For much of the year, West Virginia lives up to its "almost heaven" moniker, serving up its beauty on meandering country roads, through rocky rivers and over high mountain peaks. But it's never closer to heaven than in the fall, when its sugar maples prepare to shed their leaves and the view is all amber and gold peaks as far as the eye can see.
Skyline Drive in neighboring Virginia may get the throngs of tourists, but that's fine. It leaves more room at the inn for leaf-peepers who have other interests as well. Here, we offer three towns in West Virginia that provide entertainment beyond watching the leaves. They are all within a 90-minute drive of Baltimore. Take a long weekend and visit them all.
Just 80 miles west of Baltimore, Shepherdstown is West Virginia's oldest town — and a perfect place to begin a three-day visit. Its lower Shenandoah Valley perch offers excellent views, and its well-appointed streets offer more than a dozen restaurants. Visitors can stroll around the campus of Shepherd University or experience the area's German heritage with a night at the Bavarian Inn and Lodge (164 Shepherd Grade Road, 304-876-2551, bavarianinnwv.com).
But it's the music that's not to be missed.
Every Thursday night, starting between 7 and 7:30 p.m., the crowds gather in the basement of O'Hurley's General Store (205 E. Washington St., 304-876-6907, ohurley.com) for Picking and Grinning, a pick-up jam session that includes virtuosos on banjos, fiddles and mandolins. It's family-friendly, with lots of dancing in between the dulcimers, and the party can last well into the night.
If you play an instrument, bring it and join in, or just listen to the some of the best sounds to come out of these hills. In the morning, you can visit the nearby Antietam Battlefield or hike at Harper's Ferry, about 15 miles away. But let Thursday night be about the music.
George Washington "took the water" here; why not you? In this lovely West Virginia town just beyond Hagerstown, you have your choice of several spas. You can go partake of the Roman baths at the spa at Berkeley Springs State Park, which also offers Jacuzzis, saunas and massages. Or you could go with a more traditional indulgent experience at the Atasia Spa (41 Congress St., 877-258-7888, atasiaspa.com), which offers manicures, pedicures, mud treatments, sugar scrubs as well as massages.
Taking the waters would be a great way to end a fall day in Berkeley Springs, which offers ample outdoor activities. Cacapon Resort State Park (818 Cacapon Lodge Drive, 304-258-1022) includes 6,000 acres of outdoor wilderness; nearby, the Paw Paw tunnel, which is 24 feet high and lined with millions of bricks, is an engineering marvel. The Paw Paw was part of George Washington's ambitious plan to expand our nation through a canal system that went to Ohio and west. It never happened; roads and railroads became the primary modes of our expansion. But still, the Paw Paw inspires awe at what Washington wanted to accomplish and the dangerous mission that claimed the lives of many men who built it.
The confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers makes this history-rich town also a gorgeous one. Harpers Ferry offers 20 miles of hiking trails and is popular with bikers. The area is part of the Appalachian Trail, the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail and the C&O Canal National Historic Park. (historicharpersferry.com, nps.gov/hafe)
Harpers Ferry is an adventurer's paradise, too, with outfitters renting kayaks and canoes and offering guided tours. If the river isn't frozen, staff at the Harpers Ferry Adventure Center — located on the Virginia side of the Potomac — say they will be glad to take visitors out through November. The center also partners with Blue Ridge Trail Riding for those who want to explore the mountains on horseback. (37291 Jefferson Pike, Purcellville, Va., 540-668-9007, harpersferryadventurecenter.com)
Visitors who want to take it a little easier can park at the visitor center and take the shuttle bus down into Harpers Ferry, where the whole historic district feels like a museum. The real museum, though, is fascinating — it offers the official account of John Brown's 1859 raid on the town, complete with maps. Brown wanted to seize a federal arsenal to arm his men and start a revolt against slavery. Col. Robert E. Lee stopped him; all of Brown's men were either killed or captured, including Brown's son. Once the U.S. forces captured the bridge across the Potomac, Brown knew he was doomed.
Six years later, a bloody war intervening, the United States outlawed slavery.
It's a bit of a heavy day, thinking about a period in our history when all Americans weren't free. Fortunately, the town's natural beauty can do wonders to lift the spirit. It helps, too, that several of the town's restaurants, including the friendly Private Quinn's Pub (109 Potomac St., 304-535-2322), are open all year.