Known as “America’s First Spa,” Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, is a quaint historic spa town 90 minutes from Washington, DC, with quirky charm. Life here has always been about the warm mineral spring water that flows at a constant temperature of 74.3 degrees Fahrenheit and more than 1,000 gallons per minute. Here, in the heart of the town, you’ll find Berkeley Springs State Park, where these healing mineral waters have been soothing and renewing locals and visitors alike since Native Americans first stepped foot in the springs. Archeological ruins and traces of settlement that date back 8,500 years confirm Native American presence in the area.
By the 1720s, colonial travelers were stopping to take the waters in Berkeley Springs, but it wasn’t until the 1770s that the town (first established as “Bath”) became popular as a health resort. America’s founding father, George Washington, initially visited the town in 1748, as a 16-year-old apprentice surveyor, and wrote of the “fam’d warm springs.” The land was still frontier and part of the large land holdings of Washington’s mentor, British aristocrat Thomas Lord Fairfax. At that time, one simply pitched a tent and took the waters in stone-lined pools.
Today, you can find a replica of George Washington’s rustic stone tub in Berkeley Springs State Park. On the wall of the Museum of Berkeley Springs, also located in the park, is an endorsement from Washington himself: “I think myself benefited from the water and am now not without hope of their making a cure for me—a little time will show now.”
When the 50-acre town was established in 1776, the Virginia legislature deemed that the town was “for the purpose of housing those who came to take the waters for their health.” And the springs therein, thanks to Fairfax, the land’s original owner, were to be “for the public use and benefit.” Berkeley Springs, wrote author and historian Jeanne Mozier, just may be the only town in America “established for the express purpose of caring for, feeding, and housing those who came to take the waters for their health.”
Where the Past Meets the Present
Of course, a lot of time has gone by since Washington’s days—the town survived a huge fire in 1844, a huge war in 1860, another big fire in 1898—and yet another devastating fire in 1974. But not surprisingly, water ultimately wins. Today, the famed warm mineral waters are the municipal water source and are still used for baths. Commercial bottling of spring water began in 1903 with Berkeley Springs Bottling Works, and in 1925, Berkeley Springs was turned over to the state of West Virginia and now is its smallest state park.
This may be the only town in America “established for the express purpose of caring for, feeding, and housing those who came to take the waters for their health.”
A well-loved chapter of the American Spa experience was born at Coolfont Resort, situated at the base of Cacapon Mountain, five miles from Berkeley Springs. Coolfont is where Martha Ashelman, one of the original founders of the International Spa Association (ISPA), was a pioneer when she opened a spa both with mineral springs offerings and an immersion in wellness and nature activities. In more recent times, Coolfont has come under the stewardship of Larry Omps and his family, longtime Berkeley Springs’ residents who lovingly renovated the iconic property that had been vacant since 2006. Coolfont Resort reopened in 2019, and Omps continues to renovate and reinvent the iconic property.
An International Water Tasting
For the past 32 years, Berkeley Springs has hosted the annual Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting, held at the historic Country Inn, home to the Renaissance Spa. I was invited to be a judge earlier this year, and I, along with seven other judges, spent hours tasting waters sourced from 18 countries, 16 American states, and three Canadian provinces.
After the water-tasting festivities, I toured the town, spending time in the aforementioned Berkeley Springs Museum where I met with Scott Fortney, Superintendent of Cacapon Resort and Berkeley Springs State Park, and Jamie Foltz, Spa Manager, Berkeley Springs/Cacapon Resort State Park.
I took time out to take the waters at the scrupulously clean Old Roman Bathhouse built in 1815, where I booked the Roman Bath. I luxuriated in the privacy of a 705- gallon walk-in-tub with steaming magnesium-rich spring water for the grand sumof $27. In addition to mineral baths, the Main Bathhouse offers massage services, saunas, and showers.
New Spas, Ancient Inspiration
Foltz, who has been in the spa and wellness industry for 27 years, has been with the West Virginia State Parks for four years. She oversees the Main Bathhouse, as well as the new Healing Waters Spa, located at Cacapon Resort State Park within the lodge. Cacapon Resort State Park is a mere 10 miles away from Berkeley Springs State Park. “We embrace and honor the local history with both parks,” says Foltz, who was the opening spa manager, on board early during construction. Healing Waters Spa opened in May of 2021, and derives its name from Cacapon, which explains Foltz, “is a term of Native American origin that means ‘medicine waters.’”
Healing Waters Spa is 2,200-square-feet with four treatment rooms, a nail area, a relaxation area, locker rooms, and a patio lounge area. Professional product lines used and retailed are Pevonia and Farmhouse Fresh. “Our guests, who are health- oriented and looking to increase their well-being and relax in a beautiful state park setting, come from all over the world, and we also have a loyal local clientele,” shares Foltz.
Healing Waters is the second spa in the state park system—and I’ve just learned that as of May 2022, there is now a third spa with the recent opening of Mountain Serenity Spa at Pipestem Resort State Park. But that’s an Insider’s story for another time—stay tuned for more.