Story by JENNIFER BABISAK // May/June 2017
Even before European settlement, Native Americans believed the famed water coming from the ground at Hot Springs, Arkansas, had medicinal value. Early settlers also appreciated the thermal springs.
By the late 1800s, bathhouses and luxurious hotels lined downtown Hot Springs to cater to those there to dip into the reportedly healing waters. Some of those bathhouses are still open in one form or another.
When my husband and I planned a trip to Hot Springs — with our kids ranging from toddler to preteen in tow — I know there won’t be much time for leisurely hot water spa indulgence. Instead, we set out to explore Hot Springs’ family-friendly side.
After driving through the rolling foothills of the Ouachita Mountains near the city, we arrive in Hot Springs and head straight to Catherine’s Landing, a 400-acre retreat on Lake Catherine. Although the resort offers yurts and RV sites, we stay in a charming cottage complete with a bedroom, loft sleeping area and full kitchen. Three TVs and Wi-Fi access mean that we don’t have to go completely off the grid, despite the woodland setting.
Surrounded by a gorgeous forest, star-filled skies overhead and a roomy porch where we take it all in, the televisions don’t get much attention. We spend our time exploring the property, walking on trails, playing disc golf and delighting at the simple thrill of a playground slide. The property also has a zip-line course and saltwater pool.
Though it’s tempting to just relax at the resort, we head out to explore the town. First on our list is the Mid-America Science Museum. The museum houses over 100 hands-on science exhibits. The kids dive right into the fun, not even realizing that they’re learning along the way.
They make sand art, create stop-motion animation videos and make music by using electrical currents.
We crawl through a simulated cavern and walk through treetops on the scenic Bob Wheeler Science Skywalk. Our 6-year-old enjoys story time and experiments at Scientots, a literacy-based science program for young children. Even our toddler enjoys romping through the hands-on space, which is a refreshing experience compared to the “look but don’t touch” atmosphere of many museums.
FOOD AND FUN
After grabbing a hearty helping of brisket, potato salad and sweet tea at Smokin’ In Style BBQ, we gear up for an afternoon of friendly competition. At T Rex Fun Spot, we find black-light mini golf, laser tag and go carts.
At Central Lanes, we introduce our 6-year-old to bowling and quickly redirect her efforts when she attempts to hurl the ball shot-put style down the lane. My husband discovers that his bowling glory days haven’t quite faded and enjoys a confidence boost that a few strikes impart.
Dinner at The Purple Cow satisfies the ravenous appetites created by the recreational activities. We chow down on cheeseburgers and fries and end with one of the diner’s famous purple milkshakes. Yarnell’s, a creamery located in nearby Searcy, creates the vibrant purple ice cream (which tastes like rich vanilla) exclusively for The Purple Cow. The delightful treat leaves us licking our lips.
Later, as the moon rises above our cottage, we indulge in more decadence. The fire pit steps from the cottage beckons us, so my husband and son build a gently glowing campfire.
We huddle around it to roast marshmallows for s’mores. The silence and the beauty of the evening invite us to slow our thoughts, quiet our pace and focus on rest and relaxation.
The next day we explore the historic downtown by browsing through charming shops, including the Toy Chest, an old-fashioned specialty toy boutique.
We stop for lunch at Kollective Coffee and Tea, an eclectic restaurant that offers locally sourced and organic foods. Among the sandwiches we try are the Grown Up Grilled Cheese and the Cuban. I appreciate that the eatery offers gluten-free options, including a delicious pineapple banana cupcake!
We walk to beautiful Bathhouse Row. These bathhouses feature grand late-19th and early-20th century architecture. A couple of them still function as spas. We tour Fordyce Bathhouse, a museum operated by the National Park Service. The fascinating exhibits show the luxury and sometimes severe treatment protocols once observed in the historic bathhouses.
To end our adventure, we hike up a hill in Hot Springs National Park on a paved trail that begins behind the bathhouses. At several spots along the trail, we see steaming springs flowing from the rock. Near the top, one enjoys scenic views of downtown below.
Although we didn’t soak in those famed springs, we were refreshed by stepping away from everyday life and enjoying time together as a family.
Jennifer Babisak is a freelance writer based in the Dallas area.