boy bending over a canal in berkeley springs west virginia
Fed by a natural spring, Berkeley Springs State Park has been a hub for wellness-seekers since long before George Washington put it on the Colonial map. | Photo by Justin Tsucalas for Thrillist
Fed by a natural spring, Berkeley Springs State Park has been a hub for wellness-seekers since long before George Washington put it on the Colonial map. | Photo by Justin Tsucalas for Thrillist

Tap Into Centuries of Self-Care at America’s First Spa

The mineral-rich waters flowing through Berkeley Springs State Park has soothed weary travelers for generations.

In 2024, revenge travel is out. Finding peace, and your new passion, is in. This year is an opportunity to pump the brakes—to look up, turn in, get lost, ride along. We’ve collected 12 stories, each of which highlights a pursuit or experience that embodies this mindset. We hope they act as inspiration for the year to come—the beginnings of your very own 2024 mood board.

Driving into Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, the first thing you’ll encounter is the town square. Winter, summer, spring, or fall, this little patch of land—surrounded by low-slung whitewashed brick buildings and punctuated by a quaint gazebo—will undoubtedly be buzzing with activity. Through its center runs a narrow canal, fed by fixed spouts and guided by cement and stone banks into shallow reservoirs.

It’s here that busloads of visitors roll up their jeans and plop down on the ground, letting their feet soak in the stream while kids splash happily in small, sectioned-off pools. Just behind the canal, a raised structure marked “Gentleman’s Spring” provides shade for two stone taps where a line of people fill their water jugs one by one. But this isn’t just any regular old town square with a water feature. This is a full-fledged West Virginia State Park—in the form of a public spa.

“It’s a gem, our springs,” says Jamie Foltz, park hospitality manager at both Berkeley Springs State Park and nearby Cacapon State Park. “The huge draw is, of course, the water. People come here for restoration, to rejuvenate their overall wellness—it’s just a healing town.”

Dubbed “America’s First Spa,” Berkeley Springs State Park has been all in on self-care since way, way before it was cool. The land is home to abundant natural mountain springs, imbued with therapeutic minerals and naturally heated to a soothing 74.3 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. And at a moment when the global wellness market clocks in at a head-turning $1.5 trillion, where hotel spas in the Swiss Alps advertise anti-aging molecular labs and hardworking people drop thousands on products in a quest to look like dewy-skinned TikTokers, dipping a toe into the humble waters of West Virginia has never sounded more appealing.

quaint downtown in berkeley springs west virginia
Nostalgia-fueled downtown Berkeley Springs is just as warm and inviting as the waters that made it famous. | Photo by Justin Tsucalas for Thrillist

Generations of local and migrating Indigenous tribes were the first to use the springs, before they introduced them to European colonizers around 1730. In March 1748, a 16-year-old George Washington paid a visit to the area as part of a surveying expedition on behalf of his mentor and neighbor, Lord Fairfax. Impressed with the soothing waters and their near-instant effect on his health, he wrote in his diary, “We this day called to see Ye Fam’d Warm Springs.”

Word soon spread throughout the Colonies, attracting the likes of signers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as well as members of the Continental Congress and several Revolutionary generals. In time, rows of open-air brick bathtubs were dug into the ground, forming an infrastructure that attracted even more bathers. Today, a reconstruction of one such tub occupies a corner of the park beneath a sign declaring it “George Washington’s Bathtub.”

The infrastructure continued to grow. With the establishment of the first Old Roman Bathhouse in 1784, the outdoor tubs were moved inside. The current Old Roman Bathhouse, which presides over the park’s tranquil 4.5 acres from its northernmost corner, was erected in 1815 with an expanded layout. The more modernized Main Bathhouse, on the southwestern side of the park, joined in 1929 to house the park’s spa program, which includes private hot tubs and massage therapy, among other treatments. In 1951, a public swimming pool fed by spring water was installed on the grounds.

Still, the real draw is the water—so much so that in 1991, a modest water-tasting contest set up shop in town. Today, the annual evaluation attracts private bottlers and government officials from around the globe, having showcased 735 different waters from six continents, 59 countries, and 47 states plus Washington DC in its 32 years. 

“It was decreed in the town charter that the water was to be free, always,” says Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting Competition producer Jill Klein Rone. “I see people pull up and start unloading their car, pulling out a wagon and all of these jugs. That’s their source of drinking water, and a lot swear by it in terms of the healing properties. The water that comes out of that spring hasn’t been treated—it’s what God gave us.”

