Despite living in West Virginia for most of my life, I had never actually visited the state’s Eastern Panhandle until summer 2020. Our day around the Berkeley Springs area was actually part of a longer road trip; I was taking an exam in Martinsburg, which is close by, and we were visiting family friends in Maryland. Given how long the drive is, we made it into a fun road trip that ended up being one of the highlights of the summer after my original plans were cancelled due to COVID.
In the middle of the pandemic, walking along the Cacapon Ridge and taking in the views from Prospect Peak were literally a breath of fresh air in the midst of everything that was happening. Berkeley Springs is considered “America’s First Spa” and even if you don’t take advantage of the mineral waters, it’s still a wonderful place to go to escape and relax. In fact, Berkeley Springs was voted to be one of USA Today’s Top 10 Best Small Historic Towns in 2020, so I’m not the only one recommending a trip there!
WV’s Eastern Panhandle
West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle – where Berkeley Springs is – has a very different vibe from southern West Virginia. Being close to DC, there’s a good amount of through-traffic going from Virginia to Maryland and back, but only on the main roads. It’s an odd sensation then to emerge from the scenic country road of Route 45 onto the packed Highway 81 with shops and fast food lining both sides of the road. Berkeley County, though a small geographic area, has the second highest population of any of WV’s 55 counties largely because of its proximity to the big East Coast cities and the number of jobs available in the area. Entering this region of West Virginia is noticeably different as the towns (for historical reasons) are more reminiscent of the colonial era than the coal-mining one.
In fact, this presence of history was something that stood out to me on our trip. As a bit of background, way back in 1763, the British passed a proclamation forbidding settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains, which in WV meant that only the Panhandle could (legally) be settled before the Revolutionary War. The big East coast cities were already coming into existence by then, and even in the 18th century, people wanted countryside escapes. Long before European settlement in the US (as in possibly thousands of years before), the healing mineral waters of Berkeley Springs were used by Native Americans. In the colonial period, it became a resort and spa that even George Washington visited! The mineral waters (and related tourism) have long been a central part of Berkeley Springs’s history and economy, and the town even hosts an annual International Water Tasting.
Although Berkeley Springs is a huge destination and the main subject of this post, that’s not all the Eastern Panhandle has to offer. From the important Civil War site of Harpers Ferry to the college town of Shepherdstown, the panhandle has a lot of beauty and history to offer, and it is absolutely worth spending a few days exploring the area!
Berkeley Springs Itinerary
- Leave Charleston (or wherever else) in the morning
- Cumberland Narrows
- Cacapon State Park
- Berkeley Springs
- Berkeley Springs State Park
- Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park/Paw Paw Tunnel
- Night at The Country Inn
After a three and a half hour drive from Charleston, this was our first stop on the trip. Though there’s not a lot to do here, it’s worth a stop (especially if you’ve already been in the car for a few hours). The Cumberland Narrows is a water gap in Maryland – and on the main road that we took to Berkeley Springs. As you can see in the picture, it’s basically a narrow opening through the mountains that’s an essential part of traveling through the area. If you pull off to park at the rest area, you can walk across a bridge over the highway and up some stairs to the overlook where I took this picture. It’s a nice view and a great way to stretch your legs a bit!
Cacapon State Park
Cacapon State Park is full of outdoor activities all year round, and it’s a great place to visit in this part of West Virginia. The name comes from the Shawnee word for “medicine waters” and refers to the mineral waters in this area that I’ve already mentioned in discussing Berkeley Springs. There are lots of options for things to do here, but on our trip, we chose to just do a short hike on the 1.2 mile Cacapon Ridge Trail. The trail is steep in places, which is why it is rated as “moderate,” but it made for a nice walk in the woods, and I really loved walking along the ridge and seeing the surrounding mountains through the tall trees. For more ideas of things to do at Cacapon – especially if you have more time in the area – I recommend checking out the state park website here.
A cute small town in the Eastern Panhandle, this is the focus of a trip here: Berkeley Springs and its famous waters – though the town is actually also famous for its art scene. The State Park is in the main “downtown” of Berkeley Springs and is hard to miss. Just next to The Country Inn, you’ll find the little park which includes some old style Roman baths (including the outdoor one Washington allegedly bathed in). Though you can’t use Washington’s bathtub, you can experience the old-style Roman baths (reservation required) at the park-run bathhouses, which is a cheaper option compared to the town’s modern spas.
Berkeley Springs has several options for lodging, but I can’t recommend The Country Inn enough! We stayed in the historic part of the hotel, which meant that all our furniture looked like it was from the colonial period (but with electricity). I really loved staying here and would absolutely stay again. Though Berkeley Springs has a lot of restaurants, it was easiest for us to just eat at The Country Inn, and it was fantastic! I loved everything I ate there, and though I would like to try more of the restaurants in Berkeley Springs, just eating here was amazing.
The Berkeley Castle is also a fairly well-known part of the town, and since I’ve included a few pictures, I feel like it deserves a little explanation. Construction on the castle (technically the Samuel Taylor Suit Cottage) began in 1885 and was finished in the 1890s. The palatial cottage was meant to be a private retreat for Colonel Samuel Taylor Suit and his family who enjoyed the springs here. The building has a total of 15 rooms including a small ballroom and a dungeon (which has inspired a few ghost stories). Colonel Suit’s family eventually sold the property, and in the past century it has been everything from a hotel to the site for a hobby fair. Today it is owned by the VDARE foundation, and tours are no longer offered to the public – though it is possible to get a couple of pictures while driving past as I did.
P.S. Although the spas may be expensive, according to a law passed in 1776, you can drink and fill water bottles for free at the public tap and still get to experience the famous water!
Paw Paw Tunnel
The Paw Paw Tunnel is part of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park, which actually preserves 184.5 miles along the C&O Canal (more info about the whole park here). It’s possible to bike the entire length if you really want to, or you can just take a shorter walk or bike ride like we did. From the Paw Paw campground (where we parked), it was just under a mile to the Paw Paw Tunnel itself. You can actually walk through the tunnel, which is about 0.6 miles, but we didn’t do that on this trip. It was fascinating though to walk up to the entrance and feel how the air got noticeable cooler. According to reviews on AllTrails, it’s not a great idea to take a dog through the tunnel as they do not enjoy the long dark tunnel. Still, it’s a marvel of engineering and an important part of C&O Canal history, and you can to experience a taste of the C&O Canal National Historical Park.
To reach the Paw Paw Tunnel, take WV-9 out of Berkeley Springs towards Paw Paw, and don’t forget to stop at the Prospect Peak overlook, which is a pull-out from the main road. The view here is the featured image for this post and is also considered one of “America’s outstanding beauty spots.” In other words, it’s a view you don’t want to miss!
Visiting Berkeley Springs last summer was absolutely wonderful, and I would love to go back and spend some more time there, especially to explore the town itself and some of the shops and restaurants…and also the spas. Though we didn’t actually try out the spas on our trip, in visiting during the pandemic, I still felt like I got some of the rejuvenation promised by this wonderful town and the surrounding area. The Berkeley Springs area is a fantastic place to visit in WV’s Eastern Panhandle, and is absolutely worth a trip!