Hot Springs, Arkansas, is famous for its 47 natural thermal springs which flow from Hot Springs Mountain downtown, exciting thoroughbred racing at Oaklawn Park, and an active fine arts community. It is nestled around three large lakes (Lake Catherine, Lake Hamilton, and Lake Ouachita) in the Ouachita Mountain / Diamond Lakes region of northern Arkansas. It is home to great hiking, boating, and the Magic Springs and Crystal Falls Amusement Parks. Located just a little more than a three hour drive from Memphis, it posed itself as a perfect getaway for the Traveling Twosome. We found a lot to see and do in Hot Springs… both on and off the beaten path.
On the road trip out, we ran into a long traffic tie up on the I-40. Char and I noticed a few truckers taking an exit and traveling a state road to the southwest. We figured they probably knew something we didn’t so we followed them with hopes of coming out on the other side of whatever was causing the long delay. But if we got lost instead… then we knew we’d make the best of it discovering rural Arkansas.
And that would make quite a Traveling Twosome narrative! In the end, we did both: we passed through an old civil war town with a remarkable structure over the White River and indeed found our way back to civilization and the path to Hot Springs.
The town was DeValls Bluff, settled by Jacob DeVall around 1850 and situated on the White River. At the end of the Civil War, and with railroads causing a downturn in river traffic, the settlement began seeing a decline in population. As of the 2000 Census, fewer than 800 people call DeValls Bluff home.
The structure in the White River was an old railroad bridge built in the 1920s, long since abandoned. Passing by, I could only imagine what it must have looked like in its prime. I imagined the people who used to work in that small office over the bridge. The bridge was a vertical lift bridge, weighing over one million pounds, and costing just over $300,000 to construct. Peering over the river, you have to wonder how it would have looked with Union soldiers sending out troops up the misty river on a cloudy day. It was the kind of place you could sit for hours and stare.
We eventually got back to Interstate 40 and arrived in Hot Springs in time for a late lunch downtown. We chose Rolando’s for our first stop – an Ecuadorian restaurant with rave reviews. We were more than impressed with our meal. We chose the Adventure Platter and a side of Queso Flamada. The queso was covered in an alcohol and served set ablaze over corn tortillas. The platter included tamales, chicken, beef, pork, and lots of guacamole. It was fantastic and well deserving of the reviews. The restaurant was located in historic downtown Hot Springs not far from the Arlington Hotel and Bath House Row. If you find yourself enjoying Hot Springs, we highly recommend giving Rolando’s a try!
After finishing lunch, we found ourselves being pelted with a heavy rainfall. We ducked into the Mountain Valley Spring Water Company just down the street. The famous bottled water company uses Hot Springs water and distributes it coast to coast. The Mountain Valley building housed a small museum of, well, bottled water. There was also an eclectic mix of artistic creations using water bottles and other odds and ends. Featured in the middle of it all was a horse. After all, this is Hot Springs, home of Oaklawn and thoroughbred racing.
Since I have a hard time writing any post and not mentioning Elvis at some point, let me go ahead and get it out of the way now. Perhaps not for the last time… Elvis Presley favored Mountain Valley Spring Water and he would order it to be on hand in his private jets as well as his home, Graceland. A tour through Graceland will include information about Elvis and Mountain Valley Spring Water.
After the weather relaxed a bit, we started outside to one of the places where you can get a feel of the 143 degree Fahrenheit spring water. Let’s just say, Hot Springs is aptly named. One of the most beautiful things we saw in downtown Hot Springs was the steaming water rising from the pools and fountains. A thought occurred to us as we were strolling along… why don’t you ever hear of people suing the city over being scalded by the hot water?
