Top Large Town: From the Roanoke River Greenway to National Forest trails, there are plenty of places to get on your bike in Roanoke, Virginia. Photo by Sam Dean Photography—Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge
Our readers narrowed down the choices, week by week, to their top large town (population 75,001+), mid-sized town (population 16,001-75,000), small-town (population 3,001-16,000), and tiny town (population less than 3,000). This year we asked your friends and neighbors—fellow outdoor enthusiasts who live and recreate in these top towns—to tell us what makes them special.
As the name implies, Hot Springs is a town known for the natural mineral springs that bring travelers from all over the world to this tiny town.
With more than 50 percent of Bath County preserved as public lands, there is plenty of open space for the outdoor enthusiast to discover. Hike miles of trails in the George Washington National Forest, ride 40 miles of singletrack at Douthat State Park, one of the Commonwealth’s original state parks, or fish the Jackson and Cowpasture River for trout, bass, and more.
Working for the U.S. Forest Service ultimately brought the Ellis family to Hot Springs.
“We’ve lived all over and it’s probably my favorite place that we’ve lived,” said Emily Ellis, a recreation manager in the George Washington National Forest. “It’s very simple living up there. If you enjoy the outdoors, you’re in a great location. We have no stoplights in the county. The community is very welcoming. It’s a hidden gem that people haven’t found yet.”
Emily particularly favors all of the adventure opportunities at Lake Moomaw, which offers camping, hiking, biking, and paddling. About a year ago, her husband Seth left the forest service to start Bath County’s first craft brewery. An avid mountain biker, he sees Bacova Beer as a hangout for outdoor enthusiasts to gather after a long day outside.
“I did a ride about a month ago from the brewery in Hot Springs and rode all the way into Covington on I’d say 95 percent singletrack backcountry trails,” he said.
Home to the headwaters of the James Rivers, Hot Springs has fishing opportunities for anglers of all abilities. After growing up, moving away, and returning to the area, Will Hodges has explored many of those spots, including the Cowpasture River, Lake Moomaw, and the creeks and tributaries that feed into those waters.
“It is a little harder to reach than the Blue Ridge Parkway, Skyline Drive, or areas right outside of major urban environments,” he said. “But that difficulty or setback is also probably our greatest attribute. If you’re looking for outdoor recreation, peace, and not being overrun by countless tourists, this is a really good place to do that. It’s a well-preserved slice of Virginia’s western mountains. With that, you have a lot to explore.”
Hodges is especially fond of the Hidden Valley Gorge area and fishing for wild trout on the Jackson River.
“It’s not only an incredible place to hike because of its remote nature, but that’s where the fishing gets a little more skilled and potentially a lot more rewarding,” he said. “It’s considered a special regulation, so it’s a much healthier environment for fish. A lot more shade and spring water. You get a lot more native presence there.”
Eat: Fill up at the Tavern, located in the first Bath County Courthouse. Choose from several dining options at the Omni Homestead Resort, including Jefferson’s Restaurant and Woody’s. Stop by Bacova Beer Company for some craft brews at this local, family-run brewery.
Play: Plan your visit around the We’re So Fly Festival at the end of April 2020, hosted by the Inn at Gristmill Square.
Stay: The Omni Homestead Resort offers plenty of outdoor adventures, including fishing, skiing, horseback riding, and a zip line. Take advantage of the river adventure package at Vine Cottage Inn for a trip on the Jackson River. Fish Fort Lewis Lodge’s private waters on the Cowpasture River. Getaway to Hidden Valley Bed & Breakfast, surrounded by national forest.
Do some off-road riding on the Mountain View ATV Trail at Spearhead Trails. Kayak, canoe, float, or fish the Clinch River. Spend the day outside at Oxbow Lake Park, including fishing, hiking, and biking.
