Lakes, Pools & Waterfalls
Lake Ouachita sparkled beneath a big blue sky. In the distance, wooded mountains rolled across the horizon. The sun beamed and the water beckoned. I leapt from the edge of the sailboat that had ferried us out to the middle of the lake, and plunged into the cold, deep water. I swam back up to the surface and floated on my back, watching the clouds and knowing that I’d always remember this moment.
I didn’t grow up in Arkansas but, for my friends who did, days like this are part of their DNA –their youth colored by the hues of the natural world. It’s almost ritualistic they way they retreat to the water to renew their spirits and chase away the heat of summer.
Hot Springs offers plenty of opportunities to splash and play in nature and some other fun ways to beat the heat (see below). Nearly all of the swimming holes and swim beaches listed are located within state or federally protected areas and nearly all are free. So pack your swimsuit and make plans to enjoy the great outdoors in Hot Springs.
Lake Catherine State Park boasts a nice swim beach but it is also home to a hidden waterfall that spills into Falls Creek, a tributary of Lake Catherine. To get to this picturesque swimming spot, follow Falls Branch Trail, a moderate two-mile loop trail that winds through the forest. The hike culminates at the seasonal waterfall which measures 12-15 feet tall. There is a nice shallow pool right at the base of the waterfall where you can cool off before finishing the loop. The trailhead is located at the south end of the park, near the amphitheater. Follow the red blazes.
Gulpha Gorge Campground and Picnic Area is situated along the bank of the Gulpha Gorge Creek at the base of North Mountain. It is the only campground located within Hot Springs National Park and it’s a nice day use area too with hiking trails and a shallow, cascading creek. A small diversion dam crosses the creek, creating a wide shallow area on one side and a series of deeper pools on the other. The cement blocks serve as a path to two trailheads: Gulpha Gorge Trail heading south and Sunset Trail heading north. Both routes are well worth exploring and after your hike you can take a dip in the creek. The campground is located off Highway 7 on the east side of Hot Springs.
Located about 20 miles west of Hot Springs in the Ouachita National Forest, Charlton Recreation Area is the perfect destination for the hottest of days. Walnut Creek, a mountain stream and tributary to Lake Ouachita, flows through the recreation area where a native stone dam was built to create a nice, super-cold swimming hole. There are diving platforms and a grassy lawn for lounging around. The historic recreation area features a 1930s Civilian Conservation Corps bathhouse and opportunities for camping, picnicking, hiking and fishing. There is a small fee for the day use/swimming area: $5 per vehicle or $2 per person if you walk in, bike in or are dropped off. Dogs are not allowed in the day use or swimming areas.
Nestled in the Ouachita National Forest, Lake Ouachita is one of the cleanest lakes in the nation and the largest lake located entirely in Arkansas. There are swim beaches at various marinas along the shoreline but my favorite is the sandy swim beach at Lake Ouachita State Park, next to the historic Three Sisters’ Springs. The park is located about 30 minutes northwest of downtown Hot Springs. You can enjoy multiple, free day-use areas or play and stay. The park is home to 93 campsites and eight fully-equipped cabins. In addition to the swim beaches, there are hiking trails, picnic tables, a playground, a marina with boat rentals, and some really great interpretive programs, like the sunset kayak tour.
With a towering mix of old growth hardwoods, lake access, and mountain views, Hill Wheatley Park is a pretty park and a pleasant place to spend the day. It’s situated on the north-eastern shore of Lake Hamilton and features a sandy beach with a designated swim area that’s safe from boat traffic. Once you get tired of the sun, you can picnic beneath the canopy of trees. The park also includes a boat launch, a walking trail, picnic tables, grills, a pavilion and restrooms.
Lake Hamilton flows into Lake Catherine and the sandy, swim beach at Lake Catherine State Park is a popular destination for summer fun, especially among families. Kids love playing in the sand and splashing in the water while mom and dad take turns lounging in the sun. The beach area includes bathrooms with changing rooms and outdoor showers. The visitors center is also nearby where you can buy snacks and drinks. If you want to get out on the water, the park includes a boat launch, boat rentals and a full-service marina. You can spend the day at the park (day use areas are free) or stay overnight in the campground or one of the cabins. Other facilities include hiking trails, picnic sites and playgrounds.
Voted one of the top three health clubs in Arkansas, Hot Springs Health & Fitness boasts a large indoor facility along with an outdoor swim area that is fun for all ages. It includes an adult pool, a kiddie pool with water features, and a splash pad. Guest passes provide access to the gym and the swimming pools and are available for $15/day for adults and $10/day for children up to age 12. The gym offers a variety of amenities, including a sauna and spa, and has more than 55 group exercise classes in addition to strength training and cardio equipment, a tennis court, indoor basketball and racquetball courts and more.
For even more swim options, consider booking overnight accommodations at one of these spots. Hot Springs is home to numerous hotels, motels and inns with swimming pools for their guests. These include indoor and outdoor pools, heated pools, lake view pools and more.
Hot Springs most iconic hotel, the Arlington Resort Hotel & Spa, features a multilevel mountainside swimming area with two pools and a 15-person hot tub. With lush mountain views all around, it’s hard to tell you’re right in the heart of downtown Hot Springs. The hotel, which opened at a New Year’s Eve party in 1924, has been under new ownership since July 2017. Since then some $4 million dollars worth of upgrades have been made to the property and even more improvements are on the way with plans for a major renovation.
Gold-Inn Hot Springs (formerly the Alpine Inn) has been charming guests ever since owners Baker and Justin Gold-Smith purchased the boutique motor lodge in April of 2018. In addition to totally remodeling the rooms, they’ve added pops of color to the previously all-white swimming pool, with paint, flowers and shrubs to create a whimsical and cheery place to chill out. The rooms are equally fun – retro yet refined – with a vibe that beckons the “Golden Age of Travel” while offering all the modern amenities.
More Fun in the Sun
With high-intensity water slides, a wave pool, a lazy river, and children’s play areas, Magic Springs Water & Theme Park offers tons of watery fun that you won’t find anywhere else in the state. It’s Arkansas’ only water and theme park and is essentially two parks for the price of one. In addition to the water park activities, there are roller coasters, family rides and kid rides plus tons of special events like their summer concert series.
Summer is a spectacular time in Arkansas. It’s hot but it’s so lush and green and it’s the best time of year to hit the lakes, the swimming holes, the pools – to feel like a kid again. And that’s a feeling we could all use a little more of. So jump on in. A trip to Hot Springs is sure to make a splash.
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.