Continuing our stroll downtown, we shopped in the many stores along Central Avenue and took in many sights. The stores were a mix of art houses, crafty shops, head shops, coffee bars, dessert parlors, clothing stores, and more. There were many restaurants and museums including a Wax Museum and a Gangster Museum (Hot Springs was a hot spot for gangsters at one time; Al Capone was a frequent guest at the Arlington Hotel). Of course, we had our usual fun. In one store, Romancing the Stone, Char found several homemade instruments which all had to be tested, of course. I found some masks that Char and I tried on while entertaining the store clerks and patrons while Char, with her everlasting affection for hats, was simply in paradise with the selection of head wear. Vintage hats, funny hats, gangster hats, sun hats, cowboy hats… if it fit on the head, chances are you could find it in Hot Springs. Or at least Char could!
While Char tried on many hats, I was the one who actually bought one. I had been looking for a fedora or similar black hat to wear on stage in our band and found just the one I was looking for in Hot Springs. But seeing some of what Char was trying on, I still wonder now why I didn’t make her pick up one or two…
It was a great day of shopping but we knew Hot Springs had a lot to offer and we couldn’t spend all of our time in retail. There was a lot to do and see in this town so we moved on…
We ended our first evening in Hot Springs at a magic and illusion show performed by Stonehenge. Just across the street from the theater was a church with a painting of Jesus on one wall. In this picture, Jesus looks almost exactly like Rob Schneider. We had to take a photo… see for yourself. For those of you who may not be familiar, Rob Schneider is the actor from 50 First Dates, Deuce Bigalow, Waterboy, and a slew of others. After gawking at the painting, and wondering if the artist did this intentionally, I loitered in the theater parking lot a while (just so I could make sure I broke city ordinance #3714 while in town) then went inside for some magic! The first illusion was that the seat I was about to sit in was connected to the floor. My fall turned into fun for all as the audience entered the auditorium. In fact, the magician even made mention of our laughter once he took the stage. He said he was concerned that he might not be able to top whatever fun was going on there in the second row. Evidently, the magician and his assistants were cracking up over our adventures taking a seat (or trying to) and cutting up with the youth group which was seated on the row in front of us. Poor youth group.
The show featured classical magic and illusions such as sawing a woman in half, the woman in the box, levitating tables and people, the glass and bottle illusion, and a very well performed card trick. His finale was recreating the Harry Houdini Straight Jacket Escape while hanging upside down. For one trick, Stonehenge called for audience participation and wouldn’t you know it – Char made sure I was picked. “PICK MY HUSBAND!!!! TAKE HIM!!!!! PLEASE!!!!!! YOU GOTTA TAKE MY HUSBAND!!!!!” It was reminiscent of the time we were in Pigeon Forge, TN at the Comedy Barn and she begged the comedian to take me on stage so he could bop me on the head to the tune of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody.
We retired to our hotel exhausted from a full day of fun and laughs. The next day would come early with a trip to Garvan Woodland Gardens, a beautiful botanical garden on the outskirts of town.
Garvan Woodland Gardens is truly breathtaking. From waterfalls and koi ponds to nature trails and flower paths, it is a treat for all the senses. We spent hours there hiking across trails, discovering waterfalls, petting koi fish, listening to the sounds of birds and trees, smelling the greenery, and finding a natural path that led us to a rather secluded part of Lake Hamilton. It was a patch of paradise!
Garvan Woodland Gardens is a fantastic place to relax, re-energize, read, or just take a romantic walk. You can spend a few moments there or all day. It was certainly a highlight of our trip to Hot Springs!
As we were leaving the gardens, we remembered something an old gentleman told us at the welcome center in the gardens. He asked us to go visit the chapel before we left. He pointed across the parking lot. We walked in the direction to which we remembered him pointing and fully expected to find a small wooden chapel from the early 1900s. Had we found such a chapel, we would have surely enjoyed seeing the quaint facility and taken several pictures. But that’s not what we found. In fact, nothing could have prepared us for what we were about to stumble upon.
I believe we live in a somewhat desensitized society. When we see remarkable works of architecture in America’s cities, we too often fail to recognize and appreciate them. But every once in a while, there comes a structure so magnificent that we can’t help but marvel at it. Such was Anthony Chapel at Garvan Woodland Gardens.
