Until I visited, I wasn’t very familiar with the town of Hot Springs beyond its namesake national park. During my recent visit however, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that there are so many great things to do in Hot Springs, Arkansas on a family vacation!
Hot Springs is located in central Arkansas, about an hour west of Little Rock in the beautiful Ouachita Mountains, which happen to be one of the only east/west mountain ranges in the country. If is most known for its hot springs, which have been attracting visitors for hundreds of years, in hopes that the waters could help heal a wide variety of ailments.
But what many don’t know is that this incredibly scenic mountain town is steeped in fascinating history featuring some of the most notorious individuals of the early 20th Century. Al Capone, Marilyn Monroe, Babe Ruth, and Mae West are just some of the people who have their names tied to a town that was in many ways “Las Vegas” before Las Vegas even existed.
From history to nature to digging for treasure, Hot Springs has so much to offer families who might be coming to check another national park off their list, but quickly discover that this destination is much more than the park.
Did you know? Hot Springs National Park is one of only two national parks located in the “Path of Totality” for the solar eclipse which will take place April 8, 2024. The other is Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio.
Explore more of the state! Here are some of our favorite things to do in Arkansas with kids.
The Best Things to do in Hot Springs, Arkansas on a Family Vacation
Take a Ranger Led Tour and Visit the Hot Springs National Park Museum
Hot Springs has been a national park for over 100 years. The Fordyce, a former bathouse on the park’s famed Bathhouse Row, houses the national park’s visitor center and museum. This bathhouse has been restored to its early 20th-century appearance, allowing visitors to step back in time and see what a bathhouse experience was like during the heyday of the spa industry in Hot Springs.
The Fordyce Bathhouse operated from 1915-1962. Business declined sharpely when Arkansas governor Winthrop Rockefeller but the kibosh on illegal gambling in town. While you can tour the Fordyce at your own pace, I think it is best to add a free ranger-led tour to your experience as well. Be sure to watch the park video before touring the museum to help orient yourself as you explore the park and town.
Highlights of the museum include treatment rooms featuring the same old-fashioned tubs and teatment equipment used in traditional bathhouse “prescriptions”, gorgeous stained glass artwork, an early 20th Century gymnasium filled with equipment that will make you giggle, and the originaly Fordyce spring on display in the basement.
Trekaroo tip: Don’t forget to grab a Junior Ranger booklet at the Fordyce. Upon completion kids will be sworn in as Junior Rangers and receive the coveted Hot Springs National Park Junior Ranger pin! They also have Adventure Backpacks for kids to check out.
Visit a Display Spring and Stroll the Grand Promenade
Most of the springs in Hot Springs are capped and look like green metal boxes on the side of Hot Springs Mountain, but there are still a couple display springs which you can visit to see the mineral spring water reaching the surface in a more natural state. Two of these display springs are found behind the Maurice, which is adjacent to the Fordyce.
There are also a few thermal fountains along Bathhouse Row, as well as a hot water cascade next to the Arlington Lawn just off the Grand Promenade. If you would like to bottle some water to bring home, bring some empty water jugs over to the jug fountain near the park administration building and fill ’em up!
Did you know? It takes 4,500 years for rain to trickle through the cracks in the brittle rock of the Ouachita Mountains and emerge from the hot springs. That means the water coming from the springs today fell as rain around the same time period as when the pyramids were being built in Egypt!
The Grand Promenade is a wide, brick-paved walkway that runs along the western slope of Hot Springs Mountain just behind Bathhouse Row. It has been a popular place for generations to enjoy walking while taking in the views. It is about a half mile long and a nice way to stretch your legs in between visits to the area’s indoor attractions.
Hike One of the Hot Springs National Park Trails
While the historic bathhouses dominate most visitor experiences at Hot Springs National Park, there are actually 26 miles of hiking trails to explore. They range in difficulty from easy to strenuous and many of them begin just off the town’s main drag, Central Avenue, and wind their way into the deciduous forests that line the mountains that surround the city.
Several of the trails go up and around Hot Springs Mountain, which is where the hot springs originate. The Sunset Trail covers about 10 miles of the Ouachita Mountains that surround the town. If you are hoping to see wildlife, head to the trails on West Mountain side which are more quiet and less traveled.
