Hot Springs National Park sits intertwined with the town of the same name. It’s a historic landmark that doesn’t really live up to the National Park reputation. It should really be a National Historic Park, like Harpers’ Ferry, so wanderers won’t be disappointed. We visited for one very mild day in February, saw most of the park, camped at Gulpha Gorge, and felt like we saw what there was to see, even without a visit to the spa.
Hot Springs National Park is one weird place. The horse-shoe shaped park is only 8.5 square miles, which makes it the smallest park in the US, but more unusually, the park is wrapped right around the town. The town is even officially named Hot Springs National Park.
The park was protected by Congress in 1832, leading some to say it’s the oldest national park, though it didn’t get the official designation until 1921. (Most would say Yosemite is the oldest National Park. It was officially formed in 1890.)
In the early 1900s, Hot Springs was the place to be, and people flocked there for the medicinal springs, temperate weather, baseball spring training and alleged illegal gambling. By the 1950s, the town started to fall from favor as medicine advanced and road trip vacations to alternate destinations became more popular. Now, it’s largely restored and is a historic landmark. One of the old bathhouses has even been converted to a brewery. It’s one of the most accessible National Parks, it’s just not the best for adventuring.
Unfortunately for those who wander, the park is not really a great place to get away from it all and experience nature in solitude. The trails wind in and out of town and are crisscrossed by roads through the park. The longest loop trail, the Sunset Trail, in the park is only about 12 miles, and it happened to be closed for a controlled burn when we visited. We hiked some small loops around the western mountain and checked out Goat Rock Overlook in a 2-3 hour hike.
As to other logistics, camping at Gulpha Gorge is first come first serve. The campground is pretty small and not far from a mid-sized road, but it’s cheap at only $10 per night and there are no entry fees to the park. There are plenty of places to stay in town, as well.
Overall, we weren’t especially impressed with the park, but fortunately once we left we headed to the Eagle Rock Loop for an ~28 mile backpacking expedition that was much more our style. Keep an eye out for that update soon!