Hot Springs National Park

Our kids have a couple of those laminated map placemats. One is a world map and one is a map of the United States. They fight over who gets to eat with which one (siblings!) and most recently the world map has been the coveted mat. We love them. They inspire spontaneous learning, memories of places we’ve traveled, and imagining new trips and adventures. They’re placemats, so they’re not super detailed. The US map has states and capitals and sometimes a few other major cities or important locations – like a national park here and there.

It’s certainly no secret that we are huge fans of the National Park Service! National parks have preserved and protected some of the most amazing natural wonders we have ever seen, and it seems as though we’ve barely scratched the surface.

So one day, as we were showing our kids where we had been and where we were going on the US map, I noticed a dot in Arkansas that said Hot Springs NP. It was right next to the route I just drew with my finger, showing the kids a straight line from Dallas, TX back to Pennsylvania. It wasn’t too long before a visit to Hot Springs was on the itinerary.

A Different Kind of National Park

Our typical image of most national parks is pristine nature, on land the government has acquired to make sure it stays that way. There are restrictions on how the areas can be improved and developed, making them accessible to visitors without destroying the fragile features and ecosystems. But Hot Springs is a different kind of national park.

Hot Springs is actually the oldest national park that’s still in existence. When the springs were discovered (by settlers exploring the Louisiana Purchase – native people had been using them for centuries) a town quickly sprang up around them, as visitors were drawn to this new health resort. The government claimed the area as a federal reserve in 1832, but set up no restrictions as to how the land could be used. Bathhouses were built, each more luxurious than the last, attracting the rich and powerful from across the nation to experience a variety of procedures using the water from the springs. A pristine natural environment it is not.

What to do at Hot Springs National Park

There are still bathhouses operational today on Bathhouse Row, but these come with additional costs and age restrictions. Our kids are too young so we never even considered it.

The visitor center of the park is located in the Fordyce Bathhouse, which is also restored to its Edwardian era elegance. We toured the Fordyce and found the history fascinating. There was also beautiful architecture and stained glass throughout the building. The kids also enjoyed the tour and learned a lot!

Fordyce Hot Springs
Fancy showers!


Fordyce Bathhouse
Gentlemen’s changing area

The Junior Ranger booklet was great! Having the activities helped bring the tour of the Fordyce to their level so they got a lot more out of it. It helped them notice architectural details on the different bathhouse buildings along Bathhouse Row and encouraged them to creatively design their own stained glass windows.

Fordyce Bathhouse
Junior Ranger work on the Fordyce Bathhouse tour


Bathhouse Row
Matching architectural features along Bathhouse Row

Legally the water from the springs must remain freely available to everyone, so there are fountains available in several locations where you can fill water bottles with the mineral-rich water. We found we enjoyed the taste of the water and filled water bottles whenever we had the opportunity. We did not, however, come with large jugs and load the trunk of our car full, the way we saw others doing.

Other ideas include a drive up to the West Mountain overlook, or a walk along the Grand Promenade. If you’re into geocaching, there are several in the area.


Hot Springs National Park
Strolling the Grand Promenade


Hot Springs National Park
We found a geocache!

Gulpha Gorge Campground

Gulpha Gorge is the Hot Springs National Park campground, located a few miles from the downtown and Bathhouse Row area. The rates are reasonable ($30/night) but they do not accept reservations so we felt it was a gamble to try, especially on a holiday weekend. The other options in the area were farther outside the park itself and more expensive, but we chose one and made a reservation. Thankfully, it wasn’t a reservation that required a deposit, because as we were driving we changed our minds and decided to check out Gulpha Gorge first. There were only two sites left and the one we fit in was anything but flat, but we took it. Once we were set up and had checked in, we called the other campground and left a message that our plans had changed.

While we can’t always afford to do it, we’d choose a national or state park campground every time over a commercial one. We prefer the atmosphere, the more natural environment and find we have more in common with other campers who have chosen to be there. Gulpha Gorge was no exception. Our initial plan was to stay for two nights, but we enjoyed it so much we extended our stay an extra night.

There are no showers but there are modern bathhouses and all sites have full hook-ups. There is abundant firewood, free for the taking, and the camp hosts were friendly and helpful. Payment is by credit card only in an automated kiosk. All park maps, brochures and other information, including Junior Ranger books, are available on site, so you can get what you need to plan your stay without driving in to the visitor center.

Hot Springs National Park
Our little corner of Gulpha Gorge

Hot Springs National Park is not at all what we were expecting when we first planned our visit, but it has a lot to offer and we were pleasantly surprised by how much we enjoyed it there! It’s no longer the celebrity destination for health and healing, but if you find yourself in the area, it’s well worth a visit!



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