Reasons to Love Hot Springs, Arkansas

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After a particularly tough week my partner and I decided to decamp to the closest, yet farthest removed National Park we could find. It was October and the fire ants in our front yard were mobilizing for a full-scale invasion. Stuffed inside a Protege loaded up with everything from sleeping bags to checkers, we drove 312 miles north, through Texarkana, and, at close to midnight, set up camp in the Gulpha Gorge campground in Hot Springs, Arkansas.

Our New Book

Where temperatures had been suffocatingly hot and humid in Louisiana, the Ouachita (WASH-i-taw) Mountain air felt cool and dry. We left everything except our tents and sleeping bags in the car and slept like we’d been kept awake for weeks.

In the morning, we peeked our heads out of our tents to find that our campground sat near the center of a small-but-bustling mountain town. Families strolled through the galleries and historic spas. Twenty-somethings in cycling jerseys whizzed past on road bikes. Thirty minutes later we found that the coffee in the hole in the wall down the block was fresh and hot, and the people of Hot Springs seemed generally thrilled to meet us.

Two days later, I was hard-pressed to leave, but aspects of that weekend have stayed in my memory like the scent of pine boughs and the kind smiles of strangers. So when I returned this year to revisit some of my favorite haunts, I found them unchanged, yet charmingly improved upon, making them a shoe-in for things to love about Hot Springs, Arkansas.

Bathhouse Row and Quapaw Spa in the National Historic Landmark District contain the grandest collection of bathhouses of their kind in North America.

Only one, the Buckstaff, has been in continuous operation since opening in 1912 and remains open today. The other six are in various stages of renovation and restoration, in preparation for leasing by the National Park Service to carefully approved businesses. Quapaw Spa, in the final stages of renovation, is schedule to open summer 2008!

World’s Shortest St. Patrick’s Day Parade (and accompanying pub crawl)

This 98-foot parade route runs down Bridge Street, “The World’s Shortest Street” (as designated by Ripley’s Believe It Or Not in the 1940s) and ends with parade-goers sloshing their way through the town’s greenest drinking establishments. Attracting thousands of visitors each year, the parade is packed with Irish belly-dancers, Irish Order of Elvi (a group of Elvis look-alikes), Irish Wolfhounds and green fireworks.

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Get high on Arkansas at the Hot Springs Mountain Tower

An area landmark since 1877, this observatory takes visitors on an elevator ride to the top of the 216-foot superstructure, providing a breathtaking panoramic view of Hot Springs, the Ouachita Mountains and surrounding Diamond Lakes area.

Eat Pancakes

I have known some great breakfast joints in my time, but The Pancake Shop on Central Ave. holds sticky-sweet spot in my heart for their extensive selection of Organic and fair trade teas as well, slab-sized servings of smoked ham and flapjacks that will make you think twice about that low-carb hooey.

A spa treatment’s one thing, but a spa treatment rooted in turn-of-the-century know-how, now that’s something to try

“The Works” is the specialty at The Arlington Spa and features a whirlpool mineral bath using Hot Springs’ thermal waters, followed by your choices of hot and cold packs, wet steam or aroma therapy steam, sitz bath, dry sauna, pressurized shower and a full-body Swedish massage. Oy!

The arts are everywhere

Once you’re loosened up, you’ll see that the arts are everywhere you turn. Artists from around the world have created a vibrant community of fine art galleries and studios in historic downtown Hot Springs. Try to time your visit for one of the town’s monthly Gallery Walks that earned Hot Springs the title of “No. 4 Small Art Town in America.”

There's always something new

As the town continues to evolve, new pockets develop and expand. Case in point: the 100 block of Central Avenue has rebranded itself as Antique Row. Don’t miss Tillman’s Antiques and Collectibles, Arkansas’ premier Faberge dealer and home to museum-quality collectibles, such as a Louis XV leather portfolio and collections from Napoleon Bonaparte and Louis Philippe.

Horse Racing

My grandpa, who had a thing for the ponies, would have loved Oaklawn Park. A prime venue at which to watch “the sport of kings,” the track features some of the country’s top horses on one of the nation's finest tracks.
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Garvan Woodland Gardens

Located on a peninsula on Lake Hamilton, this is Arkansas’ premier botanical garden. Stop by to check out the dynamic architecture and botanical landscapes that beg you to play shutterbug. Originally a native pine and hardwood forest, the gardens now draw more than 70 species of birds to the Hamilton Woods and Bird Sanctuary and Preserve. Visit in the spring when the garden’s 55,000 tulips are in full bloom.

Which all goes to prove that while Hot Springs may be short on square-footage, it’s long on risk-taking fun and hot springing good times.

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Sarah Reiss a full-time travel writer, SATW member and contributing travel editor. Her column, The Thoughtful Traveler, appears quarterly in 11 East Coast newspapers.When she is not on the road, she calls the mountains of Southern California, where she lives with her husband and two dogs, home.

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author

Updated November 2nd, 2015

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