Hot Springs to Buffalo River National Parks Trip
By Kimberly Graf. Published on June 24, 2022
North-Central Arkansas is one of the most beautiful stretches of the countryside that the south has to offer. This road trip will take you through the most beautiful parts of it, on your way from the Hot Springs southwest of Little Rock to near the Missouri border.
We're going to start this journey in Hot Springs, Arkansas. It's one of the most unique places in the country due to the huge influx of tourism here, from the very features the town is named after. The draw was massive in the early 1900's, and the town still takes that part of their heritage very seriously. There's a historic downtown district to explore, but the major point of interest here is the Arlington Hotel.
The Arlington is actually the doorway to the Hot Springs National Park, as it encompasses this entire area. You can get a luxury room here, or just walk around the hotel – there's even a room here where Al Capone used to stay on his routine visits. You can also visit the Thermal Bathhouse, and take a dip in the famous mineral springs that some people have even called miraculous.
Right outside the door to this hotel is the Bathhouse Row National Historic Landmark District. You can imagine how much this area was thriving at its peak. This includes the Grand Promenade of the hotel, which is a beautiful and historic walk through what is still a thriving shopping district.
This is Hot Springs National Park. It's all around this area. The Fordyce Bathhouse serves as the visitor's center now, though you can still tour it. They've recreated a model of what a dressing room would have looked like back in the early 1900's, and if you're feeling up to it, you can tour the entire facility, including the men's bath hall, with its stained glass ceiling, and the gym, music room, and bowling alley that was all the rage in its time. It's a step back into a different time.
You can get a traditional bath in the Buckstaff Bathhouse, which is still in full service and available even to people who aren't staying at the Arlington Hotel.
When you're finished exploring the historic park here, head north – you'll run right into the Ouachita National Forest on your way to the Buffalo River. It's a scenic drive over rivers and through beautiful, lush forested areas. There are tall oaks and towering pines here, as well as sandstone formations that will take your breath away.
When you come out of the forest, you'll be driving on the highway through a lot of small communities like Russellville and Clarksville. These are wonderful places to stop and look around or get a bite to eat before the last part of our journey.
You're going to pass right through the Ozark National Forest on the way. Here, there plenty of recreational opportunities, as well as 500 different species of trees and plants. The main ones you're going to see are oak and hickory trees. They grow tall and lush here – it's so densely forested in areas you can't see much ground cover!
You can camp here, go hiking (the Ozark Highland Trail starts here and goes for about 165 miles, so if you enjoy through hiking, you can definitely get your kicks here), swimming, or partake in a half dozen other outdoor activities.
Just to the north is the Buffalo River. It's one of the last unpolluted, free-flowing rivers in the lower 48 states. This means that it isn't dammed anywhere, so the flow isn't controlled at all. For 135 miles, it stretches over running rapids and still pools, and plenty of areas to swim, boat, and even float.
Floating is a southern or Midwestern pastime, which involves getting into a tube or other floatation device and letting it take you wherever it wants to go. It's been popularized in Lazy River installments in waterparks, but this is essentially the same thing.
There are large sections of the Buffalo River where you can do this to your heart's content. It's incredibly relaxing way to let the day slip away.
This entire road trip is full of natural and historical wonders and covers about 3 and a half hours from start to finish without any stops along the way. The roads are going to switch between mountain roads and highway, scenic routes and faster areas. Regardless, it's always going to be dense leafy forests with thick groundcover, the perfect example of oak forests.
From Hot Springs where you can take a mineral therapy bath to a floating, lazy river, you're sure to enjoy this road trip through the middle and northern parts of the aptly-named Natural State.