The spring contains 12 minerals, including magnesium, potassium, calcium, and ferrous carbonate, along with both free carbonic acid and carbonic acid in bicarbonates—ingredients that many wellness-industry professionals claim enhance circulation, speed up metabolism, relieve pain, and reduce inflammation. Magnesium, measured at 1.110 grains per gallon, is especially alluring for visitors, as it’s been linked to blood pressure and glucose-level regulation, improved mood and nerve function, and reduced inflammation. Plus, it just feels good.

“There are people that come in weekly because they notice such a difference as far as their ailments, whether it be physical or even spiritual, emotional, and mental well-being,” says Foltz. Some people say they feel like they’ve had a massage without actually having a massage—even several days afterwards, they’ll still notice the benefits.”

george washington bathtub at berkeley springs state park
A stone tub memorializing the founding father's penchant for basking in the local spring remains a permanent reminder of the town's deep history. | Photo by Justin Tsucalas for Thrillist

When my wife and I arrive at the Old Roman Bathhouse, we’re led into a small room outfitted with a wooden bench and a long, narrow wading pool lined with glossy white subway tile. A textured glass window lets in soft streams of natural light, which wash over the pool water in an enticing cerulean blue. Off to the side, there’s a water pitcher and disposable cups—something we’ll need, according to the park’s staff, especially if we’re feeling faint.

This isn’t a posh urban spa with monogrammed terry cloth robes and private powder rooms stocked with designer toiletries and Dyson hair dryers. It’s a state park, and it operates as such: friendly and welcoming, run by enthusiastic locals who know everything there is to know about the little slice of protected land they’ve been entrusted to manage. But instead of fishing ponds, hiking trails, and rustic cabins, it offers mineral baths, spa treatments, and as much crystal-clear drinking water as you can bottle up and haul home.

A typical soak lasts 30 minutes, with bookings starting at $27. As I slide into the pool’s calm depths, the first thing I realize is that the water isn’t hot tub–level hot. Instead, it’s pleasantly warm, like a butter-soft hoodie. Lying on my back, I feel myself start to float, toes dragging along the bottom, the water lapping at my chin and gently splashing my cheeks. It smells faintly of salt and iron. It’s a good thing seats were built into the walls of the pool, as it would be all too easy to drift off to sleep.

Before long, a quick knock on the door indicates that our bath time is coming to a close. Rising out of the water, my body feels loose and heavy, muscles smooth and relaxed. There is just enough time to towel off and get dressed before slipping back outside into the crisp late fall air.

Berkeley Springs also offers plenty of things to keep you busy on dry land. It’s a picturesque place, a strip of historic buildings bisecting dirt lanes, farmhouses, and other stretches of protected public lands

In town, you can hunt for treasures in the Berkeley Springs Antique Mall, grab a latte at Fairfax Coffee House, or settle in for breakfast at Charlotte’s Cafe or the vegetarian-inclined Beehive Cafe. The stately Country Inn of Berkeley Springs, established in 1933, holds court next door to the springs, its redbrick and white pillars evoking an air of aged elegance, while Lot 12 Public House stages classically trained chef and hometown boy Damian Heath’s ambitious New American fare in a restored 1913 home. And what would a small vacation town be without its fair share of craft breweries? Your best bet here is downtown’s Cacapon Mountain Brewing Co. or Berkeley Springs Brewing Co., charmingly tucked away in the woods across from the sprawling, laid-back Coolfont Resort

What you won’t find? The astronomical prices and air of pretension associated with so many luxury wellness retreats around the world. Because the home of America’s first spa isn’t trying to sell you anything. Berkeley Springs is just a friendly town that runs, quite literally, on warmth and healing.

“Once people experience it, they want to come back,” says Foltz. “A hot bath on a cold day? Priceless. Most people would think that sounds pretty fabulous, and it is.”

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Meredith Heil is the Editorial Director of Thrillist Travel. She's originally from St. Louis, now lives in Washington, DC, and in between has visited all 50 states plus dozens of countries. Rejoining Thrillist in 2021 after several years of freelancing, she earned an MA in Social Documentation from UC Santa Cruz and previously served as a content editor at Google as well as a staff writer for Thrillist’s Food & Drink team. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, Wine Enthusiast, Eater, Food & Wine, Bon Appétit, PUNCH, and Condé Nast Traveler, among other publications. She loves all things cocktails, crosswords, and women’s soccer. Follow along with @mereditto.