This national park is unusual in that there are no boundaries differentiating the park from the town. The town is actually part of the park. While here I discovered three different gift shop/information places with national park employees staffed and ready to answer questions and hand out maps and I’m sure there are even more. They are interspersed with commercial, privately owned enterprises so sometimes hard to tell what is what. Your best bet is to start in the historic district. There is a free three-story parking garage just across the street from two of the national park buildings in an area called Bathhouse Row.
After parking, you can walk most of Bathhouse Row which features the National Park Visitor’s Center as well as private spas, shops and tourist attractions like a wax museum. There is also metered parking on the street but it was so crowded both times I went that the parking garage was just a lot easier for me. One of the restored spa buildings is called Bathhouse Row Emporium, which I thought would be just a gift shop but it turned out to be staffed by National Park employees. While there, you can use a small paper cup provided to try some real hot springs water right out of one of the original ceramic fountains. They are stocked with books, spa items, and souvenirs. The staff member who helped me was glad to give me free materials and information on the hiking trails and the hot and cold springs. I even got a sheet listing the mineral content of each spring and they do vary as the water sources are from different geologic places.
Two doors down is the Fordyce Bathhouse Visitor’s Center which is a three-story authentic bathhouse circa 1912. National Park Employees give free tours throughout the day but you are welcome to do a self-guided tour also, which is what I did. The various rooms, equipment, and Art Deco designs made me wish I’d been able to spend a few days at one of these spas in the early 1900s.
There are two spas left that are still in the spa business, the rest of the buildings have been converted to other kinds of establishments, like a brewery. The spa packages were a little pricey so I decided to skip it here and go somewhere less touristy. The prices for massages, facials, pedicures, etc. were about double what I usually pay. Near the end of Bathhouse Row is the historic Arlington Resort and Hotel, which I didn’t visit, but boasts as being the largest hotel in Arkansas with 500 rooms. Also in this location, you will find a park with walking paths. And just up the hill on Fountain (you could walk from bathhouse row but I drove) is the Happy Hollow Spring where you are allowed to park for 15 minutes and fill up your water jugs for free. In the visitor’s center you can buy authentic glass bottles for your water but I drove to the Family Dollar and bought a plastic jug.
Across from Happy Hollow Spring begins a one-way road up the mountain to a 1920s observation gazebo and the Hot Springs Mountain Tower. There are places along the way to park and take pictures and there are several picnic areas. If you are feeling really energetic, there are hiking trails all the way from the town park to the top of the mountain. Vehicles over 30 feet are not allowed on Mountain Drive. There are a lot of switchbacks but speed limit is 25 so it wasn’t bad at all. The observation tower is where I found the third gift shop and national park employees. You can pay to go up the tower ($8 regular with discounts for those with a National Park Pass, seniors, students, military, etc.) but the day I went it was really socked in by fog and dogs aren’t allowed so we just took advantage of the walking trails.
There are family amusement attractions and museums here also but I just stuck to the historic district and drives through the mountains. Garvan Woodland Gardens seems to be a popular spot to visit but I didn’t take advantage because you are only allowed one dog per person. Bill Clinton’s childhood home is in the area but is privately owned and there are no tours. As you explore, be prepared for lots of traffic and crowds. It seems to be very busy even during winter months with rainy weather. I can’t even imagine what it’s like in the summer.