By Kristy Alpert
Tucked away in the Ouachita Mountains of Central Arkansas—earning its name from the gallons of 143-degree thermal waters that flow from the ground each day—Hot Springs has long been a haven for natural immersions and relaxing escapes. Native Americans once referred to it as “the Valley of the Vapors,” but it wasn’t until a row of Victorian bathhouses were built that Hot Springs began to attract vacationers. In the late 1880s, baseball fans flocked to the town to see one of the first Spring Training fields that would later host Jackie Robinson and Babe Ruth, in the 1930s “Spa City” became inundated with mobsters taking respite in the discrete mountain town’s loose gambling laws, lively bars, and rejuvenating spas (it’s said Al Capone rented out entire floors at hotels for him and his bodyguards), but today people come to soak up Hot Springs’ historic sites and natural marvels.
The Greyhound bus from Dallas drops off in nearby Malvern, where it’s just a 30-minute taxi/Uber ride to Hot Springs. Interstate 30 is an almost direct shot between Dallas and Hot Springs at 4 hours and 21 minutes
INSIDER TIPDownload the Historic Hot Springs Baseball Trail app before arriving to learn more about the places and stories that made Hot Springs the birthplace of Major League Spring Training.
DAY1After a long drive in from either Memphis or Dallas, head straight to the Quapaw Bathhouse (open Thursday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.) for your inaugural mid-afternoon soak in Hot Springs’ famous healing waters. Travelers have been immersing themselves in the thermal waters at this spa since it opened in 1922, where it now includes thermal pools, private baths, massages, and even a steam cave powered directly by the natural thermal spring below. Stop in at the Bathhouse Row Emporium inside the former Lamar Bathhouse to buy locally made spa products and a glass water bottle to fill with the mineral-rich spring water flowing from fountains throughout the city before heading to the Gangster Museum of America to learn more about Hot Spring’s nefarious past. For dinner, simply stroll down the road to the Superior Bathhouse Brewery. Housed inside Al Capone’s allegedly favored former bathhouse, this brewpub uses the 144-degree thermal water from Hot Springs National Park in all their beers, including the Superior Pale Ale, aka SPA beer.DAY2Breakfast is served all day at Kollective Coffee and Tea, a third-wave coffee shop where everything is either organic or local…and often fair-trade, too. It’s hard to pick a favorite drink—a French lemon ginger rooibos tea, an Onyx Coffee Lab nitro cold brew, and a coconut lavender latte are only three of the hundreds of drink options—but their vegan frijoles ranchero served on freshly baked naan is an easy winner on the breakfast menu. Hot Springs was rated as a bronze-level ride center by the International Mountain Biking Association, and the Northwood Trails around the city range from joy ride to grueling, including the 33-mile IMBA Epic Ride at Womble Trail and the 108-mile Ouachita National Recreational Trail. Whether you’re into mountain biking or if you just want a leisurely ride through the city, Spa City Cycling has you covered for any rental needs or bike repairs. After working up an appetite on the trails, grab a seat at the 1950s-style bar inside local-favorite BubbaLu’s Bodacious Burgers and Classy Dogs. These award-winning, no-frills burgers are hand-pressed fresh each morning and are best served with an ice-cold beer or frosty malt.
After lunch, test your luck at Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort (a favorite horse betting venue of Al Capone and his men) or head to the Garvan Woodland Gardens near Lake Hamilton. There’s an adventure garden for kids and tons of walking trails, but the showstopper of this botanical garden is the Bob and Sunny Evans Treehouse (aka the Garvan Treehouse). The four-level treehouse is an Instagram story waiting to happen, where it floats and bends among the pine trees and oak trees. Stick nearby for dinner at The Fisherman’s Wharf, a steak and seafood restaurant located on the banks of Lake Hamilton, or sample some of the best Ark-Mex in the state at Diablos Tacos and Mezcal. Diablos pairs more than 50 different mezcals and tequilas with everything from al pastor tacos to salmon ceviche and Spanish-style tapas. Don’t make the mistake by calling their cheese dip “queso,” there’s a long-standing battle between Texas and Arkansas on who invented the dip first…but Diablos’ version is one of the best in both states.
For late-night drinks, head to the Ohio Club. This former speakeasy was once the heart of the mobster action back in Al Capone’s day, when gambling and bootlegged liquor kept the precarious patrons happy through the night.DAY3Only in Hot Springs would an authentic French creperie owned by a Ukrainian family who learned the art of crepe making while living in Brussels be right at home in an unassuming strip mall. Alexa’s Creperie opened shortly after the Plyakov family immigrated to the U.S. in 2013, when they began hand-making everything on site. They specialize in “crepes for all tastes,” but their Swiss cheese, scrambled egg, fresh spinach breakfast crepe with Arkansas Petit Jean ham is a local favorite.
After breakfast, grab your phone and head back to Bathhouse Row in the Hot Springs National Park. This National Park is unlike any other National Park System in that it is located within the limits of downtown Hot Springs, surrounded by shops and restaurants. Guided tours are available, but cell phone tour signs are located throughout the park for you to simply call in to get more info on the history of each marked area. There are more than 26 miles of hiking trails throughout the park though, so bring your water bottle and fill up at either of the two (filtered) cold water springs within the park before heading toward the 1.1-mile-long Goat Rock Trail starting at the overlook on North Mountain. A well-worn path winds through switchbacks as it climbs up to a scenic overlook rising forty feet above the Indian Mountain and east Hot Springs. Spend your last moments in Hot Springs soaking in the views without worrying about rushing back in time for lunch before leaving town, because Café 1217 offers gourmet boxed lunches to go. Chef Diana Bratton’s Black and Blue Sliders with shaved rib-eye, caramelized onions, and blue cheese on a toasted brioche bun may require a pit stop to be able to fully enjoy, but her house-made garlic pepper potato chips make for mess-free and delicious snacking while driving.
WHERE TO STAY
The Hotel Hale was one of the original bathhouses in Hot Springs. Built in 1892, the hotel has been remodeled into a boutique hotel where each of the nine rooms features exposed brick walls and luxurious soaking tubs fed by the thermal spring waters below. The Arlington Hotel is one of the city’s most impressive landmarks, where its two domed towers rise above Bathhouse Row. Presidents, celebrities, and gangsters have stayed at this almost 500-room hotel, where Al Capone’s favored room was 443 that allowed him to keep an eye on the goings-on at the Southern Club (now the Wax Museum) across the street.
WHEN TO GO
Spring and fall are busy seasons in Hot Springs when bathers can take to the warm waters and still head out into nature without so much as a chill. Summers are festive with the Hot Springs Music Festival and the “Running of the Tubs” occurring in early June. The World’s Shortest St. Patrick’s Day Parade happens every March along Bridge Street, and wintry strolls through the Garvan Woodland Gardens around the holidays are nothing short of magical.