Climb to the Top of the Hot Springs Mountain Tower and Enjoy the View
The Hot Springs Mountain Tower sits atop Hot Springs Mountain and stands at 216 feet tall. Visitors can take an elevator ride to the glass-enclosed observation deck at the top. From there you can enjoy 360-degree views of the city of Hot Springs, Bath House Row, Lake Hamilton, Lake Ouachita, and the Ouachita Mountains.
You can take the short (0.6 miles) but steep Peak Trail from behind the park visitor center and hike up to the tower, or simply drive up Hot Springs Mountain and park in the lot near the tower. Admission to the tower is $13 for adults and $9 for kids 5-11. Children under five are free.
Experience a Tradional Bathhouse Experience at the Buckstaff
The Buckstaff Bathouse opened in 1912 and is the only traditional bathhouse still operating of the original eight on Bath House Row. If you love history and are interested in the opportunity to experience
the services that were offered over 100 years ago, make it a priority to visit! Teens as young as 14 are welcome in the Buckstaff.
The traditional bath includes a whirlpool mineral bath with loofa scrub, steam towel wrap, steam box experience, sitz bath, and a 20-minute full body massage. You may wear a swimsuit, but it isn’t required.
I have to say, while I probably wouldn’t make this traditional bath experience a regular occurence, I am really glad I did it. It was very neat to step back in time and I just had to laugh at how silly I felt with my head sticking out of that metal steam box. The staff was wonderful and the experience was something I will never forget.
You can purchase massages and baths separately or in the traditional bath experience package. There are also facials and massages available by appointment.
The Buckstaff does not take reservations for baths or massages, so I suggest you show up an hour before they open in the morning or around 12:30 to be one of the first treated after the lunch break, especially during the busy summer season and on weekends. I also recommend that bring along some cash to tip- these folks work hard!
Have a More Modern Spa Experience at Quapaw Baths
If you are looking to enjoy a modern spa experience on Bathhouse Row, the Quapaw is for you! There are no steam boxes or sitz baths, only contemporary treatments akin to what us spa-goers are used to. Like the Buckstaff, guests be at least 14 to enjoy the services.
Most services are reservation only, with the exception of the mineral water pools. The pools are $25 to access, which makes them an afforable experience for those wanting to soak in Hot Springs’ famed waters.
This spa offers a wide variety of masssage and facial options, as well as private baths and the opportunity to enjoy their thermal mineral water steam cave.
Enjoy Rootbeer, Beer, and Seltzer at the Only Brewery in a National Park!
Superior Bathhouse was once one of the famed healing spas on Bathhouse Row. After it closed down, the building sat vacant for 30 years. Thankfully, tuba-player-turned-microbrewer Rose Schweikhart worked her way through all that famed federal red tape to convert the building into a brewery and restaurant while still maintaining its historic integrity.
In addition to being the only brewery in a national park, Superior Bathhouse Brewery is also the only brewery that uses thermal spring water to create its brews! Like many breweries these days, this is a family-friendly establishment with homemade rootbeer to entice the kids and non-drinkers in your group.
There are mainstays on their beer menu as well as seasonal concoctions, and a few different beer flight options that allow to you sample several of their beers at once. There is even an option to get a flight to sample all 18 of their beers (I suggest you share it with a friend). If you are not a friend of gluten, try their mango seltzer which is made onsite.
Food options include burgers, salads, sandwiches, loaded potatoes (with the most amazing bacon ever!), and even entrees for the pups if you have brought Fido along. I suggest asking for a spot on their lovely outdoor patio if the weather is nice.
Mountain Bike the Northwoods Trail System
Hot Springs is a mountainous place so it is no surprise that it has become quite up and comer in the mountain biking community. Northwoods is home to over 30 miles of bike trail and it is located just five minute from downtown Hot Springs!
The Northwoods system has four different parking areas which allow for sccess to green, blue, and lack single track trails. The Cedar Glades trailhead at Cedar Glades Park has a bike skills park. The park also has nature trails for hiking, a playground, disc golf course, and even a radio controlled airplane flying field!
If you don’t have your own bikes you can rent them (including kid’s bikes) from Hot Springs Bicycle Touring Company.
Explore the City-Owned Side of Dowtown
The main drag in downtown Hot Springs is Central Avenue. This street is lined with shops and dining in historic buildings on one side, and the bathhouses of Hot Springs National Park on the other.
