A Family Friendly Guide for Visiting Hot Springs, Arkansas
Our family had the pleasure of visiting Hot Springs, Arkansas for Spring Break this year. We are on a quest to share with our kids as many of our National Parks as we can. We enjoy RVing, hiking and beautiful scenery. Knowing that Hot Springs National Park is located in the middle of town had us wondering if we would enjoy this park as much as we have others. We should not have had any concerns. The town provides families a good blend of natural, historical and educational experiences.
Hot Springs, Arkansas, is known for the springs that provide thermally heated water for public bathing. In 1832, Congress provided federal protection for the 47 flowing springs, and it became known as Hot Springs Reservation. That was 40 years before Yellowstone became our first National Park and, in 1921, Hot Springs joined Yellowstone in the designation as a National Park. The town quickly grew around the hot springs that were known for their healing qualities. Today, you can visit Hot Springs National Park and tour Bathhouse Row. Hot Springs is more than just the National Park. The city is surrounded by 5 beautiful lakes, 3 rolling rivers and majestic mountains just waiting to be explored.
Hot Springs National Park
At the center of Hot Springs National Park is Bathhouse Row. Found on Central Avenue, these 8 bathhouses will impress you with their beautiful architecture. Built to draw customers in, each building was given unique design elements. A visitor center can be found in the Fordyce Bathhouse. By 1915, this building was bustling with activity and boasted it was the most luxurious bathhouse in the world. Today, visitors can tour the bathhouse in a self guided tour or park rangers offer guided tours. Be prepared to take a tour with a large group if you are visiting during peak seasons. We opted to take the self guided tour and enjoyed learning the history of the bathhouse. While touring, be sure to watch the movie about Hot Springs history that can be found on the first floor in the Cooling Room.
As you complete the tour, you will visit both the Men and Women’s Bath Halls. In the Men’s Bath Hall, be sure to look up to see the beautiful stain glass window featuring dolphins, mermaids and other fish. From the third floor gymnasium to the the actual hot springs in the basement, your family will enjoy walking through the rooms and learning about the bathhouse experience.
Be sure to visit Lamar Bathhouse. This Bathhouse is the National Park gift shop. There are several photo opportunities inside and you can drink water from a hot springs water fountain. You can also buy glass water jugs as souvenirs. These can be filled with water from hot springs using water filling stations at each end of Bathhouse Row.
Behind Bathhouse Row you will find the Grand Promenade. In the past, guests visiting the bathhouses were encouraged to get outdoors and be active. The Promenade was a scenic place for visitors to walk providing views of many cold and hot springs, as well as Bathhouse Row. Today, visitors to the park will still enjoy this peaceful place to take a walk.
Things to Know
- Hot Springs National Park is free to the public.
- The visitor center and gift shop are open daily from 9AM-5PM.
- National Park Passports can be stamped at Fordyce and Lamar Bathhouses.
- Visitors can fill water bottles from home or those bought in the gift shop at the filling stations located at each end of Bathhouse Row.
- The Buckstaff and Quapaw Bathhouses offer modern day spa services and co-ed hot springs pools. Both are run by private businesses but are regulated and inspected by the National Park Service.
- Free parking is available in the Exchange Street Parking Plaza. If you drive an oversized vehicle you are in luck, we drive a Ford F350 and were able to park in this garage. It is a very short walk over to Bath House Row.
Hot Springs Mountain Tower
If you are not afraid of heights and love beautiful views, then a trip up Hot Springs Mountain to the Hot Springs Mountain Tower is a must. The tower can be reached by hiking up the Peak Trail from the Grand Promenade, or by driving up the mountain. Once you arrive at the tower, you can visit the gift shop in the lower level but, if you want to go up the tower, you will need to pay an entrance fee. To get to the two observation decks, you can take an elevator up the 216 foot structure or you can walk on an outdoor staircase.
The lower deck is enclosed and offers protection from the weather. You can take in the panoramic views and read about the history of Hot Springs as you walk around the deck. Go up to the second observation deck and you will be able to enjoy the views from outside. On the day we visited it was quite windy and cool, but the breathtaking views that encompass 140 miles of the beautiful Hot Springs area were worth it!
Things to Know
- Admission: adults $7.00, children (5-11) $4.00 and seniors (age 55 and over) $6.00.
- Hours vary depending on the month and can be found here.
- If you have a National Parks pass, you get a discount.
- If you have a fourth grade child, your family can get a National Park pass free. Just visit https://www.everykidinapark.gov/ to sign up for your free pass.
- If your child has signed up for the program, their admission to Hot Springs Mountain Tower will be free.
