Welcome to Hot Springs, America’s First National Park

Most National Parks preserve wilderness areas that are largely untouched by human development. Hot Springs National Park is an exception to this rule. Located in Hot Springs, Arkansas, this national park includes a row of historic bathhouses in the middle of the city. The park also features a network of hiking trails on the adjacent mountains.

Given the park’s location in the town of Hot Springs, it is an unusually accessible National Park. We ended up staying at the Happy Hollow Motel near downtown and were able to explore both the hiking trails and bathhouses on foot.

America’s First National Park

I always thought that Yosemite or Yellowstone was America’s first National Park. It turns out that this is incorrect… depending on how one defines “first National Park”.

The location currently occupied by Hot Springs National Park was first set aside by the federal government for the purposes of recreation in 1832. The area was known as the “Hot Springs Reservation” as this was well before the concept of national parks existed in the United States. The designation was changed to National Park status in 1921 by an act of Congress.

While Yellowstone was technically designated as our nation’s first National Park, this didn’t happen until 1872 – long after the Hot Springs Reservation had been created by the Federal Government. The Hot Springs Reservation was also established 32 years before the Yosemite Grant preserved the area that would later become Yosemite National Park.

Welcome to Hot Springs National Park! This sign is located in the middle of downtown Hot Springs.
Thermal waters from the hot springs are located in the park behind the bathhouses
The promenade behind bathhouse row is a great place to view the thermal springs
Thermal waters flowing from one of many fountains in Hot Springs National Park. Photo by Daniel.

Bathhouse Row

Bathhouse Row features a grand collection of bathing houses from the Gilded Age of architecture. Here, the waters of Hot Springs National Park are piped into bathing houses for visitors to enjoy. The Park’s headquarters are located in one of the bathhouses in the middle of the row.

Of particular interest on Bathhouse Row is the Superior Bathhouse Brewery. Located in the historic Superior Bathhouse, the brewery leases the building from Hot Springs National Park. The Brewery uses thermal spring water in the brewing process and holds the distinction as the only brewery inside of a National Park.

The Visitor Center is located in the historic Fordyce Bathhouse. It’s currently closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Quapaw Bathhouse
Buckstaff Bathhouse
Superior Bathhouse, home to the Superior Bathhouse Brewery
Sampling some of the beers from the Superior Bathhouse Brewery. They are quite good!

Happy Hollow Spring

While the thermal bathwaters are the main attraction at Hot Spring National Park, there are other ways to partake of the waters. A number of fountains have been set up across town to make the park’s cold spring water available for public consumption. One of the fountains, located at Happy Hollow Spring, was located right behind our hotel.

Daniel and I wandered over one afternoon to try the water and were pleasantly surprised. The water tasted amazing. We came back a few minutes later with Appa and filled every water bottle and jug we could find.

Daniel samples the waters at the Happy Hollow Spring
Filling all of our water bottles at the Happy Hollow Spring
We stayed in the Happy Hollow Motel for a few nights which is located next to downtown and across the street from lots of hiking trails. Two Thumbs up!

Hot Springs, Childhood Home of Bill Clinton

As we planned our trip, I was surprised to learn that Hot Springs is Bill Clinton’s hometown. He lived in Hot Springs as a child and graduated from high school here.

Even better, the city has a wonderfully cheesy “Welcome to Hot Springs” sign featuring Bill Clinton. I was super excited to get a photo taken with the sign. We looked all over town for a while and couldn’t find it. Eventually, Daniel spotted this suspiciously empty-looking sign-holder next to the visitor center.

The ladies at the visitor center confirmed that the sign has been removed for cleaning. Alas! We did manage to find Clinton’s former high school though.

The Welcome to Hot Springs Sign featuring Bill Clinton is supposed to be in this location. Photo by Daniel.
Here is what the sign is supposed to look like. Photo from waymarking.com.
Bill Clinton’s High School. The location is now an apartment building.

Hiking in Hot Springs National Park

Hot Springs National Park features miles of hiking trails which ramble along the hills behind Bathhouse Row. I was pleased to learn that the trails are easily accessible from downtown. In fact, all I had to do was walk across the street from our hotel.

I decided to explore the trails one foggy morning and spent a few hours rambling through the woods.

Hiking in Hot Springs National Park on a foggy morning
Hot Springs Mountain Tower
The view from the mountain tower. Not much of a view today!
Goat Rock Overlook
Trees shrouded in mist
My hiking route in Hot Springs National Park. This loop was about 4.5 miles.

Where are we now?

We are at Hot Springs National Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas! This photo is taken from the Gulpha Gorge Campground.

Dates: October 26-27, 2020
Great American Road Trip Status: Days 113-114
Location: Hot Springs, AR
Total Trip Mileage: 8153.1

For more details on our Great America (Socially Distanced) Road Trip, see my previous posts:

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