The famed Great American Road Trip would be incomplete without visiting a few national parks along the way. From Yosemite’s awe-inspiring waterfalls to the wooded respites of the Great Smoky Mountains to the narrow crevasses of Zion, the lands under the purview of the National Park Service are unparalled in their beauty.
Outside of these parks, home to stunning vistas and breathtaking wonders, are “gateway” towns: small communities that cater to the annual crowds with charming hotels, greasy spoons, local culture and innovative museums that tell fascinating stories. In honor of the 100th anniversary of the National Parks Service, a nationwide celebration of America’s greatest natural resource, we have focused this fifth annual edition of our 20 Best Small Towns to Visit around the National Parks.
Each of these communities offer their own distinct and diverse histories, cultures, food and art—as well as happening to be close to the entrances to some of the United States’ most prized heritage locations.
To narrow down the numbers, we once again enlisted the help of the geographic information company Esri to sort the nation’s small towns (those with a population under 20,000) that were in driving range to a national park or a designated National Park Service location. This year’s list traverses all the way from a secluded Alaskan hamlet in the shadow of glaciers to a sunny harbor in the U.S. Virgin Island of St. John. Enjoy, and safe travels!
Hot Springs, Arkansas
Known as “Spa City,” this Arkansas escape near Hot Springs National Park’s claim to fame is—what else—its bathhouse row. The town is built atop folds in the earth’s crust, which means that groundwater rises up to the surface relatively quickly, making its open fountains naturally heated to a toasty 143 degrees Fahrenheit.
The mineral water in Hot Springs is free to bottle, though visitors will have to pay to soak in it at Buckstaff Bathhouse, which has been around since 1912. Buckstaff holds the distinction of being the only bathhouse within the boundaries of the Hot Springs National Park that is still operating in its original capacity (others on the row have since been converted to a museum, a welcome center and a soon-to-be bed and breakfast).
One of the most charming traditions in Hot Springs is somewhat new, the “Stuart Pennington Running of the Tubs.” Now in its 11th year, the race, which is held every May, celebrates the town’s mineral water by having teams push their own tubs down the town’s Central Avenue. Racers must carry soap, bath mats, loofah mitts and towels on their persons. It’s a spectacle certain to offer some good, clean fun.
A must-visit spot for a meal is also a favorite haunt of Bill Clinton’s: McClard’s BBQ and Tamales. The restaurant has been serving pit-smoked barbeque and tamale plates since 1928. It doesn’t hold the distinction of being Arkansas’ oldest dining establishment, though; that honor goes to another Hot Springs staple, the Ohio Club. It started in 1905 as a bar and casino, and can boast a colorful history befitting its age. Al Capone, Bugsy Siegel, Bugs Moran and Lucky Luciano were all once patrons of the establishment.
Curious what these notorious criminals were doing in Hot Springs? One of the area’s many museums has you covered. The Gangster Museum of America shares how these rough and tumble characters came to town for the therapeutic hot springs but stayed for illegal gambling, as well as bootleg drinks during Prohibition. Also worth a visit: the Mid-American Science Museum. The Smithsonian Affiliate museum features the Bob Wheeler Science Skywalk, an outdoor exhibit that extends into the area’s nearby forest canopy.
Editor's Note, April 18, 2016: We originally mistook many of the events above as happening in Hot Springs Village, and not Hot Springs. While the Arkansas city would normally be ruled out for making our Best Small Towns list because its population is larger than 20,000 residents, Hot Springs' appealing qualities, as well as its proximity to Hot Springs National Park makes it a natural for our list. We regret the error.
Road Trip Destinations: