Thrill Rides: Big adventure and AHHHH-mazing views

As ‘America’s First Resort,’ Hot Springs is synonymous with rest and relaxation. For the more adventure minded, the city also offers some high-intensity, hair-raising fun where you can experience some big thrills along with the natural beauty. Normally, I’m content to keep my adrenaline levels in check but I recently stepped out of my comfort zone to explore Hot Springs’ more adventurous side. I’m still shaking but ready for more. 

Ziplining

All I had to do was step off the ledge, but it felt more like a leap of faith. 

“You might have to push me,” I said, half joking, to my guide. I was standing atop a tall tower at Adventureworks Hot Springs, a treetop zipline course located on about 45 wooded acres at Catherine’s Landing RV Resort. 

A long steel cable stretched out in front of me, traversing the length of a creek that had cut a narrow path through the forest. I was snug in a safety harness, sweating beneath a helmet. A thick rope connected me to the cable’s zip pulley system. I gave it a good tug and took a gulp. Off I went, soaring some 600 feet through the air, my feet dangling high above the creek. (At the peak, I was about 35 feet off the ground.) I might have screamed but I never shut my eyes, pushing my fear aside to enjoy the lush landscape, views normally reserved only for birds, and the indescribable feeling of my body slicing through the air. It was terrifying, but surprisingly peaceful – a rush that could easily become addictive.

The course, which covers over a mile of terrain, features 10 different ziplines of varying lengths and heights – ranging from 125-923 feet long and 23-70 feet high. 

Zip tours last 1 to 1.5 hours and include two guides so you have someone on each end of the zipline. For me, it was helpful watching one guide go first – to see how it was done and to know he was waiting for me on the other side. The guide who stayed behind got me clipped in and offered some encouragement. I had never been ziplining before and that is the norm for most of their visitors.

 

“Even though ziplining has been around for a while, I think it’s still very new to most people,” Manager Eric Schaefer said. “I’d say the majority of our patrons have never ziplined.” 

Unlike some courses that use a mechanical breaking system, Adventureworks Hot Springs is a “gravity” course. Your body slows near the end and you drag your feet to stop. It’s recommended that children be at least 8 years old, though there is some flexibility depending on the child’s height, weight and ability to listen. 

“They really need to pay attention and hear what our guides say,” Schaefer said. “We do a little safety speech telling you the dos and don’ts and tips and tricks.” 

The course is open Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. and Sunday, 12 p.m.-4 p.m. Reservations are recommended and can be made online or by phone. 

Off-Roading 

Before we could hit the trail, my driver had to first attach the steering wheel but he assured me the vehicle – dubbed “The Thing” – was sound and extremely capable. He steered the customized buggy and its oversized wheels toward Squid’s Jaunt, a level 3 trail at Hot Springs ORV Park. We crawled up steep inclines and clambered over enormous rocks with ease on our way to a vista that overlooked the park. From this high vantage point, I could see various trails snaking off into the distance through the forest below.

Spanning 1,254 wooded acres, the off-road park features miles of trails and is open to dirt bikes and just about anything that is four-wheel drive, including Jeeps, trucks, side-by-sides, buggies and four wheelers. (They also have an RC course, as well as campsites, RV sites, and cabins for rent.)

The trails are largely made of rock (from pebble gravel to huge boulders) and are rated 1-5 by their degree of difficulty. The system includes trails that are easy enough for stock vehicles and challenging enough for your most advance rock crawlers. 

“The Hot Springs ORV park is a great place to go for people that want to get off road, especially if you want to test your rig’s capabilities,” said Derek Shoptaw, who writes trail reviews for Trails Offroad, one of the largest online communities for off-roading. 

An Arkansas native with a passion for “exploring the road less traveled,” Shoptaw grew up riding four-wheelers but really got hooked after purchasing a Jeep in 2016. 

“Once you drive off of the pavement, onto the gravel, it’s almost like a release from reality,” he said. “You can get away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.” 

The park offers guided trail rides for people new to off-roading or new to the park, and hosts numerous groups and club events. It’s also kid friendly. The park organizes an annual Easter egg hunt and hosts children attending Camp Sunshine, a free camp held each August for children who have sustained burn injuries.

The park is open Thursday-Monday, 9 a.m.-7 p.m. 