There are lots of little places to pop into including the Gangster Museum of America, the Pancake House, and the Ohio Club which I highlight below. Beyond those places, I also recommend visiting the Bathhouse Soapery and Caldarium, It’s about Rocks, Buffalo Clothing Store, and Kollective Coffee and Tea which serves fantastic caffeinated beverages as well as a variety of tasty treats for those of us who have dietary restrictions like Celiac or being vegan.
This portion of town is bustling during the daytime, but most shops do shut down around 5pm, so plan on getting your shopping done early. Restaurants and bars do stay open later.
Learn About Hot Springs History at the Gangster Museum of America
Before there was Vegas, there was Hot Springs. Gambling and bootlegging brought visitors to the town just as much as the healing waters did in those days. This was considered neutral territory where notorious gangsters like Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, and Owney Madden came to soak in the waters and partake in some of the more nefarious persuits.
Touring the Gangster Museum of America helped me realize just how much history this small town has to offer. We toured seven galleries with a great guide who shared stories and brought Hot Springs’ colorful history to life. There a several galleries to tour, including an antique casino.
There is also a gallery dedicated to Hot Springs’s baseball history. Did you know that Hot Springs was once home to Major League Baseball Spring Training? Cy Young, Babe Ruth, and Honus Wagner all partipated in Spring Training in Hot Springs, which was once home to seven baseball fields.
The Gangster Museum is located right on Central Avenue just across the street from the national park. If you love history and great storytelling, make it a priority.
Check Out the city’s Baseball Trail
Hot Springs’ thermal baths and mild climate made it an attractive location for Spring Training during the early 20th Century. Players believed that the mineral-rich waters aided in recovery and preparation for the baseball season.
Cy Young, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner all partipated in Spring Training in Hot Springs, which was once home to seven baseball fields. The Pittsburgh Pirates, Boston Red Sox, Chicago White Stockings, and Cincinnati Reds are just some of the teams that trained there, especially in the early 20th Century.
Hot Springs has developed a Baseball Trail which can be toured for free via a smartphone app. The trail offers an educational experience, where visitors can learn about Hot Springs baseball history, the training routines of early baseball players, and the cultural impact of the sport on the city. Some locations along the trail feature interactive elements, such as audio recordings, exhibits, and multimedia presentations.
Have Breakfast at the Pancake Shop
If you have breakfast in one place in Hot Springs, it should be the Pancake Shop. This breakfast joint has been an institution on Central Avenue since 1940. Pancakes are as big as your plate and are either buttermilk or buckwheat with tasty toppings like apple, blueberry, and banana.
If pancakes aren’t your thing, they have terrific omelets as well. The orange juice is squeezed fresh and the ham steaks are center cut. This is the down home cooking you expect when visiting Arkansas. No wonder there is usually a line to get in!
Thankfully you can browse in the Savory Pantry artisan food boutique next door and they will call your name inside once your table is ready.
Dine Where the Gangsters Dined at the Ohio Club
The Ohio Club is filled with history and a fun place to eat right on Central Avenue. It has a long and colorful history, dating back to the early 1905. As a matter of fact, it is the oldest bar still operating in Arkansas.
The Ohio Club was a popular gathering place for famous gangsters, politicians, and celebrities during the city’s era of illegal gambling and bootlegging during Prohibition. Gangsters such as Al Capone, Bugsy Siegel, and Lucky Luciano were known to have frequented the Ohio Club and both Mae West and Al Jolsen performed there. Bullet holes can still be spotted in the restaurant’s original tin roof!
The food here is casual, and the menus specializes in burgers and sandwiches. Be sure to leave room for their funnel cake fries for dessert. The Ohio Club has an extensive cocktail menu, so order something fun while you are there!
Note: The Ohio Club is closed on Wednesdays.
Mine for Crystals at Avant Mining
Arkansas is well-known among rockhounds as a major destination for crystal collecting and Avant Mining is the best place to find quartz treasures you can take home.
Avant is located in the Ouachita Mountains where silica-rich water and millions of years of compression have created some of the world’s largest and finest deposits of quartz crystals. This mine has gained a big celebrity following, with athletes and actors who are household names paying thousands of dollars to mine the most exclusive and prolific quartz pockets around.
Thankfully, you don’t need thousands of dollars to access the quartz. For just $25 per person you can spend all day digging in the dirt for crystal treasures. Everyone finds a treasure of their own and there is something so exciting about discovering a piece of quartz! I’m not going to lie, it is pretty addictive!
