Whitney Pipkin

Whitney Pipkin writes at the intersection of food, agriculture and the environment from her home base in Northern Virginia. Her work for the Bay Journal often focuses on the Potomac and Anacostia rivers, and she is a fellow of the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Soak in the charm of West Virginia’s Berkeley Springs

Hundreds of visitors come to Berkeley Springs, WV, every year with empty water jugs, rolled-up pant legs and plans for relaxation. Here, they “take the waters” by drinking or dipping in the 74-degree springs that drew George Washington here for quiet colonial era retreats.

“This is the largest open display of thermal water in the Blue Ridge,” said Jeanne Mozier, resident historian and chief marketer of the town where she owns the local theater and helps run many of its events.

She started her impromptu walking tour of the town at Berkeley Springs State Park, where outdoor concerts find adults soaking and children splashing in the shallow, rock-bottomed springs near the park’s edge. The waters are warm to the touch even on the chilliest days of the year.

American Indians were thought to have soaked in these same waters for their mineral benefits before Washington stepped foot into the springs to make them “America’s
first spa.”

“There are five major springs, and they only come out in this block — from one end of the park to the other — for whatever reason,” she said. “If we didn’t have this park in the middle of town, it wouldn’t be the same place. “

For those who want to wade into even warmer waters, bath houses at either end of the park — and spas throughout town — offer indoor soaking opportunities at various price points.

The flow of the springs fluctuates from 725 to 2,000 gallons per minute, but the warm temperature remains constant. The name of the springs and their town, though, have been subject to both change and interpretation over the years.

The town’s original plat from 1776 says its name is Bath, and the town government still goes by the same name. But, when Virginia set up its postal system in the early 1800s, there was already a Bath, VA, in Bath County, so the state deemed its post office Berkeley Springs. Google searches will bring up both names for the town, but Mozier says only official business is conducted under the Bath title these days, and all of her marketing materials bear the name Berkeley Springs.

“What I like to say is, ‘Berkeley Springs is a post office and a state of mind,’ ” she said.

When Washington frequented these parts — where historical accounts indicate he owned property and spent several weeks in 1769 — the town was called Warm Springs.

The town’s museum and memorabilia reference Washington frequently (you can walk the Washington Heritage Trail), and one of its most photographed spots is a small, stone-lined portion of the spring labeled “George Washington’s Bath Tub.”

“The only outdoor monument to presidential bathing,” boasts one brochure about the tub, which is the centerpiece of an annual event in March celebrating the anniversary of Washington’s first visit in 1748. While the first president did soak in the local springs, Mozier said the tub was built for a “historical re-enactment” around the 1930s.

Washington most likely bathed, instead, in the spring then owned — along with much of the town — by Lord Fairfax, Mozier said.

Standing over the same springs, bubbles can be seen bursting from the sandstone bottom into the clear water, like a natural Jacuzzi. But the waters are known for more than their effervescence. Colonial maps as early as the 1740s credit the springs with having medicinal properties. The waters have unusually high amounts of magnesium carbonate, a compound used in some homeopathic remedies today, as well as chlorides, sulfates and carbonates, gleaned from their path through the sandstone.

More than the namesake for Berkeley Springs, the waters that run through the town are an ongoing point of pride for its 600 residents. They are also the inspiration for one of many annual events.

Just south of the small state park, The Country Inn of Berkeley Springs’ 26th annual International Water Tasting Competition took place in February 2016, where a weekend of events centers on the taste of municipal, spring, purified and sparkling waters. The event is open to the public and culminates with a lively dash for all the free bottles of water sent in by competition participants.

I served as a judge at the last competition, where the title of best sparkling water went to a manufacturer from Bosnia and the best city water was a tie between the Canadian city of Clearbrook and Eldorado Springs, CO.

Berkeley Springs enters its own tap water in the municipal category each year, but the city has never won. Mozier says the closest the town got was the year she helped sneak a sample of the springs’ untreated water (before it went through the city treatment process) into the competition, when Berkeley Springs won second. Still, visitors that come for the water’s healing properties also bring jugs to fill up on drinkable water from two fountains, even if what flows has been treated. 

“If you scooped the hot water out of the springs with your hands, that’s the place to get it,” she said half-joking, “if you don’t mind a few minnows.”

Berkeley Springs maintains a lively shopping district and hosts a festival each month to draw tourists from the nearest metro areas. There’s a summer concert series in July and August, an Apple Butter Festival in October, a psychic fair in November and “Spa Fest” for the entire month of January.

Then there are the mainstays. The town’s artistic culture is palpable during a walk through part of the 40,000-square-foot gallery that a group of local artists have begun to renovate, where yoga classes and art studios share space. To add to its artistic ambiance, Berkeley Springs has more than its share of shops selling coffee, alternative healthcare and psychic readings.

The two main streets of shops and eateries are interspersed with a half-dozen spas that tap into the waters to offer soaks, scrubs and massages. Another two bathhouses are located at the state park.

The Roman Bath is Mozier’s favorite for a simple soak, located in an 1815 building that heats its deep, tiled tubs to 102 degrees. Above the bathhouse is the town museum, which features soaking tubs of lore, historical photos
and a giant crystal like those the nearby sand mine turn into silica.

Many tourists hit the spas and bathhouses after long hikes through the woods and park areas surrounding Berkeley Springs. Cacapon Resort State Park is a short drive from town and offers hiking trails, a swimming lake, golf course and nature center.

On the way back to town, tucked into a small industrial strip, is the new Berkeley Springs Brewing Co., offering tastings, food and live music on occasion.

The small town isn’t lacking for culinary options, either, especially considering its size. It is home to the only West Virginia restaurant nominated for the James Beard Award for culinary excellence — the Lot 12 Public House, where chef Damian Heath has transformed the parlor of an old Victorian into a backdrop for haute-comfort cuisine. The only reason not to stay for dessert is to catch a late movie at Mozier’s Star Theatre, where the lit marquee and antique popcorn machine round out the town’s back-in-time feel.

Breakfast at the Highlawn Inn is also not to be missed, though it’s among several bed-and-breakfasts scattered along neighborhood streets that are brimming with Victorian charm.

Even during my February visit, Berkeley Springs and its residents were warm and inviting. But don’t let them keep you too busy to soak in this town of spas.

Visit these websites for help planning your trip to Berkeley Springs:

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Whitney Pipkin

Whitney Pipkin writes at the intersection of food, agriculture and the environment from her home base in Northern Virginia. Her work for the Bay Journal often focuses on the Potomac and Anacostia rivers, and she is a fellow of the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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