December Weekend in Hot Springs, Arkansas – 2022

In early December, my husband and I spent four nights in Hot Springs, Arkansas where we visited the national park, experienced the bath houses, shopped, and ate our way through the town. It’s the perfect place for a couple’s weekend getaway, especially in the winter. There is something about spending the day in chilly weather outdoors and warming up inside the spa that feels so cozy and romantic. It’s also much less busy in the winter and during most of our stay, we felt like we were some of the only people visiting the town. We did just about everything there is to do in Hot Springs, and I’ll be covering it all (including the few things we didn’t get to) in this post.

About Hot Springs National Park

Hot Springs National Park is a unique national park in that it’s mostly located within a town. There are no national park entry fees and you can stay right in the town and walk almost everywhere (although it is useful to have a car to do things nearby). If you drive, don’t worry about parking – there is a free covered parking garage at the Exchange Street Parking Plaza. It may be more crowded during the busy season, but we had no trouble finding a spot any time of day or night and it was just a short walk from our hotel. Although there are several hiking trails, they are not the highlight of the national park. Hot Springs National Park focuses more on the rich and fascinating history of the town and the bath culture experience than on natural landmarks. It is also a great place to admire the interesting and varied architecture of the eight historic bathhouses on Bathhouse Row.

An interesting fact we learned is that the thermal water in the national park is nearly 4,000 years old. While there are no outdoor soaking opportunities, you can visit two areas behind bathhouse row where the thermal springs naturally rise to the surface of the ground. You can touch the warm water at the Display Spring and Hot Water Cascade, which are both accessible and marked from the Grand Promenade. If you want to fully submerge and relax in the thermal water, you can do so at two of the bathhouses, Buckstaff and Quapaw (more on these below). If you want to taste the mineral water, there are several free water fountains located around the town, see a list here and map here.

Flying into Little Rock

If you’re flying to visit Arkansas, you’ll likely fly into Little Rock. If you have time at the front or back end of the trip, it’s well worth a short visit, especially if you have any interest in American history or civics. We arrived in the morning and drove directly downtown to have lunch at the Flying Fish, a popular, laidback seafood restaurant. We shared platters of fried catfish and grilled trout. I will say the service left something to be desired – the cashier seemed quite bored, even annoyed with my questions about the menu – but maybe that’s just their vibe. In any case, the food was fresh and delicious.

After lunch, we walked to the River Market, which I would skip if you’ve already eaten as it is mostly food stalls. From there, we walked around the Capitol. As former legislative staff attorneys, we always enjoy visiting other state capitals. The Arkansas Capitol is a beautiful, classic capitol building that was made even more spectacular by the Christmas decorations. We peeked into the chambers and committee rooms and were surprised that despite the ornate building, these areas were small and understated. We enjoyed seeing the statue commemorating the Little Rock 9, who were at the center of the historic Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education. You can also visit Little Rock Central High School about 5 minutes away from the Capitol. One of our favorite parts of our Capitol visit was visiting the State Treasury, where we were able to take a tour of the vault and hold $600,000 cash in our hands. It was a very unique experience that you can’t do in any other state!

Where to Stay in Hot Springs

When you get to Hot Springs, you’ll want a comfortable place to stay. The Waters Hotel is the winner. The building was originally built in 1913, renovated as a hotel, and opened in 2017. Much of the original flooring, woodwork, and ironwork was repaired, and the office numbers used in the original building are now used as doors to each room. Right in the middle of the town, it’s walkable to everything and offers a modern aesthetic and large, luxurious rooms. The hotel also has a restaurant, rooftop bar, and trendy gift shop.

The Bathhouses

The first place to stop is at Fordyce Bath Museum and Visitor Center. You can get a map, orient yourself, talk with a national park ranger, and take a self-guided tour of the museum to get a glimpse into the history of the “American Spa Town.” I learned so much about the history of the area. There are several rooms and bathing areas replicating what was offered at the time, so you shouldn’t miss it! You can also get free cups to sample spring water from the fountains along the Promenade.

Bathhouse Row has eight bathhouse buildings constructed between 1892 and 1923. Two of the eight bathhouses actually have bathing facilities in use today: Buckstaff and Quapaw. The rest offer various amenities. Lamar Bathhouse contains the Bathhouse Row Emporium, which is the park gift shop operated by the National Park System. Superior Bathhouse is home to the only brewery in a national park and is the only brewery in the world to use thermal spring water to make their beer! Ozark Bathhouse has a small, free gallery displaying art from the Artist-In-Residence Program and other temporary exhibitions. Hale Bathhouse is now Hotel Hale, a luxury boutique hotel and restaurant with an excellent brunch. Maurice Bathhouse is vacant and available for lease – I’ll be interested to see what it becomes.

Buckstaff Bathhouse offers traditional bathing facilities. It originally opened in 1912 and is the only bathhouse that has never fully closed since it its inception. It’s open daily from 8-3. If you are visiting Hot Springs, this is a must (though if I returned, I’d likely just opt for the modern services). You’ll feel like you stepped back in time to the early 1900s when experiencing the traditional bath treatments that promote stress-relief and relaxation. For $89, you’ll have a private whirlpool mineral bath, hot packs, sitz bath, vapor cabinet, and 20 minute massage, all using the original bathtubs and equipment. Men and women have separate treatment areas and you’ll be ushered by your personal bathroom attendant from service to service. While the website also advertises a “needle shower,” that was not available at the time of our visit due to NPS restrictions because of bacteria found in the cold mineral water. If desired, you can add spa services such as a facial, massage, or manicure to your treatment. One of the best parts of our Buckstaff visit was comparing experiences with my husband after our services! It is quite unique, to say the least!

Quapaw Bathhouse is the more modern bathhouse on Bathhouse Row. It includes thermal pools, where you can soak, along with modern-day spa treatments like massages, facials, etc, and is open daily (except Tuesdays) from 10-6. For $25, you can soak in four different thermal pools that range in temperature. We soaked in the pools for about 45 minutes before our spa packages. There is also an option for a private bath for couples or individuals, as well as a natural steam cave (which was unfortunately still closed due to Covid). There are several spa packages and services available – I got The Southern Comfort and my husband got The Sportsman. We both thoroughly enjoyed our services. Lunch is available at the Quapaw Cafe if you’re planning to spend the day at the spa.

What To Do In and Around Hot Springs

A two or three day weekend in Hot Springs, Arkansas is the perfect amount of time to experience the highlights of the town. Besides the bathhouses, there are a few other things you’ll want to do during your stay.

You can walk along the beautiful brick-lined path of the Grand Promenade, just as others have done for over a century. If you have a cup or mug, you can fill it with warm spring water from one of the fountains downtown to sip on your stroll. The 0.5 mile National Recreation Trail is also the entry point for many of the Hot Springs and North Mountain trails from downtown (see more on hiking trails below).

Central Avenue is the main street through town, and there is plenty of shopping. Since we visited a few weeks before Christmas, we did a lot of our holiday shopping at the local shops. One of my favorites was the Bathhouse Soapery, which makes handmade soaps and bath products like scrubs and lotions. There are also two hat shops, several clothing boutiques, art stores, antiques, and souvenir shops. If you’re visiting on the First Friday of the month, don’t miss the Gallery Walk. We enjoyed admiring a variety of local art and found a few unique Christmas gifts. Some of the galleries even offered small snacks and wine while we shopped.

If you’re interested in the history of Hot Springs, the Hot Springs Mountain Tower is not to be missed. The elevator will take you 216 feet to the observation deck where you can enjoy panoramic views of the Ouachita Mountains and Hot Springs Mountain. The floor below the observation deck has a fantastic museum detailing the history of the area, with a special area devoted to former President Clinton, who was raised in Hot Springs. You can get to the Tower by driving the scenic road or hiking 1.5 miles from Fountain Street.

If we had more time or returned to the area, we would love to visit Garvan Woodland Gardens and Oaklawn Racetrack. The Garvan Woodland Gardens is a botanical gardens that belongs to the University of Arkansas and has beautiful architectural features. I really wanted to visit the holiday lights display they have, but the night we might have gone was freezing and rainy so we decided to stay in. Oaklawn Racetrack and Casino is just down the road from Hot Springs and apparently has quite the horse racing scene. I would have loved to attend a day at the track to see the horses run, but the season officially opened the week after our visit.

Hiking Trails

Another thing to do during your visit is go for a hike. There are plenty of walking/hiking trails in the park and it’s a great way to get some fresh air and exercise before your spa services. Most of the trails in Hot Springs National Park are easy to moderate and short, but can be connected to become a longer hike. We enjoyed doing several short hikes through the day to see different parts of the park (and to avoid the on and off rain!). Below are the trails we enjoyed during our visit.

West Mountain Trail is a fairly easy 1.2 mile trail which can be a loop or extended by taking the Mountain Top Trail all the way down to Whittington Park.

Gulpha Gorge Trail is a 0.6 mile trail that descends steeply down to the campground and back.

