The Best Mid-Sized Mountain Town
Hidden Valley: Roanoke is nestled in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Appalachian Trail, and the Blue Ridge Parkway.
The city of Roanoke is perfectly located: In the heart of the valley, with a river running right through town, and adjacent to George Washington and Jefferson National Forests. Not surprisingly, it’s rapidly gaining a reputation as one of the country’s top outdoor destinations.
From its beginnings as a railroad depot and industry-central town in southwest Virginia, Roanoke has transformed itself into an outdoor mecca. Built on the backs of blue-collar, industrious railroad workers, the city initially did not put much effort into its outdoor infrastructure because there was never a demand for it. As the population began to age, young people left in droves after high school, creating a generation gap. Many saw Roanoke as a quasi-retirement community.
That began to change in the late 1990s as a group of concerned citizens made the push for a large system of greenways tracing the Roanoke River as it flows through downtown. Then in 2007, Roanoke Outside was created to promote the city as an outdoors destination, and soon after, Virginia Tech opened its medical school in the city. These two events had a dramatic effect on the populace, simultaneously bringing an influx of young professionals and revealing Roanoke’s world-class outdoor offerings.
“Roanoke has started to tout its amazing outdoor assets,” says Aaron Dykstra, owner of 611 Bicycles. “People who work for the city, even if they don’t ride bikes or hike or do anything like that, still support the outdoors because they know the impact it already has made here.”
Dykstra is a case in point. After growing up in Roanoke, he bolted the city with all of his friends as soon as possible. Following stints in Chicago and New York, he returned to his hometown to start his business—611 makes handmade steel bicycle frames in a downtown shop—due to the low cost of living. As the city has changed, so has his attitude towards it.
“It’s exciting to be a part of it and see the development,” he said. “I certainly take a lot of pride in the fact that every bike that goes out the door here has a ‘Made in Roanoke’ badge on it.”
Stratton Delaney, who owns Starlight Bicycles, a bike shop that also produces custom apparel, says he would not have started a bike shop in Roanoke 10 years ago. Now his business is thriving, and he credits the community working together as a whole for the city’s changing identity: everything from the dedication of the parks and recreation department to the development of downtown living space to the creation of events like Go Fest and bringing the Banff Mountain Film Festival’s Radical Reels to town.
“It’s our community that has made the difference,” he said. “You can’t just be a mountain town because you’re in mountains. You really need a community that’s going to promote it and get new people out. It seems like now every other car has a bike or kayak on top.”
The outdoor opportunities have been here for decades. The Blue Ridge Parkway and Appalachian Trail run right outside of town. You can see McAfee Knob from downtown, and you can ride singletrack on Mill Mountain right from the greenway and Carvins Cove Natural Reserve is Virginia’s largest conservation easement, holding over 40 miles of multi-use trails. There’s also Douthat State Park, Smith Mountain Lake, and the New River all within an hour’s drive.
Brent Cochran is another Roanoke local who returned after years out West. He has since helped create farmers markets and local non-profits, along with a climbing gym integrated into a new residential/commercial space. He believes all these aspects of the community are connected.
“People are coming here and saying, ‘These are the type of things we want in a community; we want that work/play lifestyle.’ That’s driving the food scene, that’s driving the music scene; it all works together. You don’t have one without the other,” he said.
You can see it firsthand in the renovated Market Building downtown where locally sourced food is served at Firefly Fare or in the Carvins Cove parking lot after a Roanoke Outdoor and Social Club meet up. Delaney credits outings like communal bike rides every day of the week and group hikes organized by the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club with developing a social scene outside of bar hopping for people just moving to the area.
The city’s reinvention over the past five years has been remarkable, and Cochran only sees good things coming in the future.
“Roanoke is definitely having a renaissance,” he said.
ROANOKE QUICK HITS
Grab your rod and fish the delayed harvest section of the Roanoke River as it flows downtown; check in with Tom at the Orvis store for info (orvis.com). Bike up local favorite Monument Trail or Big Sunny to the top of Mill Mountain, and don’t stop till you hit the star.