If the weather is warm, be prepared for a day in the full sun. Many folks bring pop-ups for shade as well as hats, sunglasses, and sunscreen. You may even want to pack a picnic lunch to eat by your car. You can bring your own tools or borrow some from the shop. Definitely wear close-toed shoes and clothes that can get dirty.
Whatever you find, is yours! I was amazed at the treasures I walked away with during my short visit. The crystals are so pretty and there are many people who believe in the healing power of quartz. My kids and I could easily spend hours digging through the dirt and rock for quartz crystals.
Avant Mining is about 40 minutes downtown Hot Springs but this is a day trip worth taking and will likely be the highlight of the trip for kids who love to look for treasures.
Their shop has great displays of crystals and stones from around the world, including the largest piece of turquoise in North America which was found in Arkansas. The staff is enthusiastic, friendly, and willing to share tips on the best way to discover something extra special and how to get it clean and sparkling for display.
One unexpected treat was the coffee shop onsite. There are trained baristas on staff who can brew up all different sorts of fancy coffee treats.
Before you visit check out the Avant Mining Instagram page to see Reels of some of their incredibly impressive discoveries.
Have Dinner in a Speakyeasy at DONS Southern Social
If you have teens or tweens that are looking for a trendy and fun experience, you will definitely want to snag reservations for DONS Southern Social, a true speakeasy-style restaurant by acclaimed local chef Joshua Garland.
They will love that you will get a secret password and enter through one of two secret entrances (I won’t spoil any of the surprises). Once inside you will find a lively atmosphere and great, elevated Southern food. This spot is only open Thursday through Monday, and it is definitely popular.
Fried chicken, shrimp and grits, duck breast over polenta, and pork belly are just some of the dishes that my group raved about. The service was fantastic and they drinks are great as well. I suggest ordering a Sake cocktail which uses locally-made Origame Sake.
Save room for dessert. They always have something special to offer like chocolate chip creme brulee and bread pudding with hot caramel sauce. Yum!
Get Outside at Garvan Woodland Gardens
Garvan Woodland Gardens is a 210-acre garden situated on the shores of Lake Hamilton. It was a gift from philanthropist Verna Cook Garvan who donated the gardens to the University of Arkansas system in order to preserve and enhance the Ouachita Mountain environment.
While you can (and should) walk the various paths that wind through the gardens, I also suggest taking a golf cart tour of the property. These tours are led by knowledgeable guides who provided insights into the various plant collections, gardens, and the overall history and design of the area.
One of the Garden’s highlights is a lovely Japanese garden with an impressive koi pond. It is known to be one of the best Japanese gardens in the country. In the spring Garvan Woodland Gardens is also well-known for its impressive tulip displays.
There are two architectural gems that you will want to visit while touring the gardens. The first is the magnificent Anthony Chapel. Designed by Maurice Jennings, it is a stunning glass and wood chapel that integrates modern design with the natural surroundings to make it a standout feature.
The other is the Bob and Sunny Evans Treehouse. The elevated, boomerang-shaped structure is surrounded by pine and oak trees and gives visitors a birds eye view of the surrounding scenery. It is fun to explore and the design is truly gorgeous. The Treehouse is part of the Evan’s Children’s Adventure Garden area which has a waterfall, cave, crawdad hole, and a maze made up of 3,200 tons of Arkansas boulders.
If you visit during the holiday season you will want to experience the impressive Holiday Lights experience when festive lights illuminate the gardens. The pathways, trees, and structures are adorned with colorful lights, creating a magical and enchanting atmosphere. It is definitely the most popular time of year to visit.
Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort
Outside of the downtown area you will find lots of other fun things to do in Hot Springs with kids. One of the most popular attractions is Oaklawn, a Thoroughbred racetrack and casino.
The racing season runs from December through May and while kids may not place bets, they are very much welcome at the races. It is so much fun to pick a horse and then cheer for it to win!
The Mainline Sports Bar at Oaklawn has games the whole family can enjoy playing like shuffleboard, axe throwing, three top golf swing suites, and air hockey.
Magic Springs Theme Park
If your kids enjoy visits to theme parks then you may want to visit Magic Springs. This is a combo waterpark and theme park, with a variety of rides including five coasters and about 10 water slides. There are also several rides for the little ones.
Magic Springs definitely isn’t Disneyland, but if you are feeling the urge to spend the day riding rides and water slide, this is the only place around to do it.
Mid-America Science Museum
The Mid-America Science Museum’s mission is to stimulate interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) through interactive exhibits, educational programs, and engaging activities.
