When you head for Hot Springs, Arkansas, a charming town nestled in the Ouachita Mountains, you’ll find a vacation destination that is the perfect mix of American history and outdoor adventures that’s perfect for families. Whether you prefer to wander through the National Park and the historic Bathhouse Row, spend the day on one of three lakes or explore the surrounding forest, there’s something in “America’s First Resort” for everyone. We had a chance to explore the region, and we’ve come back with plenty of tips, so keep reading to see our ultimate guide to Hot Springs.
Hot Springs is nestled between Sugarloaf Mountain, Music Mountain and West, Hot Springs and North mountains. From the Paleo-Indians to the very first bathhouse built in 1830, the topography and draw of healing powers in this region are ancient. Everyone from Native Americans, pioneers, gangsters and baseball players have come searching for what ails them.
What to Do
Explore Hot Springs National Park
If visiting the Hot Springs area, a day spent exploring the National Park is a must. Established as a national park in 1916, people have been coming to Hot Springs for hundreds of years. Bathhouse Row was designated as a Historic Landmark in 1974, and in 1989, the Fordyce Bathhouse opened as the park visitor center. You can wander through the entire building, which has been painstakingly restored to give the public a view into the past. See both the men’s and women’s sides of the bathhouse, view the stunning stained-glass windows, clothing and artifacts from the Edwardian era, and finally, the room, that in 1915, was the largest gym in Arkansas.
After wandering through the Fordyce, head up through the actual park grounds, where you’ll find spring water bubbling up from the ground, as well as the Grand Promenade, which is a paved ½ mile path that offers both nature and a stunning view of downtown Hot Springs. There are also trails that head into the mountainside of the park for the more adventurous.
Garvan Woodland Gardens
A visit to the 210-acre outdoor space located on the outskirts of Hot Springs will take you a whole day, and you still might not see it all! Must-see highlights include the Bridge of the Full Moon and the koi pond in the Japanese Garden, the Evan Treehouse in the children’s area, the wildflower ridge, the miniature train that runs every day weather permitting and of course, George the peacock and his companions Ellie and Sabrina. A very special stop is the Anthony Chapel, an architectural wonder designed by Arkansas architects David McKee and Maurice Jennings. It soars six stories high, with marvelous glass windows, a vaulted glass and wood ceiling and 360-degree views of the forest and Lake Hamilton.
The strip of stores across from Bathhouse row has plenty of fun stops for families. Stop by the Toy Chest or one of the three candy stores that call Central Ave. home. There’s also the very impressive Gangster Museum of America, where you’ll learn all about the role that Hot Springs has played in the history of notorious crime figures like Al Capone, Owney Madden, Lucky Luciano, Frank Costello, Bonny and Klyde and many more.
Another cool thing do to in downtown Hot Springs is to follow the historic baseball trail. Spring Training was founded in Hot Springs, and luminous athletes such as Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Cy Young and Yogi Berra came to enjoy the restorative spring waters and get in shape for the next season.
Time on the Water
With three lakes in the area, a day spent fishing, or on a boat, kayak or paddleboard is a popular choice for families, especially in the summer! Hot Springs Marina has plenty of Tri-Toon rentals, and Ouachita Outdoor Outfitters is your go-to spot for kayaks and stand-up paddleboards.
Where to Eat
The Pancake Shop
When you step into The Pancake Shop, the first things you’ll notice are the friendly staff, the walls lined with Hot Springs history and the laid-back atmosphere. After that, the only thing you’ll be able to think about is the pancakes. Not much has changed since The Pancake Shop opened in 1940, and that’s a good thing. The sausage is sourced locally, the pancakes are made from scratch, and the portions are plentiful. Even if you have to wait for a table on the weekends (which is very likely), you can wander next door to The Savory Pantry, a gourmet food store, where you can grab a cup of coffee and wander the aisles until your table is ready.
Another amazing breakfast (or brunch or lunch!) spot is Best Café. Owned by the same proprietors that just opened The Reserve, this diner has tons of charm and plenty of good food. The creme brulee french toast is a favorite, as are the cinnamon rolls, but we also tried the avocado toast and highly recommend this as well. Located in a renovated motor lodge, this is definitely a hidden gem worth trying!
This fun spot is perfect for families. There’s a lot of space inside, and the staff is very accommodating to groups. There’s a fun vibe, and whether you want classic fajitas, something decadent like the shrimp and crab enchiladas or even a keto-friendly meal, you’ll find it at Taco Mama. If you like margaritas, be sure to try the champagne margarita!
Superior Bathhouse Brewery
If you plan on spending the day visiting the National Landmark District, be sure to plan on having lunch at Superior Bathhouse Brewery. Not only is it housed in one of the original bathhouses on Bathhouse Row, but it’s also the only brewery in a National Park, and it’s the only brewery that uses spring water to brew its beer. With a family-friendly vibe, the menu is the perfect mix of brewpub fare and locally sourced ingredients. There are usually 18 beers on tap, so consider getting an assortment of 4 oz. samplers.
People can be picky about their pizza, and so when we say some of the best (maybe THE best?) pizza in Arkansas, and some of the best in the country, can be found at Deluca's Pizzeria, then you best be sure to get dinner at this spot on your calendar when you visit Hot Springs. Made in the classic New York Style, the thin but soft crust is topped with fresh ingredients, including mozzarella, arugula, local meats and more. As a bonus, they also serve incredible pasta and quite possibly the most simple but most delicious cheeseburger ever!
Where to Stay
The DoubleTree by Hilton
With a recent total renovation, the DoubleTree by Hilton is a great spot for families. Not only is it a pet-friendly spot, but it’s right on the Lake, with an outdoor pool, fire pits, Adirondack chairs for lounging and even a dock for those who want to drop their kayak and head out on the water. They aren’t currently doing a buffet breakfast, but the menu options for a sit-down meal or room service are ample. The property is also very close to downtown Hot Springs, so getting around is easy.
Images by Gabby Cullen unless otherwise noted.