Hot Springs National Park

Hot Springs was established as a federal reserve by Congress on April 20, 1832—the oldest area managed by the National Park Service. Congress redesignated Hot Springs as a national park on March 4, 1921. Natural hot springs flow out of the Ouachita Mountains, providing opportunities for relaxation in a historic setting. Bathhouse Row preserves numerous examples of 19th-century architecture. Hot Springs is the first national park in a city and was the smallest national park until February 22, 2018 when the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial was redesignated Gateway Arch National Park.


The Zig Zag Mountains look exactly how they sound

Hot Springs National Park is found within the Zig-Zag Mountains, a section of the Ouachita Mountains of central Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma. The name “Zig Zag” comes from the sharply angular folds of the rock when seen from above. The Ouachita mountains were formed during the collision of two tectonic plates around 300 Ma (million years ago). The Appalachian Mountains were formed at about the same time, and were a result of very similar forces. Geologists call the formation of these two mountain systems the Tectonic Orogeny, or mountain-building event.

The area of the park is characterized by steep, mountainous terrain. Although once more jagged, time has reduced the steep peaks of ancient mountains into more gently rolling hills. Visitors will notice that rock layers exposed along bluffs or road-cuts appear to be tilted, or even to stand up straight, rather than lay flat. This tilting of rock layers is a result of extreme forces that “pushed” the rocks into the tilted position, which we can observe today.

The rocks found within the park are sedimentary in nature,including sandstone, shale and a very special rock known as Arkansas Novaculite. This rock is made up of very small quartz crystals, and is quite dense and hard. Arkansas Novaculite is well known for its use as a whetstone, or a stone used to sharpen cutting tools such as knives. The sedimentary rocks that were folded and uplifted to form the Ouachita mountains were originally flat-lying, deposited in a marine, oroceanic setting. Although sedimentary rocks dominate the landscape, igneous bodies can be found by traveling just ten miles to the east.

The hot water that draws visitors to Hot Springs has also impacted the rocks found within the park. Guests might notice narrow, white bands of quartz crystals deposited by hot water as it “punched” its way though local rock. The hot water that emerges at Hot Springs National Park contains a variety of dissolved minerals that come from interaction with rocks both deep within and near the earth’s surface. One of the most noticeable is calcium carbonate. When the hot, or thermal, water reaches the surface, it cools. When this cooling occurs, calcium carbonate, or limestone,is deposited. Visitors will notice a light grey, “spongy” looking rock near the large display spring on Arlington Lawn. This rock, composed of calcium carbonate, is referred to as travertine, or tufa.

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Photo courtesy of NPS

Native American History

Home of the Quapaw tribe

American Indians occupied land now included within park boundaries by about 3000 years ago. They quarried novaculite here, as raw material for stone tools. American Indians were likely present before then, but that’s the earliest archeological evidence currently known. Evidence for American Indians in Arkansas goes back much further. Similar proof of prehistoric usage doesn’t apply to the hot springs themselves, which only occur on the lower west slope of Hot Springs Mountain. American Indians could certainly have been at the springs millennia back, and perhaps they even used the springs, but, if so, no archeological evidence for it has been discovered. The oldest documentation considered reliable by professional researchers dates to 1771. Jean- Bernard Bossu noted during a stay with the Quapaw: “The Akanças country is visited very often by western Indians who
come here to take baths,” for the hot waters “are highly esteemed by native physicians who claim that they are so strengthening.” What was meant by “western Indians” was not defined.

In 1818 a treaty with the Quapaw conveyed territory containing the hot springs to the United States. An 1820 treaty designated southwest Arkansas for Choctaw resettlement, but this was amended in 1825 to redirect the Choctaws to Oklahoma. In the 1830s two “Indian removal” routes- – for the Choctaw and the Chickasaw- – passed about 20 miles to the southeast, with supplies in one instance obtained out of Hot Springs. Individuals from other tribes arrived on the scene occasionally as U.S. policy forced eastern Indians off traditional homelands, and as native peoples began to take increasing part in non- native society. Numerous tales about Indians using the springs have been repeated over the past 200 years or so. Many of these stories are European- American in origin, from an historian’s point of view, classifiable as modern folklore.

