Thank you to our travel reporter Kathy Chin Leong for this great article
Stuffing tiny tags in the mouths of bass and sunfish may not be the most glamorous thing in the world to do, but Steve Arrison wouldn’t have it any other way. The CEO of the Hot Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau is thrilled to hear about the moments when ordinary folks catch a tagged winner that can land them anywhere from $500 to $20,000. Every May, the city of Hot Springs, Arkansas sponsors its Fishing Challenge that introduces thousands to its lakes.
The same town hosts the world’s shortest St. Patrick’s Day parade, a full 98 feet long with a celebrity grand marshal and Elvis impersonators in tow. And the annual World Championship Running of the Tubs bathtub race? Well, guess where’s that held?
For those tired of the same ol’, same ol’ vacation, here’s a destination that’s so unusual, so quirky, and so historically alluring that a weekend will have you returning out of sheer curiosity.
Little known fact: Hot Springs is where President Clinton lived during his boyhood, the house is on the National Historic Homes registry.
Meanwhile, movie royals including Kevin Costner, Kevin Bacon, and Ralph Macchio fell in love with Hot Springs years ago. The pull was so strong Kevin Costner chose Hot Springs as the spot to set up his own museum to display his career memorabilia. What is it that has drawn superstars to this eclectic little town?
Based 55 miles southwest of Little Rock, Hot Springs is named after its 47 thermal hot springs. Hot spring fountains of varying temperatures are scattered throughout the city. The water is free to the public to take as much as they want. Fans of this natural resource come from out of state just to fill a truckload of jugs to bring home. Mountain Valley Spring Water, which operates its own store and visitor center downtown, distributes these waters nationwide.
It’s not surprising that Hot Springs is known as a spa town. In the early 1900s, visitors needed a doctor’s prescription to receive therapeutic spa and water treatments. Native Americans and later, the Europeans, believed the thermal waters possessed healing properties. Bathhouses emerged on the main street known as Bathhouse Row providing massages, soaking tubs, and even meals and lodging. Get a true taste of the original bathhouse ritual, complete with the sauna body box, (think of the I Love Lucy episode where Lucy goes on a diet) at Buckstaff Buckhouse, which opened in 1912.
Instead of tearing down older architecture or building on top of open space, Hot Springs leaders and businesses extol the past. Hot Springs National Park is the country’s first designated national area the federal government sought to preserve in 1832 before the idea of national parks came about. It is the only national park located in an urban downtown. Inside the forested and creek-filled sanctuary, you’ll find camping sites, miles of hiking trails, and an info center with hyper-knowledgeable park rangers. Bathhouse Row, part of the Historic Landmark District, also belongs to the park as does the Superior Bath House Brewery, the only brewery in the world that uses thermal water in its beer. Another distinction: it is the only brewery in the country on national park property.
Swagger across Central Avenue from the national park boundary, and you’ll be in the heart of the action. Souvenir shops, hotels, restaurants, and bars are alive with stories and anecdotes of days gone by. Established in 1905 during Prohibition, the Ohio Club speakeasy is the state’s oldest bar, once a fave of crime bosses and professional baseball players such as Babe Ruth. (Baseball spring training was held in Hot Springs in the early 1900s). Outside of the downtown core is The Reserve, a historic mansion turned into a luxury bed and breakfast inn. Antiques, fresh flower arrangements, and handpainted wallpaper festoon the premises.
The town also became popular for the Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort racetrack established in 1904. A few years ago, the racetrack added a hotel, spa, and other amenities thanks to a $100 million investment. Oaklawn continues to thrive as a thoroughbred horse racing venue where you can place a bet for as little as a dollar. The Mainline Sports Bar features hatchet throwing and simulated golf, so the place has expanded into a “something for everyone” destination.
Truth be told, early racehorse and casino gambling led to gangster activity, and Hot Springs became an epicenter for crime bosses starting in the 1920s. Legendary Al Capone vacationed here, and so did a litany of mobsters. From 1927 to 1967, it was home to the largest illegal gambling racquet in the country. These fellas shed a shady legacy, and today you can tour the Gangster Museum of America (across the street from the national park) to watch video clips and learn all about the motley crew.
Outside the city core, many sojourners are drawn to nature. The city’s three lakes provide fishing, boating, and water sports. Mining sites offer visitors the opportunity to chisel for precious gems. Avant Mining is one of several locales where you can dig for crystal. Pay $25 and you are led to a spot where you can hammer and pick to your heart’s delight, and keep as many crystals as you discover. Hunters hankering for more prolific dig sites with larger gemstones pay anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000 for a full day. Chisels, buckets, and tools are included.
On another morning, your diverse vacation itinerary leads you to Garvan Woodland Gardens, a 210-acre oasis with themed sections taking you backward and forward in time. A miniature train track with working model trains harkens to hobbies of yesteryear. A few gardens away, you are climbing inside a spaceship pod that appears suspended in mid-air. If you are lucky enough to find one, you can take home one or more hand-painted stones, scattered randomly throughout the premises. These unofficial souvenirs are decorated by one of the garden staffers who happens to enjoy painting rocks.
Bizarre yet beloved. Unexpected and unforgettable. Why sit under a coconut tree sipping mai tais when you can be sitting in a bathtub headed for the finish line? Hot diggity – you can be the first in your friend group to travel to Hot Springs, Arkansas.
- For more of what to do check out these Fun Things to Do in the area.
- For more INFORMATION about a trip to Hot Springs, AR visit hotsprings.org