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Springs Time

By Lisa Provence
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 24, 1999; Page C09


    Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, Pa.
I am floating naked in a pool of warm water, with bubbles tickling my body. This is Virginia's best-kept secret: a national and state historic landmark that allows skinny-dipping.

Mrs. Robert E. Lee also took the waters here, albeit more modestly attired. And, other than the clothing-optional policy, not much has changed at the Warm Springs Pools since the women's bathhouse was built in 1836 – except for the name, which owner Club Resorts (which also owns the nearby Homestead resort) changed to the Jefferson Pools in 1996.

Over at the men's bathhouse, built in 1761 and the oldest spa structure in the United States, men have always soaked naked in the 98-degree water, including Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee.

The first time I went to the Warm Springs Pools, the now-retired attendant, Shirdell, summed up the pool's dress code: "You can wear your suit, my suit or God's suit."

I'll confess, I've never been skinny-dipping before. So when Winslow and I pack up for a much needed weekend away from our loving families, I tell my friend to bring a suit along for the pools.

That day in early April is cool and rainy, and there are only a couple of women in the pool. Winslow and I are a little shy about wearing God's suit in front of the other suited bathers. For Winslow, that lasts about five minutes, until she spies a nude bather and decides it is the way to go. "This feels much better," she assures me.

I'm still a little chicken about baring all, but when everyone else leaves and we have the pool to ourselves, I decide I've lived long enough without swimming naked.

Ahhhhh. I wonder why I waited so long. The best thing about soaking au naturel is the bubbles. They creep up from under the native stones that line the pool, and brush against your body in a manner that is quite, well, sensual.

As we float around the 45-foot pool, I look up at the ceiling and realize that the central skylight doesn't have glass – and, in fact, it is raining on us. In my blissed-out state, an Eric Clapton refrain – "Let it rain, let it rain . . ." – plays in my brain.

From outside the ramshackle Warm Springs Pools bathhouses, it's hard to imagine the pleasure that awaits within. Legend credits Thomas Jefferson with influencing the octagonal design of the men's bathhouse, although in fact, Jefferson was only 18 when the men's bathhouse was built. He probably didn't go to Warm Springs until the 1820s, and, according to local historians, didn't like it that much and called it "the most boring place" he'd ever been. Makes you wonder why Club Resorts gave the pools his name.

In the women's pool, 17 dressing rooms fan off a rickety boardwalk around the perimeter of the pool. Each dressing room is equipped with a comb, a can of deodorant and slippers, but no heat or electricity. "This is so rustic," says the ever-tactful Winslow.

The unheated dressing room makes the water feel even warmer, and we quickly are submerged to our chins. The men's pool is deeper and not as wide as the women's. Both share the same clear water, and there's a whiff of sulphur in the air.

For a primitive massage, I climb into the overflow, a concrete box beside the women's pool. Gallons of warm water pound onto my body, and there's a rope I grab to keep from being flattened against the wall. A sign requests guests to limit time in the overflow to five minutes.

A century ago, Warm Springs was the place to be for coastal Virginians escaping the heat of summer. Whole summers were spent traveling from "the Warm" to "the Sweet" to "the White," as the area's springs were dubbed.

The town of Warm Springs looks untouched by the 20th century – no stoplights, no convenience stores. Down the road in Hot Springs, the Homestead holds the premier resort position that Warm Springs held a century ago.

After a couple of hours in the pool, Winslow and I float up the hill to our lodgings at the historic Three Hills Inn, Built in 1913 by suffragette Mary Johnston, author of "To Have and to Hold," Three Hills has a glorious view of the Warm Springs Gap below, where the classical revival Bath County courthouse poses picturesquely.

Sunday, we are most eager to languish in the pools again before heading home.The attendant, Rita, tells us to check the clock as we get in. Winslow and I sense she knows we'd violated the one-hour limit the day before. "I didn't start really relaxing until the second hour," Winslow whispers to me.

Jefferson believed that staying too long in the waters ruined his health. In the last century, to avoid sapping one's strength, dips were limited to 30 minutes. Needless to say, Winslow and I don't buy that for a minute. Actually, we don't buy it for well into a second hour, when Rita reappears, and we reluctantly climb out.

Ways and Means

Getting There: Warm Springs is about a four-hour drive southwest of the Beltway via I-66 west to I-81 south to Staunton, then Route 275 west to U.S. 250 west, Route 42 south to Goshen, then Route 39 west to Warm Springs.

