Winner: Roanoke, VA
With the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Appalachian Trail, and over 70 city parks and greenways just minutes from downtown, Roanoke attracts flocks of outdoor enthusiasts. It has always been known for its location in the scenic mountains of Virginia, but it wasn’t until the early ‘90s that the area started gaining attention in the outdoor world through its series of mountain bike races. Thanks to hard-working volunteers who built and maintained trails, Roanoke soon attracted more outdoor adventurers.
Joe Hanning is one of them. He moved to Roanoke for its outdoor offerings.
Hanning has only lived in the area for three years, but as the marketing and outreach coordinator for Roanoke Parks and Recreation, he’s quite literally made it his job to protect and promote the natural playgrounds that are near town.
“Roanoke is the best of both worlds,” Hanning says. “We have all of the amenities of a larger city without the large crowds and stress. On a typical walk through downtown, it’s very common to see several cyclists, Subarus with kayaks atop their racks, and joggers heading toward the greenway.”
Roanoke residents Blaine and Robin Lewis are co-founders of Fleet Feet Sports in Roanoke, offering runners everything from tips on injury prevention to training programs. Although Robin is from Roanoke originally, Blaine says the unique trail systems located downtown were what ultimately appealed to the couple the most, particularly in regards to choosing a location for their store.
“The city has done a great job to create awareness of the trails, develop new trails, and get people out on the trails,” Blaine says. “Trail running is my passion, so it’s important for me to easily be able get a five to 13-mile trail run in before the store opens.”
The ease with which visitors can locate trailheads and navigate in-town trail systems sets Roanoke apart from most other outdoor towns. On any given night, locals and out-of-towners can be found shredding singletrack in Carvins Cove or hiking Mill Mountain.
Davis, West Virginia
Present-day Davis is a far cry from its mid-19th century beginnings. In the 1800s, U.S. Senator Henry Gassaway Davis paid $15 per acre to acquire the land, which, at the time, was a densely forested plateau. An industrialist at heart, Senator Davis heavily logged the area, and by end of the 19th century, Davis was often referred to as “stump town.” Like much of the surrounding area, Davis also became a popular coal-mining region.
Although many of these industries have long left the town, remnants of their presence still dot the riverbanks and mountainsides in the form of old coke ovens and abandoned mills. Now, however, the town has become a haven for outdoor lovers. Blackwater Falls and Canaan Valley State Parks are two of the area’s most popular destinations, offering everything from skiing to mountain biking and hiking. About 45 minutes southeast of the town is Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area, a well-known climbing destination in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic.
Named for its ancient namesake in western Asia, Damascus was also the location of a major lumber boom in the late 1800s and early 1900s. However, the completion of the Appalachian Trail in 1937 gave locals reason to think that there was more to the area than a resource-depleting industry. As support for the A.T. grew and thru-hikers became less of a novelty, Damascus started gaining the reputation of Trail Town, U.S.A. Now, the town hosts an annual celebration, appropriately named Trail Days, which recognizes past, present, and future A.T. thru-hikers.
There’s more to Damascus than its proximity to the A.T., although the trail does double as the downtown sidewalk for a stretch. The Virginia Creeper Trail is a 34-mile rail-trail that runs from Whitetop, Va., to Abingdon, Va. The most popular section is the 17-mile stretch that takes folks from the Whitetop Station downhill along Whitetop Laurel Creek (a great run for class III creekers if you can catch it while it’s running) and back to Damascus, a trip that can easily be arranged through the town’s multiple bike rental and shuttle services. The Iron Mountain Trail is another popular destination for mountain bikers and trail runners, and each year the town holds several races on the Iron Mountain Trail.
The Rest of the Pack
Blue Ridge, Ga.: Nearby 273-mile Benton MacKaye Trail is not only a great long-distance trail all unto its own, but it is also part of the recently developed Great Eastern Trail.
Boone-Blowing Rock, N.C.: Just outside of Boone you’ll find the newly established Rocky Knob Mountain Bike Park and a plethora of other trails, including those that wind throughout the popular Grandfather Mountain area.
Brevard, N.C.: Mountain biking is BIG here. Pisgah National Forest and DuPont State Forest offer not only great opportunities for hiking, but also some of the best singletrack in the country.
Cherokee, N.C.: Nestled beside Great Smoky Mountains National Park, this town offers everything from great hiking and paddling near Fontana Lake to epic mountain biking in the Tsali Recreation Area.
Ellijay, Ga.: Cohutta Wilderness, Carters Lake, and the Cartecay River are nearby. If you’re an avid mountain biker, test your skills on the 62.5-mile Fort Mountain Challenge.
Gatlinburg, Tenn.: Trails abound in Gatlinburg. Check out the short Grotto Falls Trail, a 2.6-mile out-and-back that features some spectacularly scenic waterfalls.
Harpers Ferry, W.Va.: Paddle the Potomac, hike the Appalachian Trail, or check out the historical downtown scene.
Hot Springs, N.C.: Voted Best Small Mountain Town in 2012 by BRO readers, Hot Springs is a popular stop for A.T. thru-hikers and a great place to unwind after paddling the French Broad.
Lewisburg, W.Va.: Greenbrier State Forest and its impressive trail system are a short drive from Lewisburg, voted Coolest Small Town in 2011.
London, Ky.: Daniel Boone National Forest hosts the region’s most rugged terrain. Characterized by sandstone cliffs and narrow canyons, this is a great location for hiking and climbing.
Luray, Va.: True, you could go underground and visit Luray Caverns, but the breathtaking views from neighboring Skyline Drive and Shenandoah National Park are equally impressive.
Morgantown, W.Va.: This mountain town sees the value in outdoor recreation and has a number of parks, facilities, and a rail-trail system available within a short drive of each other. Pair it with a microbrew for the true Morgantown experience.
Robbinsville, N.C.: If you haven’t hiked through the old growth poplars and wildflowers in Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, you have yet to experience the incredible spiritual and humbling capacities of Appalachia’s wilderness.
Waynesboro, Va.: “Hospitality in the Valley” is this mountain town’s motto. Road cyclists should be sure to put the Waynesboro Ramble on their list. It’s a 27-mile ride that highlights the greatest of the Shenandoah Valley.
Waynesville, N.C.: Blue Ridge beauty inspires not just the town but the beer industry as well. Check out Frog Level and BearWaters Brewing Companies located right downtown.