Hot Springs National Park offers visitors a plethora of hiking opportunities. Trails can be found on Hot Springs Mountain, North Mountain and South Mountain. Hiking guides can be picked up at both Fordyce Visitor Center and Lamar Gift Shop. We did not have much time for hiking the day we visited the park, but we did do the Gulpha Gorge Trail. This 0.8 mile trail is labeled moderate to strenuous. There are 2 trailheads for this trail. You can start at a shelter on Hot Springs Mountain Drive or from Gulpha Gorge Campground. We began the hike from Hot Springs Mountain Drive. The first half of the trail was all going down the mountain and that is the moderate part of the trail. Once you get close to the campground, the trail will follow Gulpha Creek, and you will even get to cross the creek by stepping on large boulders. When we made our return trip, we were going back up the mountain, and then we knew why it was labeled strenuous. This was a very peaceful hike, and we saw very few hikers on the trail.
Things to Know
- Restrooms are avaliable at Gulpha Gorge Campground.
- There is small parking area on Hot Springs Mountain Drive, and you can park at the amphitheatre parking if starting at Gulpha Campground.
Arkansas State Parks
Lake Catherine State Park and Lake Ouachita State Park are beautiful parks that can be reached in less than 30 minutes from Bathhouse Row. We had the pleasure of camping at Lake Catherine State Park for our visit to Hot Springs. This park has 4 hiking trails, a picnic area, a swimming area, playground and boat rentals. If you enjoy waterfalls, the Falls Branch Trail will lead you to Falls Creek Falls, one of the top 10 falls in Arkansas.
We spent an afternoon at Lake Ouachita State Park and fell in love with Lake Ouachita. This picturesque lake is one of the cleanest lakes in America and is so clear it is almost like looking into a bathtub. We were able to see about a 6 pound bass swimming under the dock about 20 feet under the water. This park offers 2 hiking trails, picnic area, a swimming area, boat rentals, playground, and camping.
Things to Know
- Admission to Arkansas State Parks is free, but there is a fee for camping.
- Both parks offer cabin rentals and rent a camp opportunities.
- Arkansas State Parks offer Junior Ranger Programs. The program can be completed at one park or multiple parks over a period of time.
- Each park offers ranger led programs in the spring and summer.
- If camping in the park, you may bring in your own firewood. You can also pick up wood from off the ground around the park.
- Reservations and more information can be found at https://www.arkansasstateparks.com/.
- Check back for our next post all about our stay at Lake Catherine State Park.
Mid America Science Museum
If you are traveling with kids or are young at heart, the Mid America Science Museum should definitely be on your list of must do’s. This museum is Arkansas’s largest hands-on science museum and with over 100 exhibits you and your kids will have hours of fun and learning. When you enter the museum, you will be greeted with the sound of excited kids (this is not a quiet place) and will enter the Marvelous Motion Gallery. All of the moving objects and flashing lights will immediately capture the attention of both young and old.
A favorite of our kids was the Bob Wheeler Science Skywalk. The tree-house pavilion, rope netting jumping area and small ropes course offers a place to get out a little energy and enjoy the outdoors while fighting your fear of heights. Back inside, you can visit multiple areas of the museum. The Arkansas Underfoot area allows visitors to explore the geography, biology and geology of Arkansas. Kids and brave adults can crawl through a realistic cave and then visit the Rain and Terrain exhibit. My family spent quite a bit of time at this 3-D interactive sandbox. The lower level of the museum is broken into 4 different areas that teach about animation, math in science, force and energy, and fluid motion. As a family, we enjoyed our visit to the museum immensely. The teacher in me loved seeing how much fun everyone was having as they learned about science. We did see several couples visiting the museum without kids, and they seemed to be having a great time too!
Things to Know
- The museum is open Tuesday-Saturday 9AM-5PM and Sunday 1AM-5PM.
- Admission: Adults $10 and Children (3-12) $8
- If you want to get away from the noise for a little while, there is a nature hike that is quite peaceful.
- The museum has a small cafe that can provide lunch or snacks.
Garvan Woodland Gardens
Garvan Woodland Gardens is the botanical garden of the University of Arkansas. With 210 acres of architectural structures and botanical landscapes that showcase the natural beauty of the Ouachita Mountains, there are photo opportunities around every corner. This is also home to famed Anthony Chapel. The Anthony Chapel is known as an architectural masterpiece. The floor to ceiling windows and soaring 57-foot open-rafter ceiling capitalizes on the beauty of the gardens surrounding it, as well as the shoreline of Lake Hamilton. We did not get a chance to enter the gardens, but Anthony Chapel is located outside the gates and is free to the public. We made a quick stop to see the Chapel; unfortunately, they were repairing the roof and we were not able to get near the chapel. I was very disappointed to not be able to walk inside this beautiful chapel or take any good pictures. We did get to see the grounds surrounding the Anthony Chapel Complex and the entrance to the gardens and they were absolutely beautiful. After seeing the outside of the gardens, all of us wanted to see the inside, but it was too late in the day. At that point in our trip, we only had one day left and that was already dedicated to the Mid America Science Museum, so we were not able to actually go in the gardens. Maybe next time!
