An abandoned wooden building near the railroad tracks in the small mountain town of Berkeley Springs, WV.
Sometimes travel can ground you. Every year since my eldest son was born, we take an annual trip to Berkeley Springs, West Virginia. After so many years, this trip takes no planning at all—except for the cabin reservation, which needs to be made well in advance for a fall weekend.
We have our hiking trails mapped out, although we’ve added a couple of miles as the kids have grown.
We know exactly where we’re going to eat and, in some places, what we’re going to order.
It is basically the antithesis of our usual adventures into the unknown but we wouldn’t change a thing about it—believe me, I’ve tried to mix it up but I’m only met with confusion and disbelief.
This is our comfort trip.
Here’s our recipe for a memorable family weekend in Berkeley Springs.
Rent a rustic cabin at Cacapon
Part of the West Virginia State Park system, Cacapon State Park is about ten miles from the town of Berkeley Springs and offers lodge rooms and cabins. They have miles of trails, a great nature center, playgrounds, and an old-school lodge complete with basement game room with its requisite pool table, air hockey, shuffle board, and ping-pong. Nestled in the woods, the rustic log cabins were built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps and have large stone fireplaces for those ‘smores.
Eat lunch at Tari’s
Tari’s is a Berkley Springs institution and it’s the place to be during the weekend lunch hour. The food is fresh, varied, and affordable. We love the club sandwich, the soups and salads, and the crabcakes. Walls are festooned with local art for sale.
Visit the Frog Valley Artisans
This art cooperative is just a few miles up the mountain from the town of Berkeley Springs and it’s worth the detour. The setting is picturesque and the people very friendly. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch the resident blacksmith at work. Note that they are not afraid to let kids try their hand at it—no annoying safety rules here. They also have working potters and stained glass makers. Unleash your kids in this area at your own risk. It’s a bit fragile for our particular limbs.
Take the Waters or Splash around George Washington’s bathtub
Mineral springs run through the town square in little streams and rock pools. When the weather’s warm, it’s incredibly fun to splash around in with the kids. George Washington himself used to come splash around in the mid 1700s and his “bathtub” still stands in the middle of the park. There are water fountains and taps so bring your bottles and take home some pure spring water.
Also on the main square, the historic Roman bathhouse, built in 1815, is still in operation. You can soak in a spring-fed tub and get a 60-minute massage for less than $100.
Shop for stuff you didn’t know you needed
Over the years, some shops have come and gone in Berkeley Springs but we’ve always found something to like. We love the stationery/letter press/used book store and have found some great reading materials there, as well as cool literary gifts. The older boys’ favorite store, hands-down, is the friendly music store, BlackCat, which recently moved to a cool warehouse space near the railroad tracks.
There are also several antique stores selling everything from old albums to toys to clothing and furniture. On our last trip, I picked up a fabulous 50s dress that would have made Auntie Mame squeal.
There’s a definite new-agey-Tibetan vibe to some of the shops and don’t be surprised if you see a tarot card or aura reader setting up shop in the back. Last October, I eavesdropped on a reading where a stunned patron was told an incredible tale about the soul of her seventh grade self. So yes, the real deal.
Grab coffee and hot chocolate at Fairfax Coffee House
Great coffee and great location. Grab a coffee drink, cross the street, and you’re at the park with the kids. Everybody’s happy.
The Star Theater
From the vintage marquee to the vintage ticket prices ($4.50 for adults and $4.00 for children), the Star Theater takes us back to a time I frankly don’t remember at all—before the multiplex, the crowds, and wallet-punches of a modern theater experience. They show a good selection of movies on weekends only. When she’s not doling out popcorn, the owner Jeanne Mozier, is an award-winning writer and astrologer and—do I even need to say it—a local institution in her own right.
Eat dinner at the Earth Dog
Ah, the Earth Dog. The front room has a great atmosphere, with a giant school map of Virginia, Willy Nelson swag, and an old-school counter with open kitchen. The BBQ here is just outstanding, from ribs to pulled pork and chicken. They have live music on the weekends, something we always talk about going to but we’re too busy with, you know, our s’mores and board games.
Over the years, we’ve gotten to know and love Berkeley Springs and Cacapon State Park. From the heat of the fire in cabin’s stone fireplace to the steam of a hot bowl of soup at Tari’s, Berkeley Springs has warmed our family’s soul for fourteen years.
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What are some of your comfort trips? We’d love to hear about them.
Sometime in the chill of darkness, as I lay awake in a log cabin in the woods of West Virginia, rocking Sybil-style in an attempt to come to terms with the trauma of the day, it hit me: this was not the first time I’d taken off my pants in public because some unidentified critter was gnawing at my legs.
The first time it happened, I was twelve years old and living in Ethiopia. I’d been on a camping trip to Lake Langano with my friend Vicky. We stopped at a rest stop (i.e. some bushes) to relieve ourselves before climbing back into her family’s VW van. The dusty bumpy roads meant we guzzled down water so the four-hour drive usually involved several of these stops. As I climbed back into the car, I felt it. Something was crawling up my thigh. I shrieked as it bit my left inner thigh and whipped my jeans off to see two giant black beetles climb out. They left painful red welts in their wake. I still have scars.
Not long afterwards, at the International Community School in Addis Ababa, my 8th grade English teacher, Mrs. Bridger, decided to hold class outside. I sat on the grass with my back against a tree and immediately felt hundreds of little bites up and down my legs. This time, I almost made it to the bathroom before tearing the jeans off my waist and stomping on the regiment of army ants that had attacked me. It took me an hour to work up the nerve to put the pants back on and face the class. Not too many therapists in Addis at that time. It’s a shame. They would have made a fortune off that experience alone.
I guess I’d come to terms with these events and don’t even harbor a particular fear of insects. Ditto for reptiles and amphibians. I reserve my more irrational fears for rodents (and carp, but that’s not relevant here). I’ve always been terrified of them and will avoid them even in pet stores. Which brings me back to West Virginia.
The morning in question, John, the boys and I joined a perky young nature guide on a one-mile hike through the woods of Mount Cacapon, learning to identify the colorful leaves covering the forest floor. Full of new information I knew I’d forget before lunch, we stood chit-chatting a few hundred feet away from the nature center at the end of the hike.
The boys had run ahead to what we lovingly call Danger Playground for its retro disregard for any playground safety measures of the past five decades—ten-foot metal see-saw and the fastest merry-go-round this side of the Mississippi. I had half an eye on them when suddenly, I stopped talking. There was something crawling up my pant leg, clawing, nibbling, SHRIEK, I ripped off my pants, and saw it, running as fast its little tiny rodent legs would go. It was a mouse.
A mouse. In my pants.
Perky naturalist was speechless, my loving husband hysterically laughing, apologizing for it, then laughing again. I ran inside, my pants down to my knees, and spent some time in the bathroom trying to collect myself and deciding what kind of punishment to mete out to my husband for laughing in my time of need.
Needless to say I didn’t sleep easy that night—reliving the feel of little mouse feet running up one’s leg will do that—but I’m off the ledge, I’ve stopped rocking and murmuring to myself. And I’ve starting to think maybe skinny jeans and boots are more than just a passing fad. Maybe it’s fashion’s way of protecting our sensitive 21st century legs and psyches from nature’s crawlers. Maybe if I’d worn that instead of sneakers and the old bootcut Old Navy jeans I save for hiking, I’d have been spared the mouse. So if you see me out on the hiking trails in skinny jeans and boots, don’t look at me as just another fashion victim. I’m a survivor.