Anthony Chapel is a 57′ glass structure overlooking Lake Hamilton and the area woodlands. Designed by the Jennings & McKee firm, whose founder studied under Frank Lloyd Wright, the building is accompanied by an 80′ carillon tower that chimes each quarter hour.
Jennings, one of the architects of the chapel – who was also involved in the creation of Thorncrown Chapel which was selected by the AIA as the best American building constructed since 1980 – calls Anthony Chapel his “finest creation to date.”
Weddings and other events are held at the chapel which can be rented from Garvan Woodland Gardens.
Needless to say, this chapel far exceeded our sightseeing expectations.
Walking around the gardens left us with quite an appetite. Our next stop was Cajun Boilers. We had seen a billboard on Hwy 70 advertising the restaurant and we decided to give it a try. Char and I both love our food hot and spicy, enjoy about any shellfish, and love cajun cuisine. Cajun Boilers is located just off an area lake with a large patio overlooking the water – and it seems to be a favorite among locals.
We ordered calamari, alligator, shrimp etouffee, and clam strips with side salads and green beans. The homemade Italian dressing was fabulous and it was so nice to sink our teeth into alligator again! But the best part of our meal was still to come! I actually seek out restaurants with good bread pudding a la mode. An old co-worker of mine from years ago first introduced me to bread pudding and I’ve been searching for the best bread pudding in America ever since. The key to good bread pudding lies in the taste of the whisky or rum sauce and how moist the bread is due to being saturated in the sauce. Cajun Boiler’s bread pudding was fantastic! My only complaint was that they didn’t serve it a la mode. We enjoyed it so much that we actually returned to Cajun Boiler the next day (bringing our ice cream with us to make it a la mode) just for dessert.
After our lunch, we went back to the hotel to get ready for a night out on the town. Our first stop was a trip to watch the sunset from the top of the Hot Springs Mountain Tower. You can choose to drive or hike up Hot Springs Mountain which is accessible just off the intersection of Central and Fountain downtown. Driving or hiking, the path up the mountain is beautiful! Once at the top, you can climb the stairs or take an elevator 216 feet into the sky to view Hot Springs from above. The views of the mountains, lakes, and city lights make for a spectacular sunset. May I suggest bringing your own binoculars rather than relying on the telescope. We stayed through the sunset and were the last patrons to leave the tower.
Afterward, we headed downtown for more sightseeing, people watching, and appetizers. Central avenue at night is lined with motorcycles. Contrary to public opinion, bikers are a friendly bunch and Char and I were allowed to take some over for a while! Perhaps people just don’t know what to say when we say, “Hey, nice bike – do you mind?”
Actually, I’ve wanted a bike for some time now. A Honda Shadow to be precise. Char tells me she’s worried about Memphis drivers killing me and having to change the site to The Traveling One. I’ve tried to appeal to her fiscal conservatism by saying that we’d save on the gasoline bill. I don’t think I’m convincing her. She was involved in a major motorcycle accident years ago and nearly lost her life – so I’ll give in on this one… At least we’ll get to ride a bit off the busy Memphis roads once in a while.
Other than motorcycles, downtown was full of surprises. From gorillas on WiFi to modern art sculptures, our downtown date was a great way to end a day full of sightseeing.
We began the next day by sleeping in after a late night out. When we woke up, it was time to get ready for lunch. And that meant a trip on the Belle of Hot Springs, cruising Lake Hamilton. The Belle of Hot Springs offers lunch, dinner, and sightseeing cruises for a reasonable price. The cruise was perhaps the most relaxing part of our trip. On the water, you’ll see views of the mountains, natural islands, and lakeside homes. A cool breeze and a secluded corner of the ship made this cruise more enjoyable than we even expected.