Things to Know
- The garden is open everyday February 1 through mid-November 9AM-6PM. The last admission is sold at 5:30.
- Admission: Adults $15, Children (4-12) $5, Children (3 and under) free.
- Dogs are welcome. One dog, on a short leash, per person will be allowed in the gardens, but their is a $5 admission per dog.
- Anthony Chapel is free and open to the public, but if they are having a wedding or event, it is closed to the public until the event is over. It is a popular wedding venue, so it is suggested you visit the Chapel during the week.
Places to Eat
The Pancake Shop
The Pancake Shop has been serving up pancakes since 1940. This delightful breakfast establishment is known for their plate sized pancakes and their ham steaks. Both were delicious! Blaine and the kids tried their blueberry buttermilk pancakes, and I had their blueberry buckwheat pancakes. The kids each got one pancake and we got 2, but after seeing the size of the pancakes, we really could have just had 1. When our server brought out the pancakes, she told us to cut a hole in the center of the pancakes, eat that, and then fill the hole with syrup. You can then eat your pancakes from the inside out, so your syrup does not drip off the edge of the plate. Ingenious! We also shared a ham steak. We were concerned it would not be big enough for all four of us to share, but we need not have worried. We all had a nice sized piece of this tasty ham!
Things to Know
- They are open daily from 6AM-12:45PM.
- Arrive early on weekends and during peak season. We went on a Tuesday during Spring Break. We arrived about 10:00 and had to wait about 45 minutes before being seated. It was worth the wait!
- The Pancake Shop is about a block down from Bathhouse Row. So, start your morning here, and, then, just walk over to Hot Springs National Park.
Fat Bottomed Girl’s Cupcakes
If you are looking for a tasty treat, Fat Bottomed Girl’s Cupcakes is the place to go. This cute little shop was made famous when they appeared on Food Network’s Cupcake Wars in 2013 (Season 2, Episode 18). They are most famous for their Salted Caramel Cupcake and Creme Brulee, which were both featured on Cupcake Wars. The day we visited they had probably 12 different cupcake flavors to choose from. Blaine decided to try the Creme Brulee, I tried the Ooey Gooey Buttercake and E had the Cookies and Cream Cupcake. J decided to forgo the cupcakes and had a cup of ice cream instead. We all enjoyed our afternoon snack! There are 2 small tables outside for those wanting to eat their cupcakes right away or they will package your cupcakes up for you to save for later.
Things to Know
- You can find these sweet treats about a block down the street from Bathhouse Row.
- A single cupcake will cost you $3.50. Buy a half dozen for $17.50 or a dozen for $35.00.
- They are open Monday-Thursday 10AM-7PM, Friday-Saturday 9AM-8PM and 9AM-7PM on Sundays.
Mr. Whiskers is a family friendly catfish restaurant. We ate here for dinner and, when we arrived, there was a line almost to the door. It was obvious this restaurant was well liked by the locals and not just a tourist stop. Since their claim to fame is their fried catfish and we happen to love fried catfish, we decided to give that a try. We were not disappointed! Each filet was a nice size, flavorful and crisp without being overdone. The kids were excited to see their kid’s meals were served in paper baskets shaped like boats they could keep. The service was excellent and the owner stopped by our table twice to check on us. We are sad that we do not have a Mr. Whiskers near us, but if we ever make it back to Hot Springs this will be on our list of to do’s for sure.
Things to Know
- They are open Tuesday-Saturday 11AM-8PM.
- Prices for catfish baskets range from $5.99 for 1 piece to $11.99 for 4 pieces. They are served with fries, coleslaw and hushpuppies.
- You can get grilled catfish. They also have fried or grilled chicken and shrimp. You can also get hamburgers.
- Mr. Whiskers is located at 4195 Malvern Road and is only a 15 minute drive from Bathhouse Row.
Hot Spring, Arkansas, is a beautiful place filled with family friendly experiences. If you are planning on visiting Hot Springs, Arkansas, then a visit to the National Park is a must. At the park, you can enjoy visiting Bathhouse Row and hiking one of the many trails. You can also take in the views from the top of Hot Springs Mountain Tower. If you are looking for a place to camp, a cabin to rent or a place just to spend the day hiking or boating, Lake Catherine State Lake or Lake Ouachita State Park are less than 30 minutes from Hot Springs. For the young or young at heart, the Mid America Science Museum will offer you hours of fun filled learning! For a few peaceful hours surrounded by the beauty of nature, make a trip to the Garvan Woodland Gardens and make sure you see Anthony Chapel outside the gates of the garden. We hope you enjoy your trip to Hot Springs as much as we did! If you have places you love to visit in Hot Springs, make sure you leave a comment. We would love to hear about them!
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