An hour southwest of Little Rock, Hot Springs lies at a confluence of past and present: one part time capsule, one part eye to the future. Unsurprisingly, water courses through the Spa City. Originally established as the Hot Springs Reservation in 1832, it is the first land set aside by the federal government for recreation. The magic-waters-dispensing hub beloved by the likes of Babe Ruth and Al Capone in the early 20th century still runs on the power of its eponymous resource today. And while some of its quirks can cloud a visitor’s perception (although there’s certainly a time for alligator farms, wax museums, and duck boats), a closer look reveals a nuanced experience just below the surface.
CHECK IN ➞ Built in 1892, the Hale Bathhouse is the oldest property on Hot Springs’ Bathhouse Row—and since 2019, it’s been one of the city’s finest boutique hotels as well. Owned by Mayor Pat McCabe and his wife, Ellen, Hotel Hale maintains just nine suites—all with exposed brick and hardwood floors—and each boasts a large soaking tub with geothermal mineral water pumped directly from the nearby spring. (Don’t miss brunch at the in-house restaurant, Eden, the bath house’s one-time bathing room which now boasts a soaring skylight and spring-fed plant wall.) Once you’re settled, head across the street to the Ohio Club. Widely considered to be the oldest continually operating bar in the state, it was a favorite watering hole for the likes of Capone and Charles “Lucky” Luciano. Pull up a stool by the 1880s-era mahogany back bar and order a Madden’s No.1, a Superior Bathhouse Brewery beer based on gangster Owney Madden’s Prohibition-era recipe.
Evening ➞ For a different taste of history, head across town to McClard’s Bar-B-Q Restaurant. A staple since 1928—not to mention a favorite of native son Bill Clinton—McClard’s has been churning out some of the state’s finest ’cue for nigh on a century. Popular platters such as the chopped pork sandwich or the tamale spread—piled high with beef, cheese, onions, beans, and McClard’s vinegar-based sauce—solidify its status as barbecue royalty. And when the question inevitably gets broached: Yes, you want pie. Close the evening at the sixth-floor Rooftop Bar at the newly renovated Waters Hotel. Order the McLaughlin, a scotch-and-soda cocktail named for former Hot Springs Mayor Leo McLaughlin (and, fittingly, his horses, Scotch and Soda).
MORNING ➞ Start at Morrison’s Fried Pies. With its blue-and-white-checked flags waving in a strip mall parking lot, this permanent food truck might seem like an unlikely contender for its pie-in-the-sky accolades (namely, “best fried pies in Arkansas,” as Southern Living puts it), but one bite of flaky perfection courtesy of Edgar Morrison’s 100-year-old family recipes puts any doubts to rest. Get there early to avoid missing out on any flavors—and if he has a coconut cream pie on special, you need it.
Back downtown, fill a bottle with real-deal Hot Springs water at the Happy Hollow Jug Fountain before hopping on the Grand Promenade, a half-mile brick-lined stroll that runs parallel to often-bustling Central Avenue. Take the Short Cut trail up to the Hot Springs Mountain Tower, a soaring 216-foot observation tower that offers 140 miles of uninterrupted views of Arkansas’s spectacular fall foliage. Although the penultimate floor provides a good survey of Spa City, the open-air observation deck is not to be missed.
AFTERNOON ➞ Head across town and make room for the best—Best Cafe, that is. Housed in a revitalized 1930s-era motor court, this modern diner concept best lives up to its name over brunch. Order the plate-filling creme brulee French toast made with housemade brioche or togarashi-spiked biscuits and gravy.
Take a load off with a visit to what originally put Hot Springs on the map: Bathhouse Row. Although many of the bathhouses have been repurposed since the city’s heyday, two options remain. The only outfit in continuous operation since 1912, the Buckstaff Bathhouse offers the traditional services it always has (including cast iron tubs and vapor cabinets). For a more modern spa experience, head to the Quapaw Baths & Spa for thermal mineral baths, hot stone massages, and facials. Finish by treating yourself to a salted caramel cupcake from Fat Bottomed Girl’s Cupcake Shoppe down the street.
EVENING ➞ Go early to beat the crowd at Deluca’s Pizza, which in recent years has become all but synonymous with “Best Pizza in Arkansas.” Rest assured: The hype is well deserved. Consider yourself lucky if you score both a table and a Neapolitan-style pie, as owner Tony Valinoti whips up a limited batch of dough each evening (just to play it safe, call ahead and reserve one). You’ll want the American cheese–draped burger made with the 50-day-aged prime rib as an “appetizer.” Really.
For after-dinner drinks, head to the source at Superior Bathhouse Brewery. Built in 1916 and operated as a bathhouse until 1983, it was reimagined in 2013. As the first brewery located inside a national park—and the only one that uses thermal spring water—Superior offers a lengthy list of brews on tap and a killer house root beer. Order a flight of four (don’t miss the Beez Kneez, a honey basil blonde) or really take the plunge with a Beer Bath, which offers samples of all 18 beers on tap.
MORNING ➞Take a quick drive to Will’s Cinnamon Shop just north of downtown. Owner William Byrd has both sweet- and savory-leaning palates covered with his Sunday-only savory rolls, a tightly bound combo of egg, cheese, and sausage, as well as sugary rolls with cream cheese icing and pecans. From there, roll out to Garvan Woodland Gardens. The University of Arkansas botanical garden is a showstopper, especially in the fall. You’ll find 210 acres of mums, asters, pansies, and countless other blooms complementing the fall foliage. Walk the 1.4-mile trail that arcs along the peninsula jutting into Lake Hamilton. Don’t miss the handful of on-site architectural gems—especially the ultra-modern Evans Tree House and the Anthony Chapel, a latticework of crisscrossing yellow pine beams and a vaulted glass ceiling that creates an awe-inspiring experience.
The Great Outdoors
There’s no finer way to enjoy the Natural State than getting outside
Hike Caddo Bend Trail
At 25 minutes from Hot Springs, it’s a bit of a hike to get to this four-mile loop at Lake Ouachita State Park, but a full-blown forest immersion and lakeside views almost the entire way around make it worth it. Consider renting a kayak and boating along the lake’s coast for a new perspective.
Bike Northwoods Trail
Only a stone’s throw from downtown, the newly opened trail system’s 31 miles of forest-cloistered dirt paths feel worlds away. Rent a mountain bike from Hot Springs Bicycle Touring Company and make a day of it.
Dig for Quartz
Get your sparkle on by digging for crystals on four acres at Ron Coleman Mining, one of the most storied operations in the area.
This article appears in the Fall 2023 issue of Southbound.