After the cruise, it was time for more tourism. Next stop: The Arkansas Alligator Farm and Petting Zoo. On the way out, we spotted a sign reading “The Art Church.” Of course, that meant we had to pull over and check it out. The Art Church is an art studio and classroom located in an old church building. From our observation, the place seemed to be just setting up for a grand opening – but the lady inside was nice enough to let us in to see what it was all about. We spent some time taking pictures inside and out. A walk around the building lead us to a mountain stream and gorgeous sunflowers. While people can create beautiful art, I was left with the constant realization that nature itself as created by God is the greatest work of art possible.
Another stop on our way to the alligator farm was a peculiar, closed attraction called the Crystal Cave. We didn’t know what the place was but it certainly made for a great photo opportunity and speculation. After returning home, I eventually researched this landmark. I learned that Crystal Cave was a manufactured cave lined with quartz crystals and showcasing a large crystal that supposedly contained images of faces and animals. The museum closed in the 1980s.
Finally, we made it to the Arkansas Alligator Farm. Okay – before I begin, let me first say that Char and I were given the opportunity to pet alligators. That made the experience worth while. Something to put on the bucket list. Pet an alligator: check! Other than that, we were left puzzled as to how this place is still open to the public. All that separated the zoo-goers from alligators and a wolf was an unlocked fence! All that separated the zoo-goers from a hungry mountain lion was… a rope. There was a sign that read, “Alligators do not attack people” and a newspaper hanging up with the headline, “Coach bitten by alligator.” In addition to all this, the tourist trap also featured the skeletal remains of…. a merman. Someone needs to tell the folks at the alligator farm that Ripley’s has already showcased this finding … and concluded that it is (big surprise here) a fraud.
If you want to see Canadian Geese trapped in a small cage unable to spread their wings and stand around while a curious four year old tourist might open a gate allowing alligators and wolves to come out, then by all means visit the Arkansas Alligator Farm. Otherwise, I’d recommend watching the grass grow.
Sensing that our time in Hot Springs was quickly coming to a close, we took another trip up Hot Springs Mountain and stopped off for more ariel views of the mountain range. The weather was perfect for pictures as well as viewing the landscape through our binoculars.
We saved our most action packed event for last. For our final day in Hot Springs, we woke up and spent the whole day at Magic Springs and Crystal Falls Amusement and Water Park. We love old wooden roller coasters so our favorite ride was the Arkansas Twister, a long and thrilling ride over the mountains! Char and I had the front seats on the coaster and the ride was just too much fun! We felt like we were 17 again as we rode the attraction. While the Arkansas Twister was our favorite, it was the Gauntlet that was the most exciting. The Gauntlet is an open air roller coaster where you are strapped in a seat rather than an enclosed car, giving you the sensation of flying. With more twists, turns, and loops than I could count, this ride was the scariest I’ve been on in quite some time!
Another favorite ride was the Plummet Summit, a large slide into a pool of water causing a splash like a tidal wave. After the ride is over, you can stand on the bridge as you exit and be soaked by the splash from the next boat to plunge into the water.
The road trip back was quiet and peaceful. We stopped off in one town halfway between Little Rock and Memphis called Brinkley, AR. The town has tried to capture tourists for many years but there is little there to see. It is, however, a hot spot for duck hunting trips. In 2004, the ivory billed woodpecker, once thought to be extinct, was found thriving in this little town. The town has tried to capitalize on that by naming everything in the town “The Ivory Billed _____” as in The Ivory Billed Inn, etc. In fact, a local restaurant even sells an “Ivory Billed Burger” (no, they do not use woodpecker meat in the recipe). You can even get an Ivory Billed Haircut from a local barber. We took a drive through the old downtown district, made up primarily of closed up shops and abandoned buildings. On one wall was painted the warning, “No Drinking On Outside That The Law You Can Be Arrested By Police.” No, this isn’t Photoshopped – it’s the real deal. I just wonder if the police or a compassionate citizen painted the message…
Our Hot Springs vacation was a great one – we look forward to going back. There’s a lot more to do there than you might expect so plan on staying for a few days. If you want to ride the rides at Magic Springs, give yourself an entire day just for that. It’s a vacation we’ll talk about for some time!