Ride the Mid Atlantic Backcountry Discovery Route through the Appalachian Mountains. Explore Virginia’s Birding and Wildlife Trail and experience the diversity of habitats on the South Holston Loop. Enjoy live local music along the Crooked Road, a 330-mile driving trail that connects nearly 70 southwest Virginia music venues.
Just down the road in the same mountains of Virginia, Clifton Forge took home the prize in the small town category for the second year in a row. An old railroad town, Clifton Forge and Alleghany County are capitalizing on the location to draw visitors to the area. Visit the 80-foot Falling Springs Waterfall along Route 220. Walk, run, or bike the Jackson River Scenic Trail. Enjoy a picnic by Humpback Bridge, the oldest of its kind in the United States.
In and out of the area his whole life, Matt Fischer settled in Clifton Forge last year to help open Alleghany Outdoors.
“It really is an untapped resource up here, as far as recreation,” he said.
“There are boulders that are kind of undiscovered. There are trail systems that you can connect to the Allegheny Trail.”
As manager of the new outfitter, Fischer assists visitors in exploring the Jackson River by bike, kayak, or tube. Located right along the river and the Jackson River Scenic Trail, it’s a great place to explore the area.
“The mountains are different here,” Fischer said. “It’s different geology. The rivers are steeper, the mountains are steeper. It’s a pretty neat little place to get away and get away from people. It’s one of those places: do you keep it quiet or do you say come out here to this town?”
Although he no longer lives in Alleghany County, Jeff Mann returns year after year to visit with family and ride the Gran Fondo Alleghany, an epic cycling challenge through the mountains.
“It’s just fun,” he said. “It has a really big race feel to it. It’s well organized. It’s very scenic and very challenging. The terrain is hard. There’s just no way around it. It’s tough cycling around here.”
Having done the Gran Fondo multiple times, Mann convinced other cyclists he knew to check out the ride and the area.
“I talked it up with a bunch of my friends for years now and it just never really lined up for all of us to come until this past year,” he said. “I brought a bunch of them and now they’re eager to come back and do some more cycling.”
When he’s riding on his own, Mann likes connecting Pitzer Ridge, Hays Gap, and Rich Patch for a scenic and remote route.
You can find Joan Vannorsdall at Douthat State Park a couple times a week, walking her dog or hiking with friends. In the time since she left Clifton Forge in the 1980s and returned in 2013, she has seen the amount of attention paid to the outdoors in the area increase exponentially.
“I think people are beginning to realize this is not a forgotten railroad town,” Vannorsdall said. “This is a town where people have put a good chunk of money into, for example, the Jackson River Scenic Trail. It’s a place where parks are being renovated, where you can mountain bike and most likely not see anybody for a while. It’s not crowded, and it’s not commercialized at all.”
In addition to all of the kayaking, hiking, and biking, Vannorsdall said Clifton Forge has supported outdoor opportunities in the area with a thriving arts community. Downtown you can shop for local crafts at the Alleghany Highlands Arts and Craft Center, take a blacksmithing class at the Clifton Forge School of the Arts, or take in a movie at the restored Historic Masonic Theatre.
Eat: Jack Mason’s Tavern and Brewery has it all, from good food and local brews to a game room and large fireplace. Pick up a sandwich for the road or dine in at the Club Car Shop and Deli.
Play: There are plenty of events throughout the year for you to enjoy. Cast a line at the Alleghany Highlands Big Bass Tournament. Ride the winding mountain roads at the Gran Fondo Alleghany or trails at the Middle Mountain Momma Mountain Bike Race. Put on your running shoes for the Jackson River Scenic Trail Marathon.
Stay: Located right on the water, the Smith Creek Inn is centrally located to downtown Clifton Forge and Douthat State Park. Enjoy a five-course breakfast and turn-down service at Hillcrest Mansion Inn.
Hike to Cunningham Falls, Maryland’s largest cascading waterfall. Bike the covered bridges tour, which takes you through three historic covered bridges. Pick your own fruit and flowers at Catoctin Mountain Orchard.
