There are many remarkable things about Hot Springs National Park, located in the heart of Arkansas. The smallest of all American national parks, at-first-sight-unassuming Hot Springs has a legitimate claim to the status of ‘oldest national park in the U.S.’
Although Yellowstone is generally considered the oldest national park in the world, the fact remains that the Hot Springs Reservation, established by President Andrew Jackson in 1832 and the predecessor of Hot Springs National Park, is almost half a century older. So, while Yellowstone might be the first official “national park” bearing that name, the Hot Springs Reservation was the first-ever park created federally by an act of the United States Congress. The Hot Springs Reservation—basically the same area as modern-day Hot Springs National Park—is older even than the very idea of “national parks”.
That, however, is not the only thing that distinguishes Hot Springs National Park from essentially all other American national parks. Additionally, this is the only park that lies in the middle of a town. The town of Hot Springs originated around and amid a collection of 40+ natural hot springs, heated by geothermal energy. Humans have used them to treat physical ailments for thousands of years.
Native Americans visited the “Valley of Vapors” for many millennia before the first European explorers showed up in the area. The first one to arrive was Hernando de Soto, a Spanish Conquistador who went for a wash in the springs in 1541. American explorers Dunbar and Hunter also passed through and stopped in Hot Springs on their expedition after the Louisiana Purchase by Thomas Jefferson in 1803. Only a handful years later, in 1807, the first actual American settlers arrived.
Hot Springs National Park might be by far the smallest American national park, no larger than 8.7 square miles, but it’s among the most extraordinary.
The natural hot springs’ alleged healing powers have attracted people for many generations, resulting in the construction of various bathhouses and spa buildings. The current Bathhouse Row, a National Historic Landmark District, dates from between 1912 and 1922.
A fun fact is that Hot Springs used to be a favored retreat and vacation destination among Prohibition-era gangsters and mobsters, including Al Capone. Rivaling gang members sometimes ran into each other in town and in the bathhouses, which, surprisingly, didn’t result in violence. On the contrary, they would occasionally even hang out together, Hot Springs being considered neutral territory and a place to relax.
This is a very small park and one day is plenty of time to explore everything it has to offer. In 24 hours, it’s possible to hike some of its trails, stroll on Bathhouse Row and the Grand Promenade, see an actual hot spring (almost all of them are now covered) and even enjoy a spa treatment. Don’t forget to stop by the Superior Bathhouse Brewery, the only craft brewery that lies within a U.S. national park. This is also the first brewery in the world to use thermal spring water as its main ingredient.
Best of Hot Springs National Park
You don’t need more than a day and a night to explore Hot Springs National Park. (The Gulpha Gorge Campground is nice and there are several hotels in Hot Springs town as well.) This park is extremely small and exceptionally walkable. The main touristic focal points are Bathhouse Row and the Grand Promenade, which parallel one another and feature respectively the historic bathhouses and many of the hot springs.
- Hot Springs Mountain Tower
- Bathhouse Row with its eight historic bathhouses, including the fascinating visitor center in Fordyce Bathhouse
- Grand Promenade with the ‘Open Spring’ behind Maurice Bathhouse and, especially, the ‘Hot Spring Cascade’ at Arlington Lawn
- Superior Bathhouse Brewery
Hot Springs National Park Map
Location: Central Arkansas, United States
Nearest Town: Hot Springs
Area: 8.7 square miles (22.5 square kilometers)
Features: Numerous natural hot springs, historic bathhouses
Main Attractions: Bathhouse Row, spa treatments, Hot Springs Mountain Tower, the Grand Promenade, hot springs
Main Activities: Bathing and relaxing, camping, hiking, picnicking
Suggested Stay: 1 day / 1 night
Further Information: National Park Service
Nearby National Park(s)
Situated in central Arkansas, Hot Springs National Park lies pretty far from any other national park in the United States. In fact, the nearest park, Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, is almost 500 miles (800 kilometers) northeast from Hot Springs. This makes that this park is usually not a part of any national parks road trip. However, crosscountry drivers will find that Hot Springs makes for an ideal, refreshing and relaxing stop.