The Blue Ridge boasts dozens of towns with vibrant outdoor scenes and access to world-class adventure. In August, thousands of readers voted for their favorites. Readers selected the top outdoor town in three categories: large town (population 100,000+), mid-sized town (population 10,000 – 100,000), and small town (population less than 10,000). Congratulations to our three winners—and to all 48 towns in the running.
2016 Top Small Town
Franklin, North Carolina
“Life just always seems to get better in Franklin.”
So says Ben Wendell, 33, a husband, father, and pastor who moved with his family to the mountains of western North Carolina to escape the bustle of Miami.
“Our kids just love it here,” he says. “There’s a truckload of things to do, and the people more than anything else, they’re real.”
“We have a great sense of community,” says Franklin business owner Tim Crabtree. “Everybody tries to work together. There are enough dollars to go around.”
Crabtree moved to Franklin during middle school and decided to come back to town after college. Like the Wendell family, Crabtree says he values the proximity to outdoor recreation, and also the small town know-your-neighbor mentality.
“If we get too big, we’ll lose what makes us special,” he says. “What’s great is that everybody around here wants to take care of our resources. We’ll continue to grow but at a sustainable pace.”
With the recent addition of a riverside brewery, a food truck, and an ever-growing outdoor community, life really does appear to be getting better in Franklin.
“It’s like that hipster quality of, ‘I heard of that band before you heard of that band,’” says Wendell. “There’s definitely that sense in Franklin.”
Better hop on board now.
How to Play
Hike the Bartram Trail to Wayah Bald, ride the Little Tennessee River Greenway, grab a handcrafted meal at the Root + Barrel, and cap it all off with a brew at Currahee Brewing Company.
Where to Stay
The Oak Hill Country Inn & Cottage (rooms starting at $100 per night) for a secluded country oasis, or the Mi Mountain Campground for a family friendly car camping experience (tent sites starting at $20 per night).
When to Go
Spring for the wildflowers and roaring waterfalls; fall for the foliage and Naturalist 25K and 50K.
2016 Top Mid-Sized Town
Front Royal, Virginia
What if I told you just 70 miles west of Washington, D.C., was a mid-sized city with a peaceful small-town vibe, a wealth of outdoor recreation, and low property taxes to boot?
That place exists, and it’s name is Front Royal.
Located only two miles from the Appalachian Trail, Front Royal is an Appalachian Trail Community, the Canoe Capital of Virginia, and the literal gateway to all things Shenandoah—less than a mile from town stands the northern entrance to Shenandoah National Park and just a few minutes further is Shenandoah River State Park. Flanked by the Blue Ridge to the east and the Massanutten Range to the west, Front Royal provides a base of operations for any outdoor activity, no matter the season.
“I’ve hiked every trail in the park,” says Front Royal resident Sonja Carlborg. “I’m in the park two to four times a week.”
Carlborg is a non-profit consultant in town and one of the leading committee members responsible for establishing Front Royal as an official Appalachian Trail Community back in 2012. Carlborg is also a former thru-hiker herself (class of ’00, trail name of Sirocco), and says that, though the parks, the river, and Skyline Drive have always been there, the in-town opportunities for recreation are just beginning to take shape.
“Outdoor recreation has been steadily increasing as has the awareness of that as both a local benefit and an economic benefit,” Carlborg says.
Recent additions to Front Royal have been a four-mile multiuse greenway that currently connects the Visitor’s Center to the South Fork of the Shenandoah River. There’s also an arboretum, a public library where you can rent fully equipped daypacks for hiking, and a trolley that stops at the trailhead twice a day during peak thru-hiking season. The city recently announced plans to develop a 15-acre solar farm.
How to play
Take a Sunday drive or road ride along Skyline Drive, float the South Fork of the Shenandoah, explore underground at Skyline Caverns, savor a homemade and locally minded meal at Blue Wing Frog, and sample northern Virginia brews at Pavemint Taphouse & Grill.
Where to Stay
When to Go
Summer for fishing on the Shenandoah, fall for the gorgeous displays of autumn brilliance along Skyline Drive.
2016 Top Large Town
Drive through Roanoke tomorrow and you’ll see runners along the Roanoke River Greenway, cyclists heading up Mill Mountain, and kayaks on roof racks. The outdoor renaissance started about 20 years ago. In 1999, Wes Best, co-owner of East Coasters Bike Shop, and a handful of Roanoke citizens helped spearhead the opening of Carvins Cove to the mountain biking community. That moment, says Best, was like opening the floodgates—the surge of interest in the outdoors grew seemingly overnight.
“Carvins Cove at this point is sorta old news,” Best says. “Now it’s all of these other little projects that pop up like the blueways and the fantastic trail running events.”
“We’ve really got it all here,” adds Steve Powers, a Roanoke area paddler and biology professor at Roanoke College. “When water levels are right, we’ve got everything from really fun class I-III rapids on the Roanoke to class IV Johns Creek to class V Bottom Creek, which is the best whitewater I’ve ever paddled in my life, and it’s all within a half hour of Roanoke.”
Paddlers fought hard to gain access to Johns Creek, and now Roanoke’s reputation among flatwater and whitewater enthusiasts alike is rising to the top. There’s even talk among Roanoke paddlers about creating a play park downtown. “I think the uniqueness [of Roanoke] is that there’s so much happening from the top down,” says Best. “It’s the mix of passion for the outdoor community with passion for the simple way of life that Roanoke offers.”
How to Play
Ride the Roanoke River Greenway to Mill Mountain and back, SUP the Roanoke River, hike the Star Trail, splurge with a southern style meal at Blue 5, and kick back to some live tunes and great beer at Parkway Brewing Company.
Where to Stay
Go back in time and treat yourself with a room at the Black Lantern Inn (rooms starting at $135 per night).
When to Go
Winter for the uncrowded hikes and expansive views; fall for the festivities like Roanoke GO Outside Fest.