Goat Rock Trail is an easy 1.1 mile trail to an overlook on North Mountain (it descends to the overlook and ascends to the parking lot).

Balanced Rock is the best place to watch the sunset. You can park on Cedar Glades Road and hike Sunset Trail about one mile to Balanced Rock, which has one of the most scenic vistas in the park and beautiful sunset views. We hustled back after sunset to our car and made it just before it got very dark.

Caddo Bend Trail is about 30 minutes away in Lake Ouachita State Park and was our favorite of the trip. It is just under 4 miles over rolling terrain along the lake and is definitely worth the short drive.

Where to Eat and Drink

Breakfast

We had excellent food in Hot Springs, but if one meal stood out above all others, it was breakfast. All of our breakfast stops were winners. If you want something quick, Destiny’s Bakeshop has fantastic savory sausage rolls and cinnamon rolls, made by Will’s Cinnamon Shop. You can choose your glaze – maple, cream cheese, or traditional sugar – for the cinnamon rolls. We got half maple and half cream cheese and both were fantastic.

If you want to sit down, but still enjoy an efficient breakfast, The Pancake Shop is perfect. If you’re looking for a downhome classic breakfast experience with homemade sausage, huge pancakes, perfectly cooked eggs, and all the coffee refills you want, look no further. This was my favorite breakfast of the trip. We thoroughly enjoyed talking with our server, who we learned starred in a local film!

If you want to sit down for a more leisurely breakfast, I recommend having brunch at the Eden Restaurant at Hotel Hale. The food is delicious and served in a beautiful room with a live plant wall. I got the brunch quiche and my husband had the croque madame and we both thoroughly enjoyed our orders. Since we were going to our spa services after brunch, we didn’t want to drink alcohol, but brunch at Eden Restaurant offers a full array of boozy drink options, so keep that in mind when you’re scheduling your itinerary!

For a quick coffee and breakfast, Kollective Coffee is at the end of Central Avenue and is an adorable coffee shop with comfortable seating.

Lunch

For lunch, we enjoyed tacos and fresh tableside guacamole at Diablo’s Mexican one day. We sat inside, but if the weather is nice, there is outside seating available. Another day, we enjoyed beer and pizza with hand-tossed crust at Grateful Head Pizza. The pizza and vibe reminded me a lot of Mellow Mushroom. Again, there is a fantastic outside patio, but it was a little chilly so we ate inside.

Dinner

As I mentioned earlier, Superior Brewery is located in the Superior Bathhouse. The highlight is of course, the beer, which is made using thermal spring water. If you’re feeling ambitious, you can order a $40 flight of all 18 beers made at the brewery. For dinner, we ordered buffalo cauliflower to share, I had a veggie-loaded baked potato, and my husband got a burger. Everything was fantastic and exceeded our expectations for usual pub food!

One of the most unique places we ate during our vacation was the Steinhaus Keller. Reservations are recommended if you’d like to sit in the main dining room and enjoy live German music. The menu includes extensive offerings of traditional German food. We were underwhelmed with our entrees, but we enjoyed our beers and the pretzel with cheese fondue, and the German cheesecake was outstanding.

The Ohio Club was another favorite meal during our trip. If you like history, you’ll love it. It’s pretty surreal to know that you’re sitting in the same place as celebrities of the past including gangster Al Capone and baseball phenom Babe Ruth. During Prohibition, the restaurant became a speakeasy and casino fronting as a cigar store and you can see where the former fake wall of the store stood. We enjoyed spotting details from old pictures that still exist in today’s restaurant, like lamps and carvings on the bar. The Ohio Club still features live music several nights a week.

For a traditional steak dinner, The Porterhouse has excellent food and service. It is a beautiful space and was made even more so with holiday decorations!

Drinks

Since we were staying at the Waters Hotel, we had cocktails at the Rooftop Bar a few times. The menus change seasonally but we had a fantastic s’mores themed drink that was complete with a roasted marshmallow. We enjoyed our cocktails so much that we recreated them for our family at the holidays. We also ordered appetizers from The Avenue to our room after our spa day, but didn’t eat in the restaurant.

Dessert

I’m including Fat Bottomed Girls cupcakes even though we didn’t have a great experience, because many of the blogs I read raved about it. There are probably a hundred cupcake flavors to choose from and they are beautifully decorated and packaged, but unfortunately, our cupcakes were burned. That being said, I wouldn’t go out of my way to get the cupcakes, but the adjoining shop and candy store are cute if you’re looking for mementos from the trip.

Have you ever been to Hot Springs National Park? What was your favorite experience? If not, what is your favorite national park to visit?

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