Spring Break Road Trip 2022 | Day 4 | Exploring & Hiking in Hot Springs National Park | Kayaking in the Ouachita River | March 2022
After spending a few days constantly driving and moving around, we planned to spend two nights at our campsite in Crystal Recreation Area so that we could spend a whole day exploring a new-to-us national park: Hot Springs National Park, in Hot Springs AR. We got up around 7AM and headed East on US-270, skirting South of Lake Ouachita. All along the road we saw recreation signs for the lake and billboards and vendor signs for crystals – it would turn out our campsite was aptly named. As we got closer to Hot Springs, the traffic picked up and we hit a couple rounds of construction, and then we were in the thick of it: the outskirts of the city. ‘Where’s the National Park?’, we asked each other. We hadn’t even seen a sign indicating we were going the right way.
We knew the National Park was North of town, or rather it was the North of town, so we stuck to our gut instinct, checked our progress on Google Maps, and eventually the sprawling industrial suburbs gave way to a downtown with a turn of the century feel, which eventually gave way to the Bathhouse District.
The road (AR-7) went North between two mountains, and nestled between them were all the old historic Bathhouses. The architecture was neat, but it also gave off strong ‘tourist trap’ vibes. (There’s just something about haunted walking tours and duck boat tours that is so off putting).
A bit overwhelmed, we opted to first go to the part of the park that we had researched and started on the scenic drive up to the top of Hot Springs Mountain. At the top, we found a place to park and walked to the tower which had a steep surcharge of $9/person, and no dogs allowed of course. So we found our limited views for free at a gazebo overlooking the bath houses. The weather was still cool, but starting to warm up so we decided to walk a loop around the summit area enjoying the clear signs that spring was just around the corner (at least it was down in AR).
There were plenty of trails that we could have chosen, and once out of the Bath House District the park becomes much more the ‘Nature Park’ that we love to see in National Parks. But the mountain trails don’t actually have any Hot Springs, and we still needed our cancellation stamp, so we found a free place to park and returned to the Bath Houses.
Once on foot, the row of bath houses and downtown area was much less overwhelming and we were able to take in the beautiful 1920-30’s variety of architectures. The bath houses find their origin in the 1830’s when the Federal Government first set aside the natural springs as a ‘Federal Resource’. As bathing rituals and the homeopathic benefits of hot springs were explored, more and more ornate bath houses grew up around the natural springs. Guided by the Department of the Interior, the area was cultivated and landscaped to provide a luxurious experience for spa goers who could go from bathing to leisurely walks in the nearby parks and trails. The bath houses saw their peak usage following World War II, but then rapidly declined as modern advancements moved culture away from public bathing. Now of the 8+ bath houses, only one is still functional as a bath house – we didn’t go in to see it because Charlotte wasn’t allowed.
We found our National Park stamps, admired the architecture and the budding cherry blossoms, and even filled our water from one of the public fountains. (It was very warm for certain, but lacked the sulphuric taste and smell of the fountains in Ballston Spa & Saratoga Springs). Satisfied with our experience, we decided to bypass the construction and traffic and take back roads through the park back to US-270, but not before going for one more hike.
At the far west side of the park, we stopped at a small trailhead and started a short climb up to the top of Music Mountain, the highest peak in the park. We didn’t really expect much, while spring is coming, it was still ‘mud and stick’ season as far as the trees were concerned. But the hike was pleasant, if a little warm, and we had the occasional view to the West through the trees. The summit had no view, but we still relaxed a while watching butterflies, moths, and the occasional vulture circle around. We arrived at the top right around noon, which happened to be just in time for the monthly tornado siren test to happen. Thankfully we are used to tests like that being born and raised Midwesterners, so we were pretty sure we had no reason to panic, but it of course made us think about what we’d do if they were actually real…
Overall, our consensus on Hot Springs was that it was not the worst experience we’ve had in a National Park, but was far from the best. The fact that Charlotte was able to hike on all the trails with us certainly made it better. Another way to put it: it’s an A tier city park, but a C tier National Park.
We began our drive back West to the campsite, then decided to stop at the Twin Creek boat ramp for a quick paddle on Lake Ouachita. We kayaked for about an hour, covering about 2 miles on the water, and enjoyed the tranquility of the lake and the mountain views in the distance.
On our way back to the campsite, we decided to stop at the Twin Creek Crystal Mine hoping to see some of the crystals we kept hearing about, but they were closing right as we arrived so we returned to the campsite instead. Fortunately, one of our camp neighbors had some success looking for crystals and showed them off for us…Curtis was less successful in his endeavors in the nearby creek. It was really nice to not have to tear down and set up camp again today like we had the past few days, but we agreed that one day was all we needed to experience Hot Springs and were excited to continue our travels further South the next day.