Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas
Full disclosure: Arkansas was not exactly at the top of my list of places to go when I started this journey. Now, Arkansas is on the top of my list of places to return to in the near future. We spent my birthday at Hot Springs National Park, which is really the town of Hot Springs in Arkansas.
We arrived late in the day on a Friday and crossed our fingers that a first-come, first-serve spot would be open at the Gulpha Gorge Campground inside the park. When we arrived (around 4pm) there were several spots open, some of which were very angled but we found a nice one that was fairly level in the top row. The campground features paved spots and full hook-ups for $30 a night. A creek runs along the side and is a great place to play and relax, it even has a swimming hole. The main trailhead is also right inside the RV park. I am not sure if there is a length limit on vehicles but there were some large 5th wheels inside the park.
The town of Hot Springs' main feature is Bath House Row: owned by the National Park service and leased to several tenants; two of which offer traditional spa experiences and a third which is a micro-brewery gastro-pub which also offers root beer for teetotalers among us. There are no hot springs that you just go crawl into. The water comes out of the mountain near 140 degrees. Almost all of the springs have been capped off for commercial use. There are 8 historic buildings preserved as part of the park; all were once bathhouses.
For my birthday celebration I visited the Quapaw Bathhouse. It was relaxing and a must do. Just be warned that kids are not allowed in the bathhouses so while I enjoyed my birthday relaxation my husband did not get to attend with me. I treated myself to one of their packages. My package included a mini facial, 40 minute massage and a private bath in the famous hot spring water. You can also just pay a nominal fee to enjoy the community bathhouse pool, you must have rubber flip flops and a bathing suit.
We made the mistake of taking the Duck Tour. Normally, I am pretty easy going about those type of tourist trap trips but this one was pretty bad. The drive to the lake was along a busy, commercial street. That alone wouldn't have been a problem if our driver had historical and/or interesting information to share about the town. Instead, we heard some mall jokes, some Red Lobster jokes and then some jokes about what parts of town we might get shot in. I am not exaggerating: at one point our tour guide pointed up a street and said, "I wouldn't recommend going up that direction after dark because there was just a shooting there." The lake was pretty but again we heard a lot about how dirty the water is and how big the rich people's houses are with very little content. Yeah, that was a huge waste of money.
The Hot Springs Mountain Tower is a good way to kill an hour. The tower is located on national park land but operated by a concessioner. It is a pretty but short drive up the mountain. The road is narrow but one way for most of the journey. You can walk up the stairs or take the elevator and then overlook the town of Hot Springs and surrounding areas. Cost: $7/ adult, our kids were all free. You can walk up or take the elevator.
Our last day was spent playing in the creek that runs along the campground. There is a small swimming hole behind the amphitheater. The water is cool and appeared clean.
Hot Springs National Park can be seen in a day but I would recommend at least 2 to explore the tower and the creek (if you are at the campground.) We will happily stop again if driving through the area.