If you look at an aerial view of Hot Springs, Arkansas, you see a few rows of buildings squeezed in between wild, green mountains. This resort town, about an hour southwest of Little Rock, is an unusual place where you can walk out the door of your downtown hotel and within minutes be shopping at boutiques, taking the waters in a historic bathhouse or hiking a national park trail. I visited in October, as COVID-19 ramped up nationwide and everybody seemed to be seeking outdoor activities. I found plenty in Hot Springs.
Outdoors fun in Hot Springs
Hot Springs National Park encompasses both the cultural assets of Bathhouse Row and the natural resources, such as many miles of trails in the Ouachita Mountains. Because bathhouses aren’t as popular as they were in 1900, the park has to think of new strategies to maintain its rank as the 18th most-visited U.S. national park. “It’s a lot of work to keep the park relevant to the American public,” said park ranger Ashley Waymouth. She’s preparing programming for 2021, the park’s centennial. Some of the plans revolve around that magic number 100, such as rallying people to donate 100 hours of volunteer work to the park in 2021 or walk/bike/paddle 100 miles in Arkansas. There will even be a special ‘bark ranger’ event for dogs.
Early Hot Springs medical practitioners prescribed walks of various distances and altitude gains as part of their patients’ health regimens. Today within the national park, the Hot Springs and North Mountain Trails and the West Mountain Trails offer hiking options ranging from short, scenic loops to the 10-mile Sunset Trail. Many of the trails are interconnected. A short walk from downtown, the Peak Trail leads you to the Hot Springs Mountain Tower. You can take an elevator or walk 300-plus steps up the 216-foot tower to get a panoramic view of the surrounding forest. Once you reach the open-air observation deck, you’re 1,256 feet above sea level and can admire 140 square miles of park and mountain views.
For a more cultivated outdoors experience, venture about 8 miles from town to Garvan Woodland Gardens. Now run by the University of Arkansas’ Fay Jones School of Architecture + Design, the garden started out as the personal project of philanthropist and lumber heiress Verna Cook Garvan. Now, visitors wander 5 miles of paved pathways through an ever-changing landscape, be it an explosion of daffodils in spring or fall color in October. The garden also attracts architecture buffs, especially to see the spectacular Anthony Chapel, a light-filled structure of glass, wood and stone. In 2018, a gorgeous and innovative treehouse opened within the Evans Children’s Adventure Garden, delighting adult visitors as well.
Hot Springs is also a mountain biking destination. The Northwoods Trail System has 26 miles of single-track, multi-track and other types of trails, plus a bike skills park, to keep beginning to advanced riders entertained for days. Northwoods hosts the annual Gudrun MTB Festival each November. Trail runners and hikers can also use this trail system.
The city of 37,000 was founded on wellness, and you’ll still find options along those lines. Some visitors expect natural hot springs like you find in the west. But Hot Springs’ water is protected. Springs are covered, and their flow is directed. You can still experience the water at two of Hot Springs’ historic bathhouses. The Buckstaff is a bit more old-school, while the Quapaw operates more like a modern spa. When I visited in October, public bathing was still happening despite COVID-19. Bathers were asked to social distance in the Quapaw’s multiple pools of varying temperatures. The water felt good, but not as relaxing as it would’ve been in pre-pandemic times.
Hot Springs has several yoga studios, including Om Lounge Yoga and The Yoga Place. For the safest options during the pandemic, check out Garvan’s schedule of outdoor classes, such as yoga and tai chi in the garden.
During my October visit, I found a couple of places for excellent vegan food. The best meal I had was lunch at the Superior Bathhouse: hot, salty, blistered shishito peppers followed by a Vietnamese-inspired veggie and noodle bowl. The tofu was so good, I suspected it was from an obscure Arkansas soy artisan, but it turned out to be the magic of the Superior’s chef.
For breakfast or a caffeine fix, Kollective Coffee + Tea is the place to go. Owner Kevin Rogers’ family has long been into coffee, including a Christmas tradition of sending each other unusual coffees. “We’d try to one-up each other every year,” he said. Rogers was surprised when he found the best cup of coffee close to home. Onyx Coffee Lab, an award-winning roaster in Northwest Arkansas, supplies Kollective with its coffees. I had to agree it was one of the best soy cappuccinos I ever had.
Kollective draws local and visiting vegans from around the country. “It’s pretty significant for us based on how rare it is in town,” Rogers said of the demand for the restaurant’s vegan dishes. In addition to a changing assortment of vegan pastries and mini cheesecakes, Kollective offers a couple of plant-based full breakfasts, including vegan frijoles rancheros.
SQZBX is open for takeaway during the pandemic. This pizzeria offers vegan cheese, which is not exactly widely available in Arkansas.
Where to stay
I stayed at The Waters, which afforded a lively view of Hot Springs’ main drag. George Mann, best known for designing the Arkansas State Capitol, was the building’s main architect. It was called the Thompson Building when it was built in 1913 and originally housed doctors’ offices catering to visitors taking the healing waters. After a huge renovation in 2017, The Waters offers perfectly modern and spacious hotel rooms. But my favorite part was the lovingly restored tile work in the hallways. A popular rooftop bar provides beautiful views of Bathhouse Row and the mountains beyond.
Hotel Hale, which just opened in 2019, is a boutique hotel inside a restored bathhouse. The owners incorporated exposed brick walls, original pine floors and arched windows into plush and comfortable rooms. If I ever visit again, I’d love to stay here. But I’d probably never leave the bathroom; the Hale pipes in hot spring water so you can take the waters in your own private bathtub.
Images via Teresa Bergen / Inhabitat