Hot Springs Arkansas has long been on my list of places to explore. It appears on the first page of one of my many national parks books and every time I look at an eastbound driving trip, my eyes fly to Hot Springs on the map. I finally got a chance to explore a bit of the national park and the city itself. Here are eight things to do in Hot Springs that will make you want to explore this fun Arkansas city.
Things to do in Hot Springs Arkansas
Spoiler alert: Hot Springs is in incredibly cool town with kind of a fun, funky vibe. Everything we did was family-friendly and the activities we've listed below are suitable for just about everyone.
1. Visit Hot Springs,National Park
Visiting Hot Springs National Park was the biggest draw in planning our trip to Hot Springs. Interestingly, we didn't explore that much of the national park outside of Bathhouse Row in downtown Hot Springs. Our time in Hot Springs was relatively short – four days – and we had so much to do in town that we didn't spend as much time in the park as I'd wanted to, which means we'll have to go back.
There are a variety of things to do inside the park, including camping, hiking, and soaking in the thermal springs. The Fordyce Bathhouse (more about that below) and the gift shop are on Bathhouse Row in town and present a very different kind of national park experience.
2. Check out the Fordyce Bathhouse
The Fordyce Bathhouse serves at the park's visitor's center, so this is a place to get your stamps, talk to a ranger or join a Junior Ranger program. It's also a classically furnished self-guided museum that gives visitors a look at what it was like to take mineral water therapies in the early to mid-twentieth century.
The spa treatments of yesteryear seem a little weird to the modern-day traveler but the museum is beautiful and well done. There are three floors to explore and the exhibits are well-labeled so you can get a sense of the story of the bathhouse.
3. Learn about Hot Springs's History in a very unexpected way
There's a very surprising museum in downtown Hot Springs that is actually a huge piece of the city's story. Take the full museum tour early in your stay and it gives you a great jumping-off point for other things to do in the area. The tour takes about 1.5 hours and may not be suitable for very young children due to sensitive topics.
4. Explore Downtown Hot Springs
Downtown Hot Springs is a fun, walkable place to explore. In addition to Bathhouse Row, there are lots of restaurants, shops, and cafes to explore. We visited on a Saturday and there were a few street musicians performing downtown which added to the general festive vibe.
Parking is very limited in downtown Hot Springs. Some of the businesses have small dedicated parking lots but you'll mostly have to hunt for street parking. There's a two-story free parking garage directly behind the Gangster Museum of America but it fills up quickly.
5. Eat a Plate-Sized Pancake
If you're a breakfast lover, you won't want to miss The Pancake Shop. Many of their menu items are locally made or sourced from local farms and the huge pancakes are phenomenal. There might be a line to get in, so plan appropriately. I think these pancakes are worth a bit of a wait.
6. play at Magic Springs
This Arkansas theme park and water park is a fun place to spend a summer day. One admission covers both the theme park and water park. There's an even selection of kid, family, and thrill rides. Our family favorites were the Brain Drain, Plummet Summit, The Hawk, and the Log Flume ride. The water park has lots of slides, a lazy river, pools, and a flow rider boogie board attraction, which is always a favorite for my kids.
Both the theme park and water park sides offer plenty of food and drinks available, mostly theme park staples like frozen treats, fries, and corndogs.
7. Spend the day at Garvan Woodland Gardens
Garvan Woodland Gardens is truly a magical place and another don't miss. Arkansas is, after all, known as The Natural State, and that is perfectly showcased here. You'll find a canopy of pines, lapping waves that unfold along the 4 ½ miles of wooded shoreline, and rocky inclines that remind us of the surrounding Ouachita Mountains.
Garvan Gardens is a popular wedding spot so check their calendar in advance of your visit to make sure the planned nuptials don't conflict with your visit. Allow at least half a day to explore.
8. Take a Waterfall Hike at Lake Catherine State Park
About a ten-minute drive from downtown Hot Springs, Lake Catherine State Park offers lots of opportunities for camping, hiking, and cooling off in the water.
If you're interested in hiking in Lake Catherine State Park, drive straight in from Catherine Park Road and stop at the Visitor's Center for a trail map and ranger advice.
9. Witness The Running of the Tubs
If you can schedule your visit to Hot Springs in early June, you will be on hand to witness the Running of the Tubs. The Running of the Tubs is a bathtub race and it is quite something to see. Five-person teams race a bathtub filled with water plus a human down one of Hot Springs' main streets.
Spectators are encouraged to join in the festivities from the sidelines. Not only can you cheer loudly for your favorite teams, but you can also squirt them (or their opponents or the announcers or other spectators) with water guns. There will be tubs of water on hand to refill your super soakers or water cannons but the city asks that you don't bring water balloons because of the close proximity to the park and wildlife.
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