There are a lot of places to go in the Blue Ridge, but as much as we all long for the trail beneath our feet, the hum of our tires on country roads, or the dig of our paddles in the water, sometimes we need a base that’s not so rustic. We dug out our maps and looked for towns large and small that have the right mix of city amenities (food, beer, and a shower) and outdoors thrills (no explanations necessary).
Morganton, North Carolina
The Blue Ridge Parkway is a short drive away, as is South Mountains State Park (the largest in the state), and Lake James State Park where there’s a paddle-access only campsite waiting for you. Hike to Table Rock, check out the waterfalls in South Mountains, post up around sunset and watch for the Brown Mountain Lights, take a wilderness survival class, even go hang gliding; and at the end of the day, head back to Morganton for a beer from Fonta Flora brewery and a bite from root & vine so you’ll have the energy to do it all again tomorrow.
With the Susquehanna River flowing by downtown and mountains lined with mountain biking and hiking trails within an easy drive, don’t overlook Harrisburg, the capital of Pennsylvania. Several kayak outfitters will get you on the water where you can paddle through town or on some more remote waters, a trio of tough mountain bike courses—including Lambs Gap Trail—are nearby, and, if you need a little sugar rush to help you out, pay a visit to the neighboring town of Hershey (yes, that Hershey) for a sweet treat or a pint (or two) at Troegs Brewery.
A vibrant food scene, a superb greenway, the Blue Ridge Parkway on one side and the Appalachian Trail on the other makes Roanoke a must-visit . McAfee Knob—one of the most-photographed spots on the AT—is a short drive and an 8-mile hike from downtown, and in Carvins Cove you’ll find 12,000 acres of woodlands to explore on mountain biking trails (from bomber downhills to fire roads to cross-country single-track) and on foot. And if you’re a road cyclist, the Blue Ridge Parkway is a stone’s throw from downtown and there’s some mighty fine riding along those rolling hills.
Seneca, South Carolina
South Carolina’s coast is nice, but the mountains, that’s where it’s at. Oconee County is a playground and Seneca is a perfect jumping off spot. It’s on the banks of Lake Keowee, so fishing, kayaking, and SUP are at your disposal; and it’s a short drive to more than a dozen waterfalls, some excellent single-track biking, and the lauded Chattooga River. In town you’ve got The Beer Station to quench your thirst, great barbecue at Black’s Smokehouse, and the free Jazz on the Alley concerts every Thursday. Easy access to the outdoors, creature comforts of town, what more do you need?
London, at the heart of the “Cycling Capital of Kentucky,” does have 300 miles of developed cycling routes in the town and in Laurel County, but there’s more. Daniel Boone National Forest, larger than Great Smoky Mountains National Park, spans the Tennessee border and there you’ll find more than 600 miles of trail for hiking and mountain biking. You can kayak and canoe, camp, in Daniel Boone, even hunt in designated areas. If ATVs or dirt bikes are your thing, get your fill at Wildcat Adventure & Off Road Park. Refuel at Old Town Grill or, since you’re in the Colonel’s neck of the woods, hit up a KFC in his honor.
Leesburg, an hour outside DC, has the cure for city madness: a weekend outdoors. The Washington & Old Dominion Trail runs 45-miles through Loudoun County, and the 10-mile stretch from Leesburg to Purcellville is shaded and excellent for cyclists and joggers, or use it to visit some of the 17 breweries, like Adroit Theory, for a little refreshment on the way. If you need to get some aggression out, hit Hogback Mountain Paintball or Pev’s Paintball Park. The Potomac River runs through town and there’s plenty of good food from MELT Gourmet Cheeseburgers to Smokehouse Live (for barbecue and music) to the phenomenal Restaurant at Patowmack Farms.
What do you want to do? Hike? Bike? Hunt? Golf? Waterski? All of it? Then go to Guntersville. From this town on the banks of Lake Gunnison you can paddle to see 600-year old rