14-Mar-22 – For generations, the 47 natural thermal springs of Hot Springs, Arkansas, have consistently pumped one million gallons of 143-degree water a day. Belief in their healing powers, although unproven, has long drawn devotees seeking cure and rejuvenation. Among them are Native Americans, notorious gangsters, and legendary baseball players.
Today’s Hot Springs presents an inviting family-friendly mix of tree-scaped mountains, historic architecture, quartz mines, a vibrant downtown, and an inventive culinary scene. And a $1 million treehouse.
Hot Springs National Park
To protect the springs and assure public access, the federal government in 1832 established the area as the country’s first land reserve, and in 1921, it was designated Hot Springs National Park. (The National Park Service did not exist until Yellowstone National Park was established in 1872.)
The 5,500-acre park surrounds the city and includes Bathhouse Row, a parade of eight architecturally distinct bathhouses built between 1892 and 1923. The springs are largely underground, but you can see one cascading from the hillside into a pool at Arlington Lawn.
You’ll pass several green metal collection boxes, each one capping a spring to prevent pollution and vandalism.
The bathhouses were enormously popular until the 1960s crackdown on illegal gambling, which deterred tourism as well. Today, only two still function as originally intended. Most have been adapted to other uses. Here’s a rundown:
Buckstaff is the only one offering a traditional bathing experience from yesteryear, which includes whirlpool bath with loofah, sitz bath, steam cabinet, and full body massage.
Quapaw is a modern full-service spa with an extensive menu and large co-ed soaking pools.
Ozark is a cultural center and art gallery, Hale is a luxury boutique hotel, and Superior is a brewery and restaurant. Lamar is a retail emporium purveying apparel, publications, and commemorative items to benefit the National Park Service.
Maurice is vacant and available to lease if you have a great idea for a business.
Gangster Museum of America
As cheesy as it sounds, it’s a good bet to begin your visit at the Gangster Museum of America. I was dubious, too, but the galleries, artifacts, and high-tech audiovisuals gave me a historical overview of how Hot Springs came to be.
From the late 1800s onward, Hot Springs’ secluded mountain location was ideal for illegal gambling and bootlegging, and it became a hideout for the likes of Al Capone, “Lucky” Luciano, “Bugs” Moran, and other infamous gangsters in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. They enjoyed fine hotels, vivacious nightclubs, more than 100 casinos, and, of course, the springs. Capone took to the waters in hopes of curing his syphilis, but it didn’t help.
The hot springs and mountain air drew another crowd – major league baseball players. The Chicago White Stockings, now the Chicago Cubs, were the first to retreat to Hot Springs for spring training in 1886. “Babe” Ruth, then a left-handed pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, hit his historic 573-foot grand slam against the Brooklyn Dodgers here in 1918. The golden era of spring training in Hot Springs ended by the 1940s, when teams headed to Arizona and Florida.
Hear many more insider stories from the museum historian and try your luck at the antique gaming machines in the demonstration casino. Legal gambling is at Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort, which offers slots, live table games, and sports betting.
Mining for quartz
You’ve probably heard you can dig for diamonds and keep your finds at Crater of Diamonds State Park, but the chances of finding one is slight. At Avant Mining Fisher Mountain, you’re practically guaranteed to go home with pockets full of dazzling quartz crystals. Quartz is the state mineral of Arkansas.
Specimens with the clearest points and largest clusters are found in the mountains surrounding Hot Springs. Avant Mining has produced some of the most spectacular pieces that are now in the hands of prominent museums and private collections.
The rock shop and visitor center, where outstanding specimens are on display, is in Mt. Ida. You can buy a one-day permit at the public dig site or book a private guided experience at an active mine. Plan to get dirty, and wear gloves – prime quartz crystals are razor sharp.
Garvan Woodland Gardens
Take in the serenity and bliss of Garvan Woodland Gardens, a 210-acre botanical sanctuary owned by the University of Arkansas.
Special attractions include the exquisite four-acre Japanese garden with koi pond and waterfall, rated as one of the finest in North America. Even grown-ups will be enchanted by the four-level, million-dollar treehouse in the children’s adventure garden.
Where to eat and drink in Hot Springs
The Pancake Shop serves much the same menu as when the breakfast joint opened in 1940. Pancakes are a house specialty. OJ is freshly squeezed daily, and the award-winning ham and homemade sausage are lauded in these parts.
Another fine breakfast spot is the retro Best Café, where the biscuits and sausage patties are made in-house, and the veggie quiche is dolloped with guacamole and tomato jam.
Traditional New York-style pizzas are the star attraction at Deluca’s Pizzeria, but there’s more to taste at this popular eatery. The house steak burger, laden with gooey American cheese, is made from a proprietary grind, and often sells out.
McClard’s Bar-B-Q, family-run since 1928, is renowned for tender smoky barbecue beef and pork, tamales, and hand-cut fries. Celebrity photos line the walls of this modest stucco building.
Kollective Coffee + Tea is an artisan cafe with a conscience. It’s built into a mountainside, which you can see close-up from a window at the back of the open kitchen. The cafe offers bagels, salads, bowls, sandwiches made from certified organic or natural ingredients, and more than 50 varieties of tea.
501 Prime is an upscale dining experience, serving steaks, seafood, oysters, and other American classics in an inviting wood-paneled atmosphere. The bar menu lists more than 400 whiskeys.
The Ohio Club was a bar and casino where singer Al Jolson and stage goddess Mae West performed during their respective heydays. Live music remains in play at this refurbished hot spot.
Attention, beer lovers: Taste history with a pour of Madden’s No. 1, a blonde ale named after Prohibition gangster Owen “Owney” Vincent Madden of New York’s Cotton Club fame and Hot Springs exile. Formulated from his original recipe, the brew is a mainstay at the Ohio Club and Superior Bathhouse Brewery.
Where to stay
Best Court Cottages is a picturesque 1930s motor court, an enclave of 22 renovated guest rooms and suites where you can park right in front of your door.
More info: Visit Hot Springs
Photos by Pamela Dittmer McKuen