Part history and part science, Hot Springs is surely one of the most unusual national parks in the country.
Hot Springs National Park is not at all what you might expect. In fact, it’s more focused on man-made items of interest than spectacular vistas. But that doesn’t mean the park (and nearby region) are not worthy of a visit from your family. Plus, this national park is free!
KidTripster Tip: To explore, use the Junior Ranger program booklet as a self-guided tour, even if you don’t have a young child in your party.
With 47 thermal springs, a surprising (to us, at least) portion of the park is devoted to understanding how the bathhouses function. We spent at least an hour just meandering about Fordyce House with my son’s thought bubble stating, “why did Mom spray us with bug spray, when I’m posing for photos by a shower stall?”
There are trails, of course; 17 of them, to be exact. The majority of these hikes are less than a mile in length. We did manage the 1/2-mile Grand Promenade Trail in the sweltering, August heat. Go, us! Those seeking a more strenuous hike are advised to look to Sunset Trail for a challenge.
Touching and tasting the warm water is a highlight for kids and parents; rangers are happy to provide paper cups for you. I was particularly impressed by the rangers’ enthusiasm and engagement with visitors, both young and old. My 7-year-old daughter enjoyed earning her Junior Ranger badge. The ranger administered the oath with all the solemnity of a judge and all the kindness of a kindergarten teacher.
My favorite part of the national park itself was our leisurely stroll along Bathhouse Row; the architecture was interesting, and the grounds were lovely. Quapaw Bathhouse would be my recommendation if you opt to fully experience the mineral baths; however, plan to set aside at least 90-minutes and arrange for your partner to take the kids. (Older children need to be accompanied by an adult; most spas have a minimum age). Cost will range from $20 for a day in the public baths with individual services costing extra.
Let me be clear: This is a compact national park set within the boundaries of a city of about 35,000 people. Those who want to walk the forest, hike a mountain or enjoy lake activities will find opportunities to escape civilization but not at the national park so much as near the national park. Lake Hamilton is a great lake ringed by homes; my kids enjoyed boating there. The much larger Lake Ouachita (pronunciation courtesy of my Arkansan husband: “WASH-ah-ta”) is a bit farther from the park and is a houseboating haven. For hikers, my husband recommends section-hiking part of the Ouachita Trail. He describes it as a “camping and fishing paradise.” In Hot Springs, the University of Arkansas’s Garvan Woodland Gardens provides botany education better suited to little tikes.
Where to eat?
You simply must go to McClard’s Bar-B-Q Restaurant (505 Albert Pike Rd.), which was a favorite of my husband’s family long before President Bill Clinton made it famous. I have my priorities, so we were parked outside (tons of free parking) just before its 11:00 a.m. opening. Find yourselves a seat and be ready to pay cash; McClard’s doesn’t accept credit cards. I shared a ribs n’ fries plate and a 2-tamale spread (tamales topped with onions, Fritos, BBQ sauce, shredded beef, white beans, and an abundance of shredded cheese) with my two youngsters. We were full and satisfied, wishing that we had a reason to return for dinner.
Where to stay?
There are a number of lodging options in Hot Springs, but given that it’s less than an hour’s drive from Little Rock, I’d recommend staying closer to attractions in the city. Our family enjoyed our recent stay at The Burgundy Hotel (1501 Merrill Dr, Little Rock). If you're going to indulge in all that Hot Springs has to offer, then you might try the Embassy Suites, which is within walking distance of Bathhouse Row.
Gulpha Gorge Campground is located off U.S. Highway 70B on the east side of Hot Springs. All sites can accommodate tents and RVs; all sites have electricity, water, and sewer connections. Cost: $30/night; it’s first come-first serve; no reservations are accepted at this campground. Outdoorsy families will also find commercial campgrounds and cabin rentals in the area.
When to go & getting there?
If you go when the heat index is over 100° F and humidity is high, you risk having the park rangers cancel the only bona fide, outdoor guided tour: the Mountain Tower hike. However, there are guided tours of Fordyce House, too. The joy of visiting during high heat and low attendance is the buoyant delight of easy parking and the sweet sting of perspiration earned simply by crossing the street or ambling along the promenade. (You got me: I don’t really recommend going in the summertime).
Hot Springs National Park is about a 1-hour drive west from Little Rock on mostly scenic highways.
Writer Moira Allbritton travels with her entourage of five children and GPS that she’s not entirely qualified to use. Her favorite destination is Singapore with Central Illinois ranking a close second. She’s a food-lover, so visiting a national park within 10 minutes of a renowned BBQ joint was a boon!