The first thing to know about Hot Springs, Arkansas, is that its name is appropriate: The springs that bubble to the surface there are renowned for their purified water and have been an attraction for centuries. Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto is thought to have visited them in the 1500s. The supposed medicinal qualities of the water made the springs popular with the infirm beginning in the 1800s. They were named a federally protected area in 1832 and a national park in 1921.
Through the mid-1900s, the hot-spring spas and the town's hilly, wooded location (it's nestled in the Ouachita Mountains 45 mi/70 km southwest of Little Rock) made it a popular playground for well-to-do visitors (gambling was tolerated until the 1960s). When gambling was banned and water therapy became less popular, some of the park's public bathhouses fell into disrepair. Since then, a massive restoration effort has rejuvenated much of Hot Springs, making it a marvelous recollection of a time when people's leisure pursuits took on a simpler cast at a slower pace.
Begin your visit at Hot Springs National Park, which is nearly surrounded by the town. Bathhouse Row is made up of eight bathhouses in assorted architectural styles that date from the 1910s and 1920s. All of the exteriors have been renovated, but only the Buckstaff Bathhouse still offers public baths (several nearby hotels also offer full spa treatments). The park's centerpiece is the 1915 Fordyce Bathhouse, an amazing Spanish Revival-style building. The National Park Service has turned it into a classy museum and visitors center that shouldn't be missed. The other bathhouses are currently being restored, so you may have to overlook some scaffolding and such as you tour Bathhouse Row. From there, you can visit Hot Springs Mountain Observation Tower. And be sure to sample the potable mineral water.
Other things to do in Hot Springs include watching the horse races at Oaklawn Jockey Club (mid-January to April) and visiting the Mid-America Science Museum, which has exhibits exploring perception, energy, gravity, light and sound. You may also want to plan a stop at the Arkansas Alligator Farm and Petting Zoo downtown, a classic tourist-trap attraction that harkens back to past decades. (Yes, you will get to pet an alligator.) There are also several art galleries in town, and gallery walks are held the first Friday of each month.
If you want to get out on the water on nearby Lake Hamilton, you can take a cruise on the Belle of Hot Springs excursion boat. Boat and jet-ski rentals are also available. Hot Springs has plenty of golf courses, partly because of the large number of vacationers, partly because of the many retirees living in the area.
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