Teeming with parkland, mountains and outdoor adventure, this historic West Virginia town offers a relaxing getaway this upcoming season.
A recent survey showed that 80 percent of people are dreaming about traveling after stay-at-home restrictions begin to lift and travel once again becomes safe. And as people toe the line between getting some much-needed relaxation and taking necessary precautions, places like Berkeley Springs, WV make for ideal destinations. For travelers in the D.C. area, the town’s proximity to the city lets families avoid air travel, and after so many months inside, visitors can try numerous outdoor activities that allow for social distancing amid lush mountain scenery.
Berkeley Springs has been a choice summer destination since George Washington started visiting in the 18th century. But this summer in particular, the area will be eagerly awaiting travelers’ arrival; the town is gearing up for the season with new adventures in the open air, from paddleboarding to mountain biking, as well as opening a new state park lodge, upgraded cabins and thought-provoking art exhibits that will satisfy repeat and first-time visitors alike.
“Once you get [people] here, they come back,” said Scott Fortney, superintendent of Cacapon and Berkeley Springs State Parks.
New adventures in the great outdoors
Set in the ridge and valley section of the Appalachians, Berkeley Springs offers easy access to two rivers and two state parks with ample hiking trails and peaceful lakes. And come summer, urban families in need of some fresh air will find more activities available than ever before.
“For as close as it is to the city, it is one of the best places to get away and relax,” said Ken Craft, owner of local water sports company Craft’s Adventures. “But at the same time, we have enough here that adventurous people have places to go as well.”
One of those places is Cacapon State Park, a 6,000-acre haven located about 20 minutes from town, which gives visitors a variety of options for outdoor activities (that don’t require them to come too close to other people). Visitors can walk or hike along 23 miles of trails, ranging from easygoing Piney Ridge to the more strenuous Ziler Loop.
Cacapon has also been ramping up its mountain biking terrain, recently becoming the first destination east of the Mississippi River to receive a Trail Accelerator grant from the International Mountain Biking Association. The park now offers about 20 miles of single-track mountain biking trails, as well as a three-mile course approved by the National Interscholastic Cycling Association, which promotes high school mountain biking. The course is aimed at beginners, but it also has some technical features for moderate-level riders.
To soak up the scenery from another vantage, visitors can head to the water. Craft’s Adventures offers two-to-four-hour tubing trips down the nearby Cacapon and Potomac Rivers, where guests can spot deer, abundant waterfowl and the occasional shoreline bear, according to Craft.
The next stop after any outdoor pursuit should be Berkeley Springs State Park, the only place in town offering direct access to the town’s unfiltered spring water, which has been attracting visitors for almost three centuries. The tubs in the 200-year-old Roman Bath House have been updated to meet Americans with Disabilities Act accessibility standards, and historically-accurate white octagonal tile has been installed. The water in all tubs is heated to between 102 and 104 degrees Fahrenheit, and a new glass-covered hatch with LED lighting also offers a peek into the reservoir from which the waters spring.
Updated hotels showcase local history and artisans
At the end of a long day spent outdoors, travelers can continue absorbing the unique character of Berkeley Springs by retiring to the newly-built Cacapon State Park Lodge. There, visitors can choose from 78 new rooms, including four suites, and construction is underway on an indoor/outdoor dining area with a fire pit. They can also enjoy a stay in some of the recently-renovated historic park cabins, which offer an additional 31 rooms to choose from.
Before ground was broken on the renovation and construction projects, Fortney, who was involved with both, uncovered a photo of the lodge’s opening day in the 1950s that gave a glimpse of decor. “The furniture we picked out is almost identical” to the photo, he said. All cabins have also been modeled with local character in mind, including handcrafted wood furnishings from Gat Creek Furniture, located two miles up the road.
“We kept it pretty much all West Virginia and local,” said Fortney.
Coolfont Resort, located about 10 minutes from Cacapon State Park, reopened in fall 2019 with renovated buildings and new amenities. New suites look out over Coolfont Lake, where Craft’s Adventures will be offering a slew of new water sports this summer, including kayaking, canoeing and stand-up paddleboarding. Wooded hiking trails and picnic areas will also be opened up for the season, creating an altogether “serene” resort experience, according to owner Matt Omps.
Finding comfort through local art
Whether through home cooking or cozy casual clothing, many people have been seeking comfort while confined to their homes during recent months. Art can also offer solace as travelers “start to venture back out,” according to Thom Rubel, executive director of Morgan Arts Council (MAC) and president of the local chamber of commerce. From May 29 through July 19, the MAC co-op gallery will host “Go West,” a multimedia exhibit exploring influential images of the American frontier, from cowboys to pioneer life. A quilt show opening in July at the Ice House called “America Proud” will feature displays of American-themed quilts, and yard square quilts will hang in the windows of local businesses around town. Quilts in the Ice House show will be for sale, and an auction of the yard squares will be held during Labor Day weekend.
“It’s unique local art, and [quilting] has a long and interesting history,” Rubel said.
An annual summer concert series in Berkeley Springs State Park is also on tap. Produced by MAC, the live events will be held every Saturday from July 11 through August 22, showcasing a wide range of music styles, from bluegrass to zydeco to indie rock and folk, according to Rubel.
Group events like these, beloved by visitors and locals alike, may not feel quite the same this year. When families spread picnic blankets in the grass before a show, or head out for a stroll around town, certain precautions will still need to be taken. But Jeanne Mozier, local historian and president of the Museum of the Berkeley Springs, takes comfort in knowing the town has been through challenging times before. Between 1898 and 1901, for example, two prominent downtown businesses, the Berkeley Springs Hotel and the Fairfax Inn, burned to the ground. During that tumultuous period, the town went from having 700 available rooms to none, decimating the thriving Victorian tourism industry.
In the century-plus since then, properties have been rebuilt, parks have undergone updates, new art galleries, spas, shops and restaurants have opened their doors while the springs have continued to flow. In fact, they’ve been churning out mineral-rich water for 250 million years, noted Mozier.
“Throughout its long history, Berkeley Springs has experienced periods of boom and decline, and with new places opening and reopening, we’re looking forward to a memorable summer,” she said.