- The Washington Times - Friday, November 14, 2003

UNGER, W.Va. — As the narrow road winds over Sleepy Creek Mountain toward Shanghai, picture-per-fect views appear every few miles.

The porch of a 1930s grocery store laden with freshly picked pumpkins and apples. Rolling green pastures dotted with rust-colored barns and black cows. A panorama of largely undeveloped countryside at Mills Gap.

Then, just as doubt about directions sets in, a blue-and-white “Byway” sign beckons.

This is a slice of the Washington Heritage Trail Scenic Byway, a 112-mile loop through the eastern panhandle created three years ago but virtually unknown even to veteran West Virginia tourists.

It’s a journey though early American history, with unspoiled views, Revolutionary and Civil War attractions, and historic homes and cemeteries associated with George Washington and his clan.

“In most people’s minds, George Washington and his family are Virginians, and yet there are more Washington relatives and descendants buried in the panhandle than in all of Virginia,” says Bob O’Connor of the Martinsburg-Berkeley County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Combined, Berkeley, Jefferson and Morgan counties have identified 51 historically significant structures and locations, but some can be admired only from afar.

“One of our struggles is a lot of homes are not open to the public, and we don’t quite know how to deal with it,” Mr. O’Connor says. “Even though there is a historical marker, people don’t like it when you pull in their driveway and take a picture. That’s a struggle for all scenic byways.”

Web sites with maps are helping get the word out, and Berkeley County has won a grant to publish a trail guide. It plans to open an exhibit center at a historic railroad roundhouse in about a year.

Ray Johnston, a historian and real estate developer who came up with the idea for the trail, says it’s been difficult to promote. To see the sights, travelers accustomed to high-speed interstate highways must follow a series of secondary and rural roads on which traffic moves more slowly.

“And there’s no single really big tourist attraction,” he says.

Still, a driving tour makes sense.

“There’s never been a nation more in love with their cars than us, and we love to get out and see things from our cars,” Mr. Johnston says.

A main goal of the heritage trail is to get people to spend more than just a weekend in the panhandle, a frequent getaway choice for tourists from Greater Baltimore and Washington.

Thomas and Susan Choi of Greenbelt were in Berkeley Springs recently for the sixth time to shop, collect spring water and dine at the local resorts. Yet they know little of the region’s heritage.

“We love to come for the colors, the great food, the nice hotels,” Mr. Choi said.

The only history they know about Berkeley Springs relates to its stone bathtub, an unusual monument built to represent the primitive conditions George Washington experienced on his many trips to bathe in the warm mineral springs.

“It’s amazing,” Mrs. Choi said, “to think that 200 years ago, he was right over there, taking a bath.”

Tourists can enter the Washington trail at any point on the loop, but nearby interstates make Berkeley Springs, Charles Town, Falling Waters, Glengary, Harpers Ferry, Inwood, Martinsburg and Shepherdstown the best jumping-off points.

The scenery varies as the roads meander past mobile homes, upscale subdivisions and glamorous horse farms with stately mansions.

Scattered throughout Jefferson County are places such as Cedar Lawn, an estate built in 1825 by John Thornton Augustine Washington, and Harewood, built in 1770 by George Washington’s brother Samuel.

Matt Turner, a spokesman for the Division of Tourism, says fall is the best time of year to visit.

“Sightseeing is the single most popular activity,” he says. “The color is gorgeous, and there’s always an interesting folksy event going on every weekend somewhere.

This is literally what most folks envision when they hear ‘Country Roads.’ ”

The most brilliant autumn colors have begun to wane, but the weather usually is hospitable to road trips in late fall and early winter, when various Christmas-themed events take place.

Check local forecasts before you go or plan a trip to see the colorful blooms of early spring.

• • •

The Washington Heritage Trail Scenic Byway, a 112-mile loop through West Virginia’s eastern panhandle, offers dozens of historic sites and other attractions.

These include Van Meter Ford Bridge in Berkeley County, an 1832 three-arch span believed to be the oldest bridge in West Virginia; the Paw Paw Tunnel through Sorrell Ridge, the largest man-made structure on the C&O Canal at 24 feet high and 3,118 feet long and lined with more than 6 million bricks; and several homes in Jefferson County owned by George Washington and his family, including Bullskin Run Plantation, Claymont Court and Happy Retreat.

Jefferson’s Rock, an overlook on the Potomac that Thomas Jefferson visited in 1785, is in the town of Harpers Ferry, where there also is a national historic park.

For a complete list of sites on the Washington trail, call 800/CALL-WVA or visit www.travelwv.com.

Christmas-themed events in the area include:

• Musical Christmas in Historic Shepherdstown, Nov. 28 through 30, Dec. 6 and 7

• Yule Weekend, Berkeley Springs, Dec. 5 through 7

• Old Tyme Christmas in Harpers Ferry, Dec. 6 through 8 and Dec. 13 through 15

• Christmas Parade, Charles Town, 2 p.m. Dec. 6.

• Parade of Horses, Charles Town, 2 p.m. Dec. 14.

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