A hundred years ago — Thursday, March 4, 1921 — President Woodrow Wilson put his name on a document declaring a lush, mountainous strip of land in the Ouachita Mountains as Hot Springs National Park. What had been designated by Congress in 1832 as a reservation was established as a heralded bellwether of Wilson’s relatively new national parks program, with government-led protections for the 47 thermal springs that bubble up from the Earth at a feisty 143 degrees, believed by many then and now to be medicinal. To mark the centennial, we’re celebrating all things Spa City — the things that make it a geological anomaly, the things that make it a haven for lovers of pizza and gambling and cycling, and the things that keep it perennially weird.
Hot Springs is, as resident poet Kai Coggin called it, “a diamond among the quartz crystals.” Here, we ask a few of our favorite locals about Hot Springs’ undersung delights, and about what we non-residents tend to miss (or misconceive) about Spa City.
What are some undersung places in Hot Springs — places that locals love but that visitors tend to overlook?
Those are the kind of places that you don’t want to share because they might become overrun. But Lake Ouachita is really great. It has a vein of quartz running underneath it. If you’re into the metaphysical, there’s a lot to be said about water being structured by thoughts and minerals. The farmers market is not as much advertised as it should be. When I travel I always love checking out the farmers markets. You always find lots of good crafters and fresh food.
-Dominik Schley, crystal hunter
Some undersung places in Hot Springs that we locals love include Lake Ouachita, first of all! It’s a 40,000-acre lake that has no development on it, no houses all along the shoreline like Lake Hamilton. Just pristine shoreline and about a million little islands. You can literally rent a boat for the day and find your own island on the lake and have it all to yourself all day. The water is clear, cool, and clean and perfect for swimming. It’s my favorite summer outing and it’s free! Another beautiful place that is a little outside Hot Springs, but really worth the drive to get your birds-eye view, is Hickory Nut Mountain Vista. Unparalleled. Go to Wegner’s crystal mine and dig for crystals. Oh, and if you haven’t heard of the 140,000 tulips blooming at Garvan Gardens, put this at the top of your places to visit in spring.
-Kai Coggin, poet, educator, director of Wednesday Night Poetry and author of “Periscope Heart,” “Wingspan” and “Incandescent”
What are some misconceptions about Hot Springs — things that people tend to get wrong?
Everyone thinks we’re seated on top of a volcano.
-Holly Faulkner, bartender at Starlite Club
I think a common misconception people have is that Hot Springs lacks things to do when really, there’s always something awesome happening in Hot Springs. You’re five minutes from breathtaking hiking trails in a 100-year old national park, five minutes from soaking in geothermal water on Bathhouse Row and just down the street you’ll find beer brewed with the same thermal spring water. It’s hard to top that, and I think to this day it’s still America’s best-kept secret!
-Ashley Hill, lead singer of Ghost Bones
A misconception about Hot Springs is that it’s just another tiny town in Arkansas. It’s small, yes, but it’s hardly a one-stop rural scene. There is plenty here to see, do and experience; a mix of expansive wildness and beauty, awesome restaurants, Bathhouse Row, and a truly bustling arts community.
What’s your absolute favorite restaurant dish or drink in Hot Springs?
I really like A1 sushi, The Vault and DeLuca’s.
Food spots you might overlook but should definitely check out in Hot Springs: Cafe 1217 for a tasty lunch spot, Taco Mama for delicious drinks and tacos (of course), SQZBX Pizza Joint (try the Greek pizza), and Best Cafe at the Best Court Motel for a deliciously retro breakfast spot. And of course Starlite Club for all the ’80s dive bar weirdness your heart could desire.
On the food and drink scene, pretty much everyone in Arkansas has heard of DeLuca’s pizza. It’s the best in the state for a reason — perfect Naples, Italy-style pizza made by a feisty Italian New Yorker named Anthony. Seriously primo pies. I love the craft beers (brewed from Hot Springs waters) at Superior Bathhouse Brewery. Everything at Luna Bella close to Lake Hamilton is delicious if you are going out for a special date night — try the scallops! And for the best coffee and vegan/vegetarian options in Hot Springs, check out Kollective Coffee+Tea in downtown. Come on a Wednesday night and experience the longest running consecutive weekly open mic series in the country — Wednesday Night Poetry. In June, in person poetry will resume! (masks and vaccines required for entry).