Drifting on a float noodle in the Gentlemen’s Bathhouse at the Warm Springs Pools is the best kind of time travel. Ninety-eight degree waters. Blue skies overhead. And a frozen-in-time setting that would be recognizable to a long line of presidents, socialites and mineral spring devotees – and maybe a few nude bathers, too.
The historic pools, which reopened in 2022 following a $4.6-million rehabilitation by the Omni Homestead, are a marquee attraction in Bath County in the far western fringes of Virginia. Here, the corrugated Allegheny Mountains break free from the Appalachians, leaving trout-filled streams, verdant valleys and a slew of thermal hot springs in their wake.
An influx of new residents and entrepreneurs, many with local ties, are infusing this bucolic scene with a fun, see-me-now joie de vivre where hospitality and outdoor adventure abound. Bath County is a four-season destination, but spring and summer are especially lovely, with wildflowers blooming and temperatures a few degrees cooler than the rest of the state.
Here are the best things to do in Bath County, Virginia.
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Take a soak in the bathhouses of Warm Springs
From the late 1700s until the early 20th century, a strand of mineral-filled springs drew high-society vacationers to Bath County. Traveling by horse and buggy, and later by train, they descended on the region and its numerous resorts to “take the waters” – a fancy term for soaking up the reputed curative powers of the springs.
In the village of Warm Springs, two large, wood-frame bathhouses are photogenic portals to this aristocratic past. The Gentlemen’s Bathhouse surrounds a stone basin constructed in 1761, making it the oldest spa structure in the US. Its octagonal frame was completed in the 1820s. The 22-sided Women’s Bathhouse opened in the 1870s.
Most of the other grand resorts in the area were destroyed by fire or closed after years of neglect. And their bathhouses? “Those that existed are almost completely erased from the landscape, which makes those in Warm Springs, I think, nationally significant,” said Julie Langan, Director of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. “Because they are, of their era, the lone survivor.”
Presidential bathers here include Martin van Buren, John Tyler and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Thomas Jefferson also visited, and the baths have been informally known as the Jefferson Pools for years. Four natural springs, rich with 15 minerals, feed the translucent blue waters.
The Homestead closed the deteriorating bathhouses in 2017 for safety reasons and the resort promised to rehabilitate them, working with historians and contractors to restore the appearance and simple functionality that guests experienced in 1925. That promise was fulfilled, and reservations are currently booming for a 50-minute soak in the pools, which are open – and very warm – year-round. To make a reservation call 540-839-3860. The price is $25 per person.
You’ll don your bathing suit in a barebones dressing room – no heat, no air-con, flimsy curtains – then descend wooden steps into the waters. Steam escapes through an oculus that frames the sky, a reminder that you are essentially outdoors. Towels and foam noodles are provided. Soaking is co-ed in both bathhouses from 10am to 3pm. Adult soaks, which are clothing optional and gendered, are 3pm to 6pm.
Despite the name, both bathhouses are open to all genders from 10am to 3pm © Amy Balfour
Taste cider and join the weekly party at Oakley Farm in Warm Springs
Over at the North Stable at Troddenvale Cider, say hello to Hooch and Fanny, the resident bloodhounds, as you step inside. With its mismatched chairs and simple wooden tables, the stables are charismatically rustic. Just guard your cheeseboard and charcuterie carefully from the opportunistic hounds.
The cidery, a passion project for owners Will and Cornelia Hodges, is a burgeoning operation on sprawling Oakley Farm. Anchored by an 1830s Federal-Greek Revival brick home, Oakley is one of the oldest farms in Warm Springs Valley. After working in the wine industry in California, the couple bought the farm in 2018 from Will’s grandparents.
Troddenvale’s ciders embrace the wine-making concept of terroir, focusing on the authentic flavors of the Virginia-grown fruit with minimal alterations during production. Apples are sourced from 20 varieties of apples across 4000 trees on the property. Some are foraged regionally.
The stable hosts the best party in the county on Friday nights (April to December) when it opens its many doors for Foodlore Fridays. With local produce and meats for sale, flights of cider and live music, it’s a sweet night out in many senses. A rotating cast of regional chefs serves dinners from an Instagram-ready Airstream.
