by Lavanya Sunkara
As America’s first resort town, Hot Springs, Arkansas, still draws vacationers seeking European style spas, thermal springs, and a promise of a healthier lifestyle. This mountain town located in the Ouachita Mountains near Little Rock, is home to one of the smallest National Parks: Hot Springs National Park. The walkable downtown features the historic Bathhouse Row, Art Deco buildings, the famed Arlington Hotel, Fordyce Museum, and a hip new brewery housed in a former bathhouse. Just beyond the town, there are opportunities to explore the great outdoors in the Diamond Lakes Region. Find out here what makes the “Valley of the Vapors” a must-visit, year-round destination for a relaxing and rejuvenating getaway.
1) Hot Springs National Park
Hot Springs National Park became official in 1921, attracting those seeking healing from various ailments in its thermal waters. These waters aren’t a result of volcanic activity; they are a product of rainwater collected 4,400 years ago that had seeped through the bedrock, deep within the Zigzag mountains. Each of these mountains has a separate hot water system that bubbles back up due to water pressure, at 144 degrees Fahrenheit, and are diverted to spas and bathhouses. The city of Hot Springs is built right into the National Park, and the best view is from the Mountain Tower’s observation deck overlooking the surrounding hills and the town’s Art Deco buildings.
2) Historic Bathhouse Row
The historic Bathhouse Row sits on one side of the main street in downtown Hot Springs, with eight European style buildings managed by the Federal Government. During 1920s and 30s, people flocked to these bathhouses with prescriptions to get treated for syphilis, arthritis, hypertension, and even depression. The usage of the bathhouses declined after WWII due to medicinal developments and bathhouses began closing. However, at the Fordyce Bathhouse Museum, a Renaissance Revival-style spa with three levels and two courtyards, revisit history by taking a free guided tour of the actual baths, attire, and accoutrements from the era when bathhouses were popular.
3) Traditional Spa Treatments
In the beautiful Quapaw Baths & Spa bathhouse, travel back to the time of elaborate bathhouses with its lovely original windows and archways. There are no metal chairs or old-timey bathtubs here; the luxurious spa boasts modern amenities and comforts for the utmost pampering and treatments such as Chocolate Rose Mudslide and Coconut Milk Sugar Scrub. Those wanting a more authentic experience can choose the Arlington Resort Hotel & Spa, which has been hosting visitors since 1875, including Al Capone and Ronald Reagan. At the hotel’s Hot Springs Spa and Salon, treat yourself to a bath in an old-fashioned bathtub followed by a massage as part of a Hydrotherapy package.
4) Garvan Woodland Gardens
Visiting the Garvan Woodland Gardens is a treat one shouldn’t miss; this University of Arkansas botanical garden is located just 20 minutes from downtown. Situated along the Lake Ouachita shoreline, the Gardens are spread across 210 acres. Enjoy the early morning bird calls and fresh air as you leisurely walk through several gardens, from a serene Japanese Garden, pinewood garden, to a Southern Inspiration garden. Bring your dog, feed the peacocks that strut their stuff near various buildings, or simply sit back and relax. The garden features 60 varieties of Japanese maple, coy in the ponds, and a magical fairy garden for kids. Recently, Garvan opened a fun, interactive treehouse, floating among pines and oaks in the Evan’s Children Adventure Garden, designed to teach kids about nature.
5) Anthony Chapel at Garvan Woodlands
The Garvan Woodlands Gardens also feature a stunning architectural delight– the breathtaking Anthony Chapel, under a thick canopy of towering southern pines and oaks. Six stories tall, the chapel has floor-to-ceiling glass walls, massive wooden beams, and columns that seamlessly bring in the surroundings. Natural light dances across the interior in this tranquil space ideal for quiet reflection. The 160-seat chapel was ranked as the #2 Coolest Place in America to Get Married by Buzzfeed in 2013, and is a perfect location for those wanting a gorgeous natural setting for their nuptials. Brides and grooms quarters are available on premises.
6) Superior Bathhouse Brewery
A new brewery in town is quickly rising to fame for being the only one in the country brewing beer with 144 degree thermal water. Rose Schweikhart, a New Jersey transplant, realized her dream when she leased the Superior Bathhouse from the federal government and transformed it into a brewery. Superior Bathhouse Brewery features a craft beer tasting room, full service restaurant, and event space. You’ll even find a few old bathtubs lying around. The Superior Bathhouse team is constantly putting out new beers from the original to the outlandish, such as Beez Kneez, a kolsch brewed with Arkansas honey and local basil (which pairs well with their mushroom panini), the Two in the Tank, an imperial hefeweizen style beer with orange notes, and the Wine Barrel Aged Double Chocolate Stout.
7) Lake Ouachita Vista Trail
Along the southern shoreline of Lake Ouachita, The Lake Ouachita Vista Trail (LOViT) meanders through mountain slopes through a hardwood and pine forest, opening up at several spots to scenic lake views. In the spring and summer, beautiful displays of wildflowers greet hikers and bikers along the way. You may even find the long abandoned site of a bootlegger’s rusted barrels and empty glass jugs coated in moss, evidence of the area’s fascinating past. The trail is designed for all levels and covers 45 miles of shoreline and ridge top.
8) Lookout Point Lakeside Inn
As far as lakefront inns go, the Lookout Point Lakeside Inn is among the best. Sitting on the shores of Lake Hamilton, this charming bed & breakfast, with its impeccably maintained landscapes, hammocks, and elegant bedrooms overlooking the lake is perfect for a relaxing getaway. Located just a short drive from downtown Hot Springs, Lookout Point was voted the #6 Top Hotel for Romance in the US on TripAdvisor. That’s no surprise, given the natural beauty surrounding the property, rooms with bathtubs (bath salts are provided, too), electric fireplaces, balconies with rocking chairs, gourmet breakfast, and the warm hospitality of owners Nancy and Sam. In the evenings, guests can enjoy a wine and cheese reception, followed by a 90-minute cruise on the lake on the owners’ 24 foot pontoon Harris boat, that comes with leather seats, shade, and slots for your wine glasses. Traveling with your pooch? The inn has three dog-friendly rooms, and the kitchen staff are happy to indulge your canine with specially made cuisine at breakfast.
Lavanya Sunkara is a writer based in New York. Her love of adventure has taken her all over the world from Australia to Zanzibar. As a journalist, she has contributed to outlets such as New York Times, NBC, and Forbes among others. When she’s not traveling, she’s hiking with her dogs and planning her next getaway. Follow her on Instagram and read her articles at nature-traveler.com.