By 1832, Congress named Hot Springs Reservation as the first area designated for federal protection. Several springs were locked to protect them from pollution, and by 1880 it was opened for public use because a national park system had yet to be created.
A “free bathhouse” was built for the indigent in 1878, where testing was done and tickets issued to those who had ailments that might be helped by the thermal waters. The Army and Navy opened a dispensary for a couple of years, as well.
Once under federal government supervision, updates began to occur. Hot Springs Creek was covered with stone arches, and a 100-foot-wide street was built above it, creating a promenade and alleviating problems with navigation through mud and water. Central plumbing was even put in.
The bathhouses were getting popular, with wooden tubs and steam cabinets installed. So, many people had heard of others recovering from illness in the waters that doctors even moved to town, creating bathing rituals and prescribed treatments for newly arriving patients.
By 1921, Hot Springs Reservation finally became Hot Springs National Park, and the people continued to come. Even professional baseball players utilized the area as they called Hot Springs their spring training location in the early years.
Today the teams have moved on to Arizona and Florida for their off-season workouts, but visitors to the national park can still enjoy a bathing regimen in this historic district.
Plan your next trip to the national parks in an RV. Rent an RV, trade-In your RV, or buy a new or used RV and start traveling for less than $5 a day.
Have you ever been to Hot Springs National Park? Leave a comment below.