The museum has a wide range of interactive exhibits designed to make science and technology concepts accessible and enjoyable. These exhibits cover feature physics, biology, astronomy, and the museum is known for its Tesla coil, which is used to demonstrate principles of electricity and magnetism.
Another opopular attraction is the Bob Wheeler Science Skywalk, an elevated walkway that provides visitors with a unique perspective on the surrounding forest and offers opportunities for outdoor exploration. There are lots of things for kids to climb around on and explore.
The museum has a planetarium that offers astronomy programs, including shows about the night sky and space exploration.
Experience Lake Life
Hot Springs is surrounded by several lakes, and the most popular to visit are Lake Hamilton and Lake Ouachita.
Lake Hamilton is a reservoir on the Ouachita River known for its boating activities. You can rent boats, jet skis, and pontoons from marinas around the lake. It is a popular place to fish for bass, crappie, and catfish.
Lake Ouachita is the largest lake in Arkansas and is known for its clear waters filled with striped bass and largemouth bass. It is is a paradise for boaters, with marinas providing boat rentals and slips. It is surrounded by over 1.8 million acres of Ouachita National Forest.
Discover the City’s Murals
Hot Springs is home to several beautiful murals throughout town. They are fun to discover as you explore the city. There are over a dozen throughout the city and HotSprings.org has a nice guide to some of their locations that you can use to experience them all.
One of the newest murals is “Remember” which was created in spring of 2022 by the artist Danae Brissonnet. It is a tribute to the nature, history and people of Hot Springs and located on 110 Central Avenue. Another mural you won’t want ot miss is “Black Broadway” which celebrates the Malvern Avenue
area which was known as Black Broadway from the 1930s to the 1960s.
Learn About the Clinton Connection to Hot Springs
While Former President Bill Clinton was famously born in Hope, Arkansas, he actually grew up in Hot Springs. His boyhood home is on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, and visitors can see the home (known as Birnbaum-Shubetz House) at 1011 Park Avenue.
While the city doesn’t seem too keen to promote its association with President Clinton much, there is a self-guided tour online where you can visit some of the landmarks in town that were significant to his childhood.
Where to Stay in Hot Springs with Kids
In the Trees
After spending a couple nights in one of the brand new treehouses at In The Trees, I was ready to move in and not come home. This gorgeous new resort is made up of treehouses and cabins spread out over 500 acres in the Ouachita Mountains, just a couple minutes from the heart of downtown.
Don’t let the word “treehouse” lead you to believe this is a rustic experience; in fact it is anything but!
I stayed in the Grasshopper, a luxury treehouse with one bedrom with a king bed, a loft with a queen bed and two twin lofted beds, and two full bathrooms. There was also a full kitchen, dining area, fireplace, and an expansive deck patio with seating. But, the best part was the private hot tub that sat lofted in the trees with incredible mountain views.
I loved that I could easily visit all the “goings on” in town and then slip away into the privacy and tremendous beauty of the forest. Most treehouses can sleep six people, making them perfect for families. They are continuing to build more and more cabins and treehouses throughout the property.
Best Court Cottages
If you are looking for something more historic and “in town”, check out Best Court Cottages. Best Court has been in business since 1933, and their renovated cottages still have all that charm from the ’30s. Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio used to stay at this property during their love affair!
Best Cafe, the restaurant adjacent to the lodging, also happens to be one of the best breakfast spots in town. The chef behind Best Cafe, Joshua Gardland, is the same person behind the DONS Southern Social. Their Confit Pork Belly Skillet Hash is ridiculously good. I’ve heard great things about the Creme Brulee French toast as well.
The Arlington Resort Hotel & Spa
The Arlington Resort Hotel & Spa is perhaps the most historic hotel in all of Hot Springs. It sits prominently on the corner of Fountain Street and Central Avenue, and his been hosting mobsters, celebrities, and visitors hoping to soak in the famed hot springs since 1924. Four US Presidents have stayed here over the years.
The Arlington is just a short walk from Bathouse Row and in the heart of downtown. There are some rooms in the hotel where hot springs mineral water can piped directly into a tub and shower! The property is undergoing some updates right now so check with the hotel before booking to make sure you won’t be inconvenienced during your stay.
Thank you so much to Visit Hot Springs for hosting a media tour so that the author could research and deliver an unbiased article about Hot Springs to Trekaroo readers. All opinions are her own.