Bike the Virginia Creeper Trail, 34.3 miles from the town to the Virginia-North Carolina border. Hike to the Great Channels to see 360-degree views of the surrounding area and a labyrinth of sandstone. Kayak the North Fork of the Holston River.
Less than an hour north of Atlanta, Woodstock has plenty to explore without the big city noise.
Local officials, business owners, and residents are working together through the Greenprints Project to connect more than 60 miles of trails through the town and surrounding areas. Run, hike, or bike the trails at Olde Rope Mill Park and Blankets Creek. Follow the paved Noonday Creek Trail along the water for views of the area. Fish or paddle the Little River and Lake Allatoona.
Jay Wilkes was spending so much time riding the trails at Blankets Creek, he decided to move to Woodstock to cut down his commute. Since he relocated in 2005, Blankets Creek added several new trails and Rope Mill Park opened just down the road. Wilkes said mountain bikers are drawn to Woodstock for the variety found on the now 30 miles of trails.
“You have people who enjoy flow trails, cross-country trails, downhill trails,” he said. “And then you have them on all different levels. We have such a cornucopia of different trails, there’s something for everybody. Each trail has its own personality. People can pick and choose what they want to ride.”
As president of the local SORBA Woodstock chapter since 2008, Wilkes has seen the demand for mountain biking trails explode.
“It’s grown so much that we don’t know where to house everyone who wants to come and ride,” he added. “It’s a blessing and a curse. It’s good to see the volume of ridership and the community that is getting involved with this is that expansive. Now it’s the struggle of where do you house all of the cars?”
As an avid trail runner and mountain biker, Woodstock was the perfect fit for Lisa Randall.
“We didn’t want to live in the city,” she said. “This was a good compromise. There’s lots of trails. There’s lots of trees and good restaurants. There’s everything you need within a 10-minute drive of the area, including outdoor recreation. It checks all the boxes.”
Not content sitting behind a desk all day, Randall quit her job as a civil engineer and started a race promotion company in 2011. Mountain Goat Adventures puts on several trail and mountain bike races throughout the year.
“The mountain biking community alone is making a huge economic impact,” Randall said. “The city and county see that, and so they’ve been really supportive about allocating funds to not only maintain trails but for building new trails. They’ve really put a lot of resources and money into making their parks better because they see the value in them.”
Woodstock is more than just mountain biking. It’s less than a half hour from Lake Allatoona and Red Top Mountain State Park and full of a variety of adventure opportunities. Mike Murphy, a full-time firefighter, decided to take full advantage of the town’s location and opened Murphs Surf in 2017.
“I’ve seen Woodstock change so much just in the last 10 years,” he said. “But they really base it around that old hometown feeling where there is plenty of stuff to do but it is really cozy.”
Murphy rents kayaks and paddleboards to people heading out to the lake and Little River; he also sells boards he designs. With Atlanta so close, he said he gets visitors from all over the world checking out the outdoor opportunities in the area.
“A lot of people look for a large body of water to go to and check out,” Murphy said. “With Lake Allatoona right there, then Woodstock rolls right into that.”
While you’re on the water, paddle out to the waterfall where Toonigh Creek hits Lake Allatoona for a neat suburban find.
Eat: Stop by Reformation Brewery for game nights, evening runs, live music, and barbecue from Queenie’s BBQ. Eat your fill of locally made blue corn tortillas and churros at De Allende Mexican Kitchen & Tequila Bar. Enjoy all of your favorites at Gameday Fresh Grill.
Play: Foodies will enjoy the Taste of Woodstock in April and Restaurant Week in October. Also check out the free Summer Concert Series held in the Park at City Center.
Stay: Choose from several quality chain hotels in the area. The Holiday Inn Express has a bike wash station for anyone hitting the trails while in town.
Fish and paddle more than 40 square miles of lakes and streams, including the South Holston Lake and River. Explore the
640,000-acre Cherokee National Forest, one of the world’s most naturally diverse areas. Bike and hike multiple city parks, including Steele Creek Park, Sugar Hollow Park, and the Mendota Trail.
