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Most Unique US National Park, According to Frequent Traveler

by Staff

Out of the 39 US National Parks I’ve traveled to, Hot Springs National Park was the most unusual.
Kara Williams

  • After visiting 39 US national parks, one stands out as the most unique I’ve been to.
  • Unlike many national parks, Hot Springs National Park is set in the middle of an Arkansas city.
  • This park features a row of historic bathhouses and the only brewery located in a US national park.

When thinking of national parks, many people imagine vast tracts of land and scenic drives through awe-inspiring mountain, forest, or desert scenery.

Hot Springs National Park, on the other hand, is the country’s second smallest national park and is set right in the middle of a small Midwest city.

Although the park features plenty of hiking trails and outdoor activities, the centerpiece is its row of historic bathhouses.

In my quest to visit all of the national parks in the continental US and Hawaii, I looked forward to knocking Hot Springs National Park off my list.

After an autumn visit to this historic site in Arkansas, I can confidently say Hot Springs National Park is a must-see for history buffs, wellness aficionados, and outdoorsy types.

Here’s why I think Hot Springs National Park is one of the most unique and underrated national parks in the US.

Hot Springs National Park has no entry fees.

I was surprised to see a national park sign posted on a public street corner.
Kara Williams

Upon pulling up to Central Avenue in Hot Springs, Arkansas — about 50 miles southwest of Little Rock — I was pleasantly surprised to see an iconic national park sign posted on a public street corner.

Unlike many national parks that require driving through an official entrance to pay a fee (or making a timed reservation in advance), the grounds at Hot Springs National Park are open to the public and free to enter.

Hot Springs National Park offers more than just beautiful trails.

Bathhouse Row is the centerpiece of Hot Springs National Park.
Kara Williams

Although visitors can still find more than 26 miles of beautiful trails in Hot Springs National Park, the historic bathhouses set this park apart from others.

The centerpiece of Hot Springs National Park is Bathhouse Row: eight buildings constructed between 1892 and 1923.

In their heyday, these bathhouses hosted worldwide visitors seeking relaxation and healing in the mineral-rich water pumped in from nearby natural hot springs.

Today, they’ve been repurposed in a variety of unique ways.

The Fordyce Bathhouse, which opened in 1915, now serves as the park’s visitor’s center.

The men’s changing room was much more ornate than the ladies’ changing area.
Kara Williams

The Fordyce Bathhouse, which now serves as the park’s museum and visitor’s center, was once a place 20th-century visitors flocked to for healing.

Visitors can walk through the restored bathhouse and get close to the whirlpool tubs, steam cabinets, multi-spray showers, lounge chairs, and other facilities that bathers once used.

Informative exhibits detail how physicians once wrote prescriptions for bathing in and drinking the thermal water.

Two of the bathhouses on Bathhouse Row still offer therapeutic services.

The women’s changing area at Buckstaff Bathhouse featured vintage lockers.
Kara Williams

Today, the Quapaw and Buckstaff bathhouses still offer therapeutic services. My husband and I sampled the four coed indoor hot-spring pools at Quapaw Baths & Spa.

Also available here are private mineral baths, body treatments, massages, and facials.

Next, we stopped by the Buckstaff Bathhouse, which has been in continuous operation since 1912, to indulge in the traditional bathing package.

Just as spa enthusiasts did a century ago, we headed to separate men’s and women’s locker rooms to fully undress and get wrapped in a large sheet, toga-style. Then, we were led around to the various hydrotherapy stations in gender-specific areas.

For $89 each, we soaked in a private mineral bath, got a loofah rubdown from an attendant, sat in a vapor cabinet, squatted in a sitz bath, got wrapped in steamy hot towels, and enjoyed a 20-minute massage.

I felt like a floppy noodle when it was all over — in a good way.

Hot Springs is also the only US national park with a brewery.

The Superior Bathhouse now operates as a brewery.
Kara Williams

The Superior Bathhouse, which operated from 1916 to 1983, reopened as a brewery in 2014. This casual spot with lots of outdoor seating is the only brewery in a US national park.

We enjoyed Superior Bathhouse Brewery so much that we visited it twice. One afternoon, we went to an Oktoberfest celebration with live music and special menu items, like bratwurst and pretzels. The next day, we sampled more of the brewery’s 18 draft beers.

One of the bathhouses now operates as a hotel.

The Hale Bathhouse has been turned into a hotel.
Kara Williams

Next to the brewery is Hotel Hale, which is the oldest building on Bathhouse Row.

Dating back to 1892, the former Hale Bathhouse is now home to nine hotel suites. Each room features a tub for soaking in piped-in geothermal mineral water.

Visitors can still get the classic park experience with tons of hiking trails.

There are over 26 miles of hiking trails in Hot Springs National Park.
Kara Williams

Gentle walking paths and more rigorous hiking trails are both part of the experience for visitors seeking good health in Hot Springs, Arkansas.

We accessed trails just behind Bathhouse Row, spending a couple of hours strolling through the forest. Over 26 miles of trails weave through the hills and canyons on either side of Central Avenue.

Of all the national parks I’ve visited, this one stands out as the most unusual.

I really enjoyed our trip to Hot Springs National Park.
Kara Williams

As a fan of water wellness, hiking, and hops, I loved visiting Hot Springs National Park.

The well-done museum, opportunities for soaking in a historic bathhouse, and various hiking trails make this national park well worth a road trip stop or weekend getaway.

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