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An Overlander’s Guide to Hot Springs National Park 

 December 4, 2023

By  Patrick @DarkSkyOverland

Hot Springs National Park BadgeNestled within the Ouachita Mountains of central Arkansas lies Hot Springs National Park—the smallest and oldest park in the National Park System.

This hidden gem offers a wide range of outdoor activities and unique experiences that will make your overland trip one to remember.

Created in 1832 to protect the area’s coveted thermal waters before Arkansas was even a state, Hot Springs invites modern-day explorers to traverse its winding mountain roads, take relaxing dips in the various bathhouse pools dotted throughout the valley, and revel in the many outdoor recreation opportunities this beloved park has to offer.

From hiking forested trails to scenic overlooks to learning the intriguing history of this region as a famed 19th century spa destination, Hot Springs National Park serves up plenty for overlanders passing through.

Join me as we soak up some of the best stops and sights within this special slice of Arkansas.

Overview of Hot Springs National Park

Hot Springs National ParkHot Springs National Park is located in central Arkansas, about 50 miles southwest of Little Rock. It was established as a federal reserve in 1832 then a national park in 1921 to protect the area’s natural hot springs, which have attracted people seeking the springs’ healing waters for thousands of years. Today, it is the smallest and oldest national park in the National Park System.

The heart of the park is located in a valley within the Ouachita Mountains. Over 47 hot springs feed into the area’s thermal waters, which circulate into Bathhouse Row along Central Avenue. This famous stretch contains a number of ornate bathhouses, many built in the 19th and early 20th centuries, where visitors can experience thermal baths and spa treatments.

The park encompasses 5,550 acres, with hiking trails winding through the surrounding mountains and valleys. Popular trails lead to vantage points like West Mountain Summit and Gulpha Gorge Campground. Within the valley, other attractions include the Grand Promenade and spring-fed fountains and sculpture gardens for relaxing.

Visitors can also learn more about the history and culture of Hot Springs at the park’s visitor center, the Fordyce Bathhouse museum, and exhibits on Bathhouse Row. The city of Hot Springs adjoins the national park at the valley floor, providing accommodations, restaurants, and shopping just outside the park’s borders.

With its natural hot spring waters, historical bathhouses, scenic mountain setting, and proximity to a vibrant town, Hot Springs National Park offers a unique experience in contrast to many national parks. Its relatively small size allows visitors to easily explore its main attractions.

Top Things to Do at Hot Springs National Park

  1. Soak in the Hot Springs – The hot springs are the star attraction of this park, and for good reason. There’s nothing quite like soaking in the natural hot springs after a long day of driving. While some of the hot springs are located within the park, you can also find them outside the park boundaries in nearby Hot Springs City. There are several bathhouses in the city where you can take a relaxing soak and learn about the history of bathing in America.
  2. Hit the Trails – Hot Springs National Park has over 26 miles of hiking trails that offer varying degrees of difficulty. From easy strolls to challenging climbs, there’s a trail for everyone. The scenic Ouachita Mountains provide a stunning backdrop for your hike, and the Gulpha Gorge Trail is particularly popular with overlanders.
  3. Visit the Historic Sites – Hot Springs National Park has a rich history that’s worth exploring. Take a tour of the historic Arlington Hotel, which was once a favorite of Al Capone and other famous gangsters. You can also visit the Gangster Museum of America and learn about the city’s connection to the world of organized crime.
  4. Wildlife Watching – Hot Springs National Park is home to a variety of wildlife, including black bears, bobcats, and whitetail deer. Keep your eyes peeled while you’re out exploring and you might just spot one of these majestic creatures in their natural habitat.
  5. Attend a Festival – Hot Springs hosts several festivals throughout the year, including the Hot Springs Music Festival and the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival. These events offer a great opportunity to experience the local culture and community.