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Photo courtesy of NPS

Park History

How Hot Springs became a National Park

Hot Springs National Park has a long and colorful history, beginning long before its designation as Hot Springs Reservation in 1832. American Indians came here for thousands of years to quarry novaculite for their tools and weapons. The Dunbar-Hunter Expedition came here in 1804, sent by President Thomas Jefferson to explore the southern reaches of the Louisiana Purchase. Soon a bustling town grew up around the hot springs to provide services for health seekers. The resultant bathing industry led to Hot Springs becoming known as the “American Spa.”

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The best things to do in Hot Springs National Park

Tour the historic Fordyce Bathhouse

Stroll along Bathhouse Row
Observe the Display Springs and Hot Water Cascade
If you have half a day:
Do all of the above
Join a park ranger for a guided tour
Become a Junior Ranger
Taste the water (ask a park ranger for a cup)
Stroll along the Grand Promenade
Take a bath
Hike or drive to the Hot Springs Mountain Tower
Shop at the park store, Bathhouse Row Emporium
Take a selfie at a memorable place in the park
If you have all day or more:
Do all of the above
Hike some of the park’s 26 miles of trails
Drive the park’s scenic mountain roads
Picnic at one of the established picnic areas
Quaff the elixir at the Superior Bathhouse Brewery
View Artist-In-Residence artwork at the Ozark Bathhouse
Camp at the Gulpha Gorge Campground
Spend the night at the Hotel Hale

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Hot Springs National Park is primarily forested hills and valleys

Outside of the Bathhouse Row National Historic Landmark District, Hot Springs National Park is primarily forested hills and valleys. The oak-hickory-pine forest type includes many other tree and shrub species. Wildflowers and blooming trees are especially beautiful in spring, while autumn brings many bright colors of leaves.

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Photo courtesy of NPS

Animal Life

Because of the region’s mild climate, bird species are varied and plentiful

Wildlife within the park is typical of the region, consisting mostly of rodents, bats, and other small mammals. Because of the region’s mild climate, bird species are varied and plentiful. Aquatic resources are limited to portions of several small creeks and are void of significant game fish.

No endangered or threatened animal species are known to live in the park.

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Hiking Trails

The best hiking trails in Hot Springs National Park

Walking paths have long been a part of Hot Springs National Park and the preceding Hot Springs Reservation. Today those walking paths form the base of the park’s trail system. There are two concentrated areas of hiking trails within the park, the Hot Springs and North Mountain Trails and the West Mountain Trails. Both of these areas are composed of relatively short, interconnected trails. The Sunset Trail is a longer trail that travels through more remote areas of the park. Earn incentives while hiking in the park. Let’s Move Outside and improve health!

Hot Springs and North Mountain Trails
The Hot Springs and North Mountain trails are popular since they are easy to reach and provide scenic views. You can get to these trails via Stephen’s Balustrade (grand staircase) behind the Fordyce Bathhouse, Hot Springs Mountain Drive, and the Gulpha Gorge Campground. See the Hot Springs and North Mountian trail map for more information. *Note: Oertel Trail is still labeled as Dead Chief Trail on the park’s brochure and on trail signs. Gulpha Gorge Trail is blazed in pink and not white as indicated on the trail map.

West Mountain Trails
The West Mountain trails are less traveled, providing greater opportunities for wildlife sightings. You can get to these trails via Whittington Park and the Canyon Trailhead. See the West Mountain trail map for more information.

Sunset Trail
The Sunset Trail is the longest trail in Hot Springs National Park, covering approximately 10 miles one way. It completes a circuit near the inner edge of the park boundary. Crossing all types of terrain, the trail makes its way through the most remote areas of the park. Due to the length of this trail, it is frequently broken up into three separate sections: West Mountain (2.8 miles), Sugarloaf Mountain (2.6 miles), and Stonebridge Road (3.8 miles). The Sunset Trail can be combined with Hot Springs and North Mountain trails and West Mountain trails to complete a strenuous 15-17 mile loop hike. See the Sunset Trail map for more information.

Hiking Etiquette and Safety
Take plenty of drinking water and wear appropriate clothing and shoes. Stay on the established trails. Leaving the trail can be hazardous.

Respect wildlife; observe only from a distance. Horses are allowed only on non-paved trails. Keep pets on a six foot leash at all times. Properly dispose of waste, including pet waste. Pack it in, pack it out.

Remember everything is protected in a national park. Please leave objects as you find them. Leave rocks, plants, and flowers for others to enjoy. Historic structures and artifacts help tell the story of the past.

Please report vandalism or graffiti to a law enforcement ranger. For National Park Service law enforcement dispatch call 888-692-1162. For emergency assistance, call 911.

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Photo courtesy of NPS

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