Rollercoaster Riding 

I’d been warned. I knew what to expect. But I was still caught completely off guard, screaming as I plummeted toward the ground. I was riding Brain Drain, a 13-story “drop tower, thrill ride” at Magic Springs Theme & Water Park.

I’d met up with Michael Wampler, director of sales and marketing, just the day before to discuss the park’s most adrenaline-pumping rides, which include thrill rides, world-class coasters, and several high-intensity water slides.

“It takes the riders up very slowly,” he’d said about Brain Drain. “About the time that you get lulled into a false sense of security, you’re suddenly rushing to the ground at over 50 miles an hour with your hair standing straight up. There is no warning bell. There is no countdown.” 

Still, I expected some kind of indication of the imminent fall. I thought it would at least pause at the top. Nope. My friend and I were chitchatting on the slow ascent, taking in the expansive views of the national park and the surrounding forest. A bird soared in the distance.

“Why are we still going up?” my friend asked. Before I could answer, we were falling… fast, screaming and laughing in the same breath. 

For adrenaline junkies, Magic Springs boasts eight thrill rides and several more high-intensity water slides. The Arkansas Twister, a classic wooden rollercoaster that opened at Magic Springs in 1992, remains one of the park’s most popular rides, Wampler said. 

“There are very few classic wooden coasters left in existence and so having one here at Magic Springs, we feel like, is a real feather in our cap,” Wampler said. “Now, of course, your adrenaline junkies will always tell you that Gauntlet and X-Coaster rank as some of the top thrill coasters anywhere in the world.” 

Gauntlet and X-Coaster are the two most visible coasters from the road, rising high above the trees beckoning travelers headed into Hot Springs on Highway 70. The first is a suspended coaster. Riders dangle from beneath the track as they zoom down a 110-foot drop and into a series of loops and bends. 

X-Coaster proved to be my favorite ride (even if I needed a little nudging to do it). Riders are launched straight up a vertical track some 150 feet before turning upside down and descending into a series of corkscrew spins. The first of its kind in the U.S., it allows riders to go upside down without a shoulder harness. 

It was my first time to experience any of the rides at Magic Springs. Arkansas’ only theme and water park, it is essentially two parks in one featuring dozens of rides (including family- and kid-friendly rides), water slides, pools, a lazy river and tons of special events like their summer concert series. 

To my surprise, all the excitement didn’t detract from the natural beauty with plants and trees throughout and Hot Springs National Park forestland as the backdrop. The park’s operating schedule changes throughout the year so check their calendar before you go. For even more thrills, make plans to visit when the park is transformed into Magic Screams with haunted attractions and the opportunity to ride the rollercoasters at night. 

I packed all my adventuring into one fun weekend and you can too. Like Magic Springs, Hot Springs is big enough to satisfy but small enough that it doesn’t take long to get from one attraction to the next. And when you’ve had enough excitement and are ready to relax, well, you couldn’t be in a better place than Hot Springs.

Looking for even more thrills? Read on for additional heart-thumping activities.

Ron Coleman Mining

This world famous quartz mine also offers ziplining giving you a bird’s eye view of the mine and the surrounding forest. There are two side by side ziplines that are some 200 feet over the mine and a quarter-mile long. There is a 45 pound weight minimum. You can purchase a single zip or a package deal that includes multiple runs on the zipline, a tour of the mine and digging for your own crystals. 

Mountain Biking

Hot Springs has hit the map as a mountain biking destination, with three IMBA Epic Rides in the vicinity and the Hot Springs Northwoods Trail System located just minutes from downtown. Designed and built by IMBA (The International Mountain Bicycling Association), the Northwoods Trail System includes hand-cut, singletrack trails, as well as machine-built flow and jump trails. There are features for beginner and experienced riders alike such as rollers and berms, table tops and doubles. The trails are marked according to their degree of difficulty: Green for beginner, blue for intermediate, and black for advanced riders.

Boating

Boating is big in Hot Springs, particularly in the summer months, and with big bodies of water, you have plenty of room to zoom and play. There are numerous outfitters on Lakes Hamilton and Ouachita that rent boats and all the accessories – wakeboards, kneeboards, skis and tubes. While tubing is always popular, wakeboarding and wake surfing are “hot” right now, said Lori Taylor, operations manager at Greg Orr Marine on Lake Hamilton.

Leslie Fisher is a media professional with a passion for travel and adventure. She has Covered Hot Springs and the surrounding areas for over a decade and enjoys being a tourist in her hometown.