Cycle out to the Blue Ridge Parkway and enjoy the best riding on the East Coast in either direction. Explore Park, right off the Parkway, has 10 miles of IMBA-built mountain biking trails.
Hop on the A.T. and hike 3.5 miles to the most photographed spot on the entire trail, McAfee Knob. Over 40 miles of trail await hikers, bikers, and trail runners at Carvins Cove, just 20 miles outside downtown.
Asheville may suffer from its reputation: it has been the prototypical East Coast mountain town for so long, people may be tired of hearing about it. Maybe it’s envy, maybe it’s just being worn down over time, but the undeniable fact is that Asheville could be the most authentic mountain town on this, or any, list.
First, and most important, is Asheville’s location. Western North Carolina has everything the outdoors enthusiast could ever want, and Asheville is the hub. With the French Broad River dissecting town and the Nantahala and Nolichucky nearby, there is Class I-V whitewater for every level of paddler right out the back door. But Asheville is not just a river town. Mountain bikers can hop on the trails at Bent Creek Experimental Forest, a favorite of locals for an after-work ride. Beyond Bent Creek is Pisgah National Forest with its extensive, world-renowned network of trails. For the road biker, the Blue Ridge Parkway section that runs just west of town holds some of the steepest climbs of its whole route.
If hiking is your thing, you could not ask for a better place to start. Just to the south are the steep gorges and waterfalls of Nantahala National Forest or the Linville Gorge to the north. Don’t forget about Great Smoky Mountains National Park with the Appalachian Trail and miles of backcountry streams teeming with native trout. Back in downtown you can kick back to enjoy one of Asheville’s 11 craft breweries and, if you time it right, the Mountain Sports Festival along the banks of the French Broad. See what we mean about outdoor envy?
With all the small mountain towns in Wild, Wonderful West Virginia, it would be easy to overlook Morgantown as an outdoor destination. That would be a mistake, however, as the city has more to offer than most its size. Located in the extreme northeast of the state, this college town nearly doubles in size when school is in session, but all that youth gives Morgantown a year-round buzz of energy. Two rivers flow near Morgantown – the Monongahela right through the middle and the Cheat to the east – giving the city a reputation as a river city. The Cheat has Class I-V rapids and flows into the 1,800-acre Cheat Lake before meeting the Monongahela just north of town.
Morgantown has more than just water fun, however. A lengthy system of river-side rail-trails provide scenic river views and a one-of-a-kind personal rapid transit system put Morgantown ahead of its time. They shut down city streets on Halloween weekend to hold the Mo-Town Throwdown, a ski and snowboard rail jam. Easy access to Coopers Rock State Forest and Cathedral State Park provide endless opportunities for hiking, biking and camping. Shoot over to Maryland’s Wisp Resort or down to Canaan Valley for skiing and the best mountain biking in the Mid-Atlantic.
The home of Mr. Jefferson’s University is located at the heart of it all, just a short jaunt from GW-Jefferson National Forest, Shenandoah National Park, and the Blue Ridge Parkway.
BOONE-BLOWING ROCK, N.C.
Another western North Carolina entry, this metropolitan area is home to Grandfather Mountain and Appalachian Ski Mountain.
TRI-CITIES (JOHNSON CITY-KINGSPORT-BRISTOL), TENN.
Cherokee National Forest, Roan Mountain, and the Holston River make this triple dip an outdoor lover’s paradise.
Sandwiched between Shenandoah National Park and George Washington National Forest, Harrisonburg is a mountain bike mecca.
The western terminus of the C&O Canal Towpath hosts DelFest and is within striking distance of Wisp Resort.
The James River runs right through this mountain town that Liberty University has turned into their own personal outdoor playground.
Located just outside Daniel Boone National Forest, this arts-focused community is the fastest growing town in Kentucky.