words: Dwain Hebda
images: courtesy Visit Hot Springs, and Garvan Woodland Gardens, and Arkansas Dept. of Parks and Tourism
Hot Springs has always defied an easy description, in large part due to its eclectic offerings. You can drink a beer in Al Capone’s watering hole of choice, the Ohio Club, ride a roller coaster at Magic Springs, and enjoy Steinhaus Keller, German biergarten, all in the space of a day.
You can work the kinks out in an art deco bathhouse such as Quapaw Bath and Spas or Buckstaff Bathhouse, spend an awe-inspiring evening at The Maxwell Blade Theatre of Magic, a mainstay for twenty years, or visit the long-lived Josephine Tussaud Wax Museum, all within the confines of a National Park.
“It’s tough to put us under one heading,” says Steve Arrison, CEO of Visit Hot Springs. “Our appeal has become broader, I think. In the past it used to be when summer was over, school went back and all you’d see were the older, retired people that were traveling. Now you don’t see that. Now on weekends you see families, youth groups, just a little bit of everything.”
Trips to the city are particularly festive in December, when Garvan Woodland Gardens decorates for the holidays. From now through New Year’s Eve (they’re closed Christmas), more than 4.5 million lights adorn this winter paradise. There’s a fifty-foot holiday tree which plays music to an animated light show, and it feels like magic walking through the gardens beneath the canopy of sparkling lights. But lights are only the beginning. There are holiday high teas, choral concerts, and visits with Santa. There’s even a Jingle Dog Pup Parade on December 4.
When you come to see the lights, bring your bicycles and your hiking boots with you. Hot Springs, nestled in the Ouachitas, is the perfect place to kick up your heels. The scenery alone is worth the drive, although outdoor enthusiasts love the hiking too, especially up to Mountain Tower, which stands 1,256 feet above sea level where you can see for 140 miles. Visiting the top of the tower is a Hot Springs tradition. And, as Steve noted, there’s even more back-to-nature adventure on the way.
“We’re getting ready to announce a mountain biking trail system that we’re going to start next month,” he said. “We’re going to build what will probably end up between fourteen and sixteen miles of trail which hopefully we’ll have open by next fall. That’s just the first part of a forty-mile trail system that we’re going to do which is minutes from downtown.”
The local business owners who’ve invested in this picturesque town are excited about the growth that’s happening here, not just for outdoor enthusiasts but in the retail venues as well.
Paul Lynch, owner of State and Pride Provisions Company, and president of the Downtown Association of Hot Springs, is a prime example of that growth. Originally opened as a purveyor of Arkansas-themed clothing and gifts, State and Pride doubled in size in a year and added an entirely different line of apparel targeting the hiker, camper and mountain biker, merchandise one might find at a specialty outdoors outfitter.
“We’ve tried to provide an upscale experience for people that goes beyond a souvenir shop where you go in and your choices are a five-dollar t-shirt that you’re gonna wear once, and a shot glass,” he said.
Visit State and Pride Provisions Company and all the other great shops when you reach Hot Springs, but save time to investigate the town’s history, which has been dutifully archived by the Garland County Historical Society on Quapaw Avenue. The city was as wild as the Wild West got with rival local factions fighting over gambling rights.
During a remarkable fifteen-year period, from 1884 to 1899, duels, murder, corruption and graft made the city synonymous with lawlessness, all the more so because the culminating event—The Hot Springs Shootout of 1899 that killed five—was, incredibly, fought between local and county law enforcement officials.
It’s probably fitting, then, that the city would enjoy a second, more contemporary notoriety as a hangout for some of the most fabled gangsters of all time. Owney “The Killer” Madden moved to Hot Springs in 1935 seeking a change of pace from the rough-and-tumble of New York City and it wasn’t long before other mob heavies were using the city as their playground fortified by illegal gambling, speakeasys and a city administration willing to look the other way.
The city’s Gangster Museum of America details these colorful times, and you can still party like a kingpin in town. While checking out the Ohio Club, imagine Al Capone sitting nearby with his pals, including the aforementioned Madden, Charles “Lucky” Luciano and the volatile Ben “Bugsy” Siegel.
You can also place a bet at Oaklawn Racing and Gaming or sample house-made suds at one of five microbreweries in town including the original, Superior Bathhouse Brewery and Distillery.
Of course, all of the gangsters’ former diversions are legal now, save one. The city’s red light district is long gone, but you can read all about it in Maxine “Call Me Madam”: The Life and Times of a Hot Springs Madam, the memoir of Maxine Temple Jones. You can even get a burger and drink at Maxine’s, a landmark music venue that occupies Jones’ former brothel.
Truthfully though, most of the city’s nefarious past has been scrubbed away. In its wake are fun family spots like Mid America Science Museum and Magic Springs amusement park. The surrounding lakes have brought in hordes of tamer visitors, many of them families, a demographic that Paul said is gaining steam.
Finding something you love in Hot Springs is as simple as showing up and looking around. And December is a great time to do it. The lights of the season make the town especially festive, plus there’s tons to do. If you can’t make it this month, make plans to visit next year. Any season is a good season in this gem of a city in Arkansas.
For more information on Hot Springs, visit hotsprings.org. To book your visit to Garvan Woodland Gardens to see the lights, visit garvangardens.org.