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The Bob and Sunny Evans Tree House in Garvan Gardens provides a fun place to learn about trees and wooded plants  (Photo courtesy Visit Hot Springs)

Featured Article

Hot Springs, Arkansas

Small, But Rich in Great Getaway Opportunities

What do you think of when you hear the phrase “national parks”? Sweeping scenery like the Grand Canyon, majestic mountains like the Grand Tetons, vast desert-like swaths of the Great Sand Dunes? Expect a long drive to visit any of these.

For those of us living in Oklahoma, the closest national park (excluding historic sites and trails, a wildlife refuge and recreation area) is in Arkansas: Hot Springs National Park ( And it’s the only national park that incorporates a city. The park’s eight-and-a-half square miles may be tiny in comparison to many other parks, but it encompasses a lot of history—and a lot of things to do.

Long known for its hot spring waters, this area was familiar first to Native Americans and, later, in the 1600s, to French hunters and traders. Following the Louisiana Purchase, an expedition launched by President Jefferson brought back reports of the Ouachita waters.

As publicity spread, more and more people made the arduous journey to bathe in what were purported to be healing waters. In 1832, the federal government, for the first time, set aside land to protect a natural resource.

Unfortunately, the boundaries were undefined, and springs-seekers claimed spots, some throwing up tents or building wooden structures. The government eventually stepped in, cleared the area out, and in 1921, Congress made Hot Springs the 18th national park.

Building was regulated and magnificent bathhouses popped up on what became known as Bathhouse Row. Many of these buildings remain today.

The first stop any history buff should make is to the Fordyce Bathhouse, now the park visitor center and museum.

Spa-ing Then and Now

The Buckstaff Bathhouse is the only original bathhouse featuring historic treatments. Don’t expect soft music and dim lighting. This is clinical—1920-style. The traditional bathing package (which I highly recommend) includes a whirlpool bath with a loofah scrub, sitz bath and hot packs followed by a needle shower.

My favorite part was the 20-minute Swedish massage at the end. You’ll feel like a limp noodle afterwards, but oh-so-good.

The Quapaw, another of the elegant originals, provides a more contemporary experience. The most impressive area features four large thermal mineral pools. For more personalized experiences, including aromatherapy, private tubs are available. The Quapaw also offers a wide range of massages and other spa services.

For the ultimate in contemporary spa treatments, the Astral Spa at Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort is one of the newest facilities in town.

Dry Delights

Choose a clear day to visit Hot Springs Mountain Tower, a 216-foot observation tower atop Hot Springs Mountain. In addition to a 140-mile, bird’s eye view, the tower has a museum with Hot Springs history, including celebrity gossip, baseball banter and Mafia myths.

My must-see when I’m in the area is Garvan Woodland Gardens, a 210-acre Eden along the shores of Lake Hamilton. In fall, the gardens glow with chrysanthemums, roses, camellias and fall foliage. Plantings run the gamut from formal beds to fields of wildflowers. The Children’s Garden is a wonder of nature accented by several architectural highlights, including the multi-level Evans Tree House dedicated to dendrology (the scientific study of trees).

Also in the gardens, the Anthony Chapel, inspired by E. Fay Jones’ Thorncrown Chapel in Eureka Springs, draws wedding couples with its glass and wood construction, which brings the outside in.

For those more athletically inclined than botanically curious, it’s possible to log up to five miles on garden paths. Closer to the historic district, the national park offers 26 miles of hiking trails. There are also a number of biking trails in the area.

Other attractions include Magic Mountain Theme and Water Park, the Mid-America Science Museum and the Gangster Museum. The proximity of Lake Hamilton opens up a myriad of opportunities, both wet and dry. Fisherfolk go after bass and channel catfish and a species I’m not familiar with, the pumpkinseed sunfish, said to be delicious.

Drink, Eat, Sleep

 Another unique feature of Hot Springs National Park is that it is the only national park with a brewery. Housed in a 1916 bathhouse building, Superior Bathhouse Brewery and Distillery was the first of the breweries in Hot Springs, and the first in the world to feature thermal spring water as the main ingredient.

Crystal Ridge Distillery was the first legal distillery in Hot Springs. Their flagship product is 120 proof Mule Kick. In addition, they have a number of flavored varieties, from maple bacon and peanut butter to peach and strawberry.

Asher Bradley, distillery general manager, said, “We’re tying moonshine into local history. Al Capone had ‘shine stills north of town, smuggling his product out in Mountain Valley Springs bottles.’”

For the perfect chaser, consider a visit to Mountain Valley Water Visitor Center. The elegant, 1900 building contains museum exhibits and lots of history.

From fancy to fast food, you won’t go hungry in Hot Springs. I love breakfast, and Hot Springs has several spots that hit my spot. The Pancake Shop has hit lots of spots in its 83-year history. The menu hasn’t changed much—a few new additions—but the quality is still tops. Check the sidebar for more of my faves.

This visit, I stayed right next to Oaklawn Race Track in the Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort. Homage to the track, a large color photo of racing horses graces one wall of my spacious and comfortable room, furnished with luxury linens, Matouk towels and fluffy bathrobes. If you enjoy casinos or are a racing fan (the season is December to May), this is the place you want to be.

Hot Springs has the usual assortment of chain accommodations. More unusual stays are listed in the sidebar.

I can’t think of another national park with so many great-getaway opportunities—city amenities, plus super scenery and outdoor activities. And, best of all, at under 400 miles from Oklahoma City, it’s a sweet day’s drive.

About Elaine: A travel writer for over 30 years, Elaine Warner has ridden in the gunwale of a helicopter, flown in hot air balloons, glided in an aircraft, zip-lined over Palo Duro Canyon and eaten her way through many cities. She has written two books, Insider’s Guide to Tulsa and More Than Petticoats: Remarkable Missouri Women.


Always check web sites for hours and days open

The Kollective Coffee + Tea: classy coffees, vegan and vegetarian options for breakfast and lunch

Best Café: a retro treat, great for breakfast and lunch

DeLuca’s Pizzeria: de pizza is de best

McClard’s ( A barbecue favorite since 1929 – Bill and Hillary ate here on their honeymoon

Vault ( in a 1909 bank building, bring money; this one’s for a special night out

Eden ( in the Hotel Hale, happy hour and dinner, brunch on the weekend


The Reserve at Hot Springs ( uber-elegant, in an 1890 mansion, includes gourmet breakfast

Best Court Cottages ( like the accompanying café, this is a time trip—back to a 1933 motor court—a fun stay

Hotel Hale ( on Bathhouse Row, this repurposed building has nine guest rooms, each uniquely decorated, each with geothermal, mineral water tubs

  • The Mountain Tower provides a bird’s-eye view of Hot Springs National Park  (photo courtesy Visit Hot Springs)
  • The Bob and Sunny Evans Tree House in Garvan Gardens provides a fun place to learn about trees and wooded plants  (Photo courtesy Visit Hot Springs)
  • Bathers enjoy a soothing soak in the ornate Quapaw Bathhouse (Photo courtesy Visit Hot Springs
  • Enjoy a 1930s vibe with 21st-century amenities at the Best Court Cottages (Photo by E. Warner)
  • Luxuriate in Gilded Age glory at The Reserve, a boutique hotel (Photo by E. Warner)
  • The Kollective is noted for its 3rd wave coffee and fresh, local culinary creations. (Photo by E. Warner)