Best Camping Spots for Overlanders

As an overlander, you’re likely looking for camping options that allow you to be close to nature and away from the crowds. Here are some of the best camping spots located just outside the park:

  1. Ouachita National Forest – This vast national forest offers plenty of opportunities for backcountry camping and hiking. You can find secluded campsites that are perfect for overlanders who want to get off the beaten path.
  2. Irons Fork Campground – Located on the banks of the Caddo River, Irons Fork Campground is a great option for overlanders who want to go fishing or kayaking. You can also explore the nearby town of Glenwood, which offers plenty of dining and shopping options.
  3. Ouachita River Haven Resort – If you’re looking for a more luxurious camping experience, then the Ouachita River Haven Resort is the perfect choice. This resort offers a variety of camping options, including cabins, RV sites, and tent sites. You can also take advantage of their amenities, which include a pool and a hot tub.
  4. Lake Catherine State Park – This state park is located just a short drive from Hot Springs National Park, and it offers plenty of outdoor activities, including fishing, boating, and hiking. The campsites are spacious and well-maintained, making it a great option for overlanders who want to relax and unwind after a long day on the road.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is there to do at Hot Springs National Park?

The main attractions in the park include soaking in the hot spring baths along Bathhouse Row, hiking scenic trails like the Grand Promenade or West Mountain Summit Trail, touring the Fordyce Bathhouse museum, and walking along the fountains and sculpture gardens on the Grand Promenade.

What is Bathhouse Row?

Bathhouse Row is a collection of elegant bathhouses, many built in the 19th and early 20th centuries along Central Avenue in the heart of the park. Several of these bathhouses have been restored and offer thermal bath experiences, spa treatments, or house visitor centers and gift shops.

How can I soak in the hot springs?

At least two restored bathhouses on Bathhouse Row—the Buckstaff and Quapaw—currently offer thermal bathing services ranging from individual soaks to deluxe spa packages. Advance reservations are highly recommended.

Does the park have campgrounds or lodging?

The park itself does not offer lodging or campgrounds. However, the adjoining city of Hot Springs offers abundant accommodation options including hotels, motels, bed and breakfast inns, cabins, RV parks, and campgrounds.

What is the best time of year to visit?

Spring and fall are popular times with moderate weather suited for hiking and sightseeing. Summers can be quite hot. Fewer tourists visit in winter, but bathhouses remain open and room rates may be lower.

Are park sites accessible for mobility impaired visitors?

Yes, Bathhouse Row, the park visitor center, Grand Promenade, and a few short trails are wheelchair accessible. Some bathhouses also cater specifically to mobility-impaired guests.

Final Thoughts About Hot Springs National Park

Hot Springs National Park is a great destination for overlanders who want to combine outdoor adventure with relaxation and history. Whether you’re soaking in the hot springs or exploring the scenic hiking trails, you’re sure to have an unforgettable overland trip.

And with plenty of camping options located just outside the park, you can enjoy the natural beauty of the area while still having access to modern amenities. As with any outdoor adventure, be sure to practice Leave No Trace principles and respect the environment and wildlife.

Hot Springs National Park is truly a unique destination that offers something for everyone. From the natural hot springs to the historic sites and festivals, there’s always something to see and do. And with the surrounding Ouachita Mountains and forests, there are endless opportunities for overlanders to explore and experience the beauty of nature.

So pack up your overland vehicle, grab your camping gear, and head to Hot Springs National Park for an adventure you won’t forget. Just be sure to take your time, soak in the sights and sounds of the area, and enjoy the journey. Happy trails!

Have you visited Hot Springs National Park? If so, what did I miss in this overlander’s guide?

Share your thoughts in the comment section below. Thanks for your input! It is greatly appreciated!

Patrick @DarkSkyOverland


Dark Sky Overland is an overland lifestyle brand that was created to support the various trips I take to National Parks and other designated Dark Sky Parks within the United States. It was also born out of a strong desire to simplify life after my wife of over 24 years passed away from a three year battle with inflammatory breast cancer (IBC). You can learn more about my story at https://darkskyoverland.com/about/.

Patrick @DarkSkyOverland

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