A longstanding adventure hub in the North Carolina High Country, Boone has plenty to offer. Climb at Ship Rock, right off the Blue Ridge Parkway. Paddle or fish the Watauga River. Mountain bike at Rocky Knob Bike Park.
From the Appalachian Trail to the Roanoke River, there are countless outdoors adventures in Roanoke. Climb to the top of Mill Mountain to see the Roanoke Star and view the valley below. Mountain bike miles and miles of trails in Virginia’s Blue Ride, an IMBA Silver-Level Ride Center. Paddle or float the Roanoke River as it flows into Smith Mountain Lake.
After 20 years away from the area, Shabnam Gideon moved to Roanoke to be closer to her family and the mountains.
“I came here to do more hiking and learn to mountain bike,” she said.
Just three years in, Gideon is now the president of the Blue Ridge Off-Road Cyclists. The IMBA chapter works to create and preserve trails in southwestern Virginia through advocacy, weekly rides, donations, and trail maintenance. In addition to promoting mountain biking at popular spots like Carvins Cove, Mill Mountain, and in the Jefferson National Forest, Gideon said several organizations and land management agencies are working to improve the accessibility for beginner riders. They are collaborating on projects like a beginner flow trail at Morningside Park that will connect to the Roanoke River Greenway.
“Most of the riding in the area is intermediate to advanced,” Gideon said. “It’s hard for people to get started if they don’t have a base level of knowledge or experience. Morningside is one of those initiatives that facilitates us getting people educated as to how to ride a bike safely and getting them involved with the community.”
Two years ago, Kelsey Harrington took a leap of faith and left the non-profit sector to join Downshift Bikes as general manager and a bike mechanic.
“I really increased the amount that I bike after moving to Roanoke, having access to so many different trails and bike lanes,” she said. “Biking has become my way to engage with the outdoors, through necessity, through a desire to use less gas and be a clean commuter, and then through a lot of my own recreation as well.”
Harrington sees her position as a way to help others learn new skills and form community through cycling. She started the WTF (women, trans, femme) cycling team to create a welcoming space for riders of these identities.
“My role here is always going to be to encourage different types of people to be exposed and open to different types of cycling and not think that they have to fit a certain mold in order to do that,” she said. Now that she’s a mother, Harrington said the ways in which she gets outside have evolved.
“That idea of epic outdoor adventure for me has shifted to what can we do outside that is also family friendly,” she said. “What I think Roanoke has to offer is something like our greenway system. People of all ability levels can find recreation. It’s a way to be active without feeling like you have to go do some epic downhilling experience or hike a huge section of the A.T. There are these really wonderful hikes in our city that are a little two-mile or four-mile loop.”
Eat: Hit up Sweet Donkey Coffee for seasonal music, food trucks, and a farmers’ market. Donnie D’s is the new spot in town for bagels and deli sandwiches. For a post-ride drink, visit the nearly 30 craft beverage stops on Virginia’s Blue Ridge Cheers Trail.
Play: Plan your visit for the annual Go Outside Fest in October for a weekend of camping, music, races, and gear demos.
Stay: Check in for a night at the Stone House at Black Dog Salvage, right off the Roanoke River Greenway and minutes from downtown. Spend the night outside at Explore Park and take advantage of easy access to trails, the river, and the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Explore eight miles of trails at Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park with historic mounds, wetlands, and the only recreated 1,000-year-old Earth Lodge. Discover 180 acres of pristine forests, meadows, and wetlands at the Amerson River Park. Kayak, canoe, or float tube down the Ocmulgee River for a relaxing adventure through lush woods and local historic sites.
Ride the South Loop Trail in Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness. Fish at Seven Islands State Birding Park. Hike House Mountain.
Special thanks to SweetWater Brewing Company for supporting the 2019 Top Adventure Towns contest.