I have a fierce attraction to dilapidated structures—houses which time has loved and forgotten, vacant storefronts with rusted signs, barns with caved-in roofs. The drive to Warm Springs, VA from Richmond holds many such treasures, but nothing compared to the thrill of swimming within one.
Owned by the nearby resort “The Homestead,” the Jefferson Pools are a natural hot spring named for the former president who praised their healing powers.
The structure above, originally built in 1761, is actually the oldest spa building in the U.S. Inside, steam rises from intensely clear water: you can see straight down nearly seven feet into a layer of slightly mossy stones. I’ve arrived during “family time” at the men’s pool on Sunday afternoon, which is bathing suit-required. A little later in the day, the women’s pool will open and the genders are segregated, a time during which bathing suits are optional. An older couple engages me in conversation— They’ve been frequenting springs in the area since they first began dating 18 years ago. I learn from them that the water is a constant 98 degrees, year round. Even so, the room is not humid. The ceiling is open, in an intricate design, releasing the steam, and it feels great to breathe it in on it’s climb — contrary to most encounters with sulfuric water, it is “not offensive” (as my floating comrades put it quite accurately). I tread water for exercise (something I’ve not gotten much of since spraining my foot two weeks ago)—most other bathers relax on “noodle” variety flotation devices that are provided by the pool. The water was gentle and serene, and at no point did it become overwhelmingly hot (a sensation frequent hot tub users like myself might expect.)
The atmosphere is almost surreally primitive, as what parts of the roof are not already open are littered with holes. Paint peels from the walls, and Astroturf is selectively scattered around on the deck. There are five or six dressing rooms set aside for you to change and leave your belongings, each separated from the view of the bathers by only a curtain. It seems that in aiming to keep the integrity of the original building, the owners have forgone general maintenance. At least, one assumes so—it could hardly be a case of costs, since they charge $17.00 per person for admission. It definitely adds to the experience, though. Not many destinations that boast of relaxation and luxury can also claim they could really use a paint job.
I emerged from the pool feeling ultimately refreshed, and after stepping outdoors again into the spring mountain air, decidedly sublime. As to any lasting healing effects, I woke up with the beginnings of a sinus infection the next day which has lasted all week, and my sprained foot remains bruised and painful. So sadly, while Thomas Jefferson may have found relief for his rheumatism, these springs are not a cure-all. For fleeting relaxation and a unique experience in a distinctive setting, however, it’s sure to be good for what ails you.