Check out the beers on tap at Bacova Beer Co © Amy Balfour
Eat and drink at Bath County’s very best bars and restaurants
According to lore, and Jefferson’s own grumpy letters, the president felt out of sorts during his visit to the Warm Springs Pools in 1818. Too bad Bacova Beer Co, in nearby Hot Springs, wasn’t around. The Furious George ale with a side of delicious tater tots – smothered with queso, guacamole and sour cream – are curatives for many ills. It’s a festive, elbow-to-elbow situation on weekend nights at five-year-old Bacova (“Bacova” is regional shorthand for Bath County, Virginia), owned by former Forest Service employees Seth and Emily Ellis. Come back on Burger Monday for the wagyu smashburger and once again for the late spring opening of the Rock Roadhouse Winery tasting room next door.
Across the street is another buzzy favorite, the green-shuttered Sam Snead Tavern. Awash in golf memorabilia and eye-catching decor (is that a stuffed water buffalo?) the tavern showcases legendary golfer and local son, Sam Snead. Barstools on the second floor patio, with views of the Homestead, are the best seats in town.
Hearty southern breakfasts (try the biscuits!) bring in-the-know crowds to Country Cafe on Saturdays (let us hope that they soon open again on Sundays). At lunchtime, savor art and sandwiches at the Garden Room & Cafe. Cocktails and pub fare at the Tavern at the Inn are a convenient après-soak close to the Warm Springs Pools.
The Jackson River, filled with trout, is a popular spot with anglers © TMHong / Shutterstock
Pedal, hike and paddle Bath County’s forests and valleys
Forests blanket 89% of the county, known for its ridge-and-valley terrain. Mountain biking destinations include Beard’s Mountain, Douthat State Park and the Sandy Gap Trail, where Civilian Conservation Corps rockwork is impressive. Hikers can stroll along the Jackson River and scan for wildflowers at Hidden Valley Recreation Area, also a favorite of anglers. For a birds-eye view of Warm Springs, climb the Flag Rock Trail to its namesake ledge. With Class I and II rapids lurking, a half-day paddle on the Jackson River with Alleghany Outdoors is a low-key summer adventure.
Omni Homestead is a historic resort with 483 guest rooms © Andriy Blokhin / Shutterstock
Where to stay in Bath County: resort rooms, cabins and cottages
As the last surviving mineral springs resort in Virginia, the Omni Homestead, which originally opened in 1766, embraces its traditions, from its complimentary morning donuts to the eccentric numbering system in its Willy-Wonka-style elevators. The resort’s recent refresh, though, showcases a number of new features: the 483 guest rooms now shine with crisp floral patterns; the Presidential Lounge, formerly the Lobby Bar, has expanded its footprint but retained its presidential portraits, which continue to gaze upon guests’ bourbon consumption; and the new Virginia Wine Experience introduces oenophiles to the state’s best wines. The on-site hot springs are a perpetual draw as are the world-class golf courses. Cascades Gorge, with its lush mountain-and-waterfalls terrain, is a fantastic short hike. You can access the trail by signing up for a guided hiking tour, which is led by a naturalist (adult/child $40/25).
Skies in Bath County are famously dark, and the stargazing platform at Fort Lewis Lodge makes things easy for astro-tourists. Hiking trails crisscross the 3300-acre farmstead, where chic cabins, cottages and lodge rooms – in a renovated barn and its silo – are steps from the Cowpasture River. Regionally acclaimed meals, whipped up by co-owner Caryl Cowden and served in a 19th-century mill, are family style.
Breakfasts arrive by basket at the Inn at Gristmill Square, and dinners at its Waterwheel Restaurant are typically sourced from local farms. Built in 1900, Vine Cottage Inn is winning new acolytes with its front porch ice cream shop.
How to get to Bath County
Bath County is 210 miles west of Washington, DC, via I-66W, I-81S and several scenic state highways. Charlotte, NC, is 240 miles south along a similar mix of interstates and country roads. Pittsburgh is 240 miles north. Three days is best for immersing in the historic pools and the beautiful natural scenery.