Being There: Soak at the Jefferson Pools – and this isn't a place to take children – 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily from April through October or November, depending on the weather. A one-hour soak recently went from $7 to $12; towels are provided. Call 540/839-5346.

Fishing is also big in Bath County, as are hiking, biking and camping here in a county that is more than half state park or federal park or forest land. The local 177,000-acre section of George Washington National Forest (540/839-2521) includes Lake Moomaw, and Douthat State Park (540/862-7200) is about 15 miles southeast of Warm Springs. The Garth Newel Music Center (540/839-5018) holds a summer chamber music festival as well as year-round concerts.

Where to Stay: For the best view, Three Hills Inn (540/839-5381, doubles $69 to $189) offers rooms, suites and cottages from $69 to $189. At the Inn at Gristmill Square (540/839-2231, doubles $80 to $100), rooms and suites are in five restored 19th-century buildings, including a hardware store and miller's house. Monterey's Warm Springs Inn (540/839-5351, doubles $49 to $79), once the county courthouse and jail, and the Anderson Cottage B&B (540/839-2975, doubles start at $60), open from April to November, are among the county's oldest buildings.

Where to Eat: For a fresh trout dinner, check out the Gristmill Inn's Waterwheel. The Rendezvous Cafe at Three Hills Inn serves light bistro fare for lunch and dinner. South on U.S. 220 a few miles, the Springs Grill (540/839-3236) is the place to grab a burger.

Details: Bath County Chamber of Commerce, 800/628-8092,

The Escapist

Local rafting season is upon us, and here's a quick run through the four most popular rivers among fans of white water (or other, less daunting shades of water). All are three to about five hours from the Beltway (and Appalachian Wildwaters in Rowlesburg, W.Va., 800/624-8060, runs trips on them all).

  • Cheat River, W.Va. (over 3 hours): Cheat Canyon, an 11-mile rafting run, cuts a rugged path through dense West Virginia forest, sluicing the wide river into an otherwise inaccessible region. And the excitement continues after the rafting, thanks to the precipitous road leading away from the take-out spot. The rapids, generally Class III to IV (on the I-to-VI difficulty scale), occur between long calm sections, giving passengers time to enjoy the surroundings. The route starts in Albright, W.Va., where there's camping, and other lodging about three miles away in Kingwood. Details from the Preston County Visitors Bureau at 800/571-0912.

  • New River, W.Va. (over 5 hours): The New also runs big and wide, carving the scenic New River Gorge, renowned among rock climbers and admirers of 562-foot high New River Gorge Bridge, one of the highest suspension spans in the United States. (The third Saturday in October is bridge day, wherein adrenaliniacs parachute from the overpass.) Trips start in Thurmond, and most hotels and B&Bs are in Fayetteville, on the gorge rim. Check with the Southern West Virginia Visitors Bureau (800/847-4898) or Class VI River Runners (800/252-7784).

  • Gauley River, W.Va. (over 5 hours): A tributary of the New, the Gauley is beholden to Summersville Dam (whose lake offers good bass fishing, water skiing and camping). Dam releases create the rafting conditions Friday to Monday for five weeks in the fall (starting Sept. 10 this year), plus Saturday and Sunday of the sixth weekend. Water levels may allow for other releases during the summer (ask at Appalachian Wildwaters, above). The Upper Gauley is fast and intimidating (Class IV-V); prior white-water experience is needed. The Lower Gauley is slightly more tame, but still strong. The upper run starts at the dam, where camping is available; other lodging in Summersville. Call 800/847-4898.

  • Upper/Lower Youghiogheny Rivers, Md./Pa. (3½ hours): Pronounced YockaGAINey but better known as the Yough (that's Yock), the Upper is the more challenging, requiring quick, precise Class V moves to avoid raft flips. The 11-mile rafting section runs very steep (nearly 200 feet per mile, in places) from the Sang Run, Md., put-in (the Gauley averages about 30 feet per mile). The Lower Yough begins below Ohiopyle Falls, Pa., and descends at a more sedate seven feet per mile, hardly exceeding Class III in its 7.5 miles. Outfitters include Wilderness Voyagers (800/272-4141). Lodging is available in the Deep Creek Lake area, which is also ideal for water skiing (call the Garrett County Visitors Bureau at 301/387-4386).

    By John Briley

    Getaway tips? Good trips? Send a note to For a guidebook filled with more than 75 getaway ideas, check out Escape Plans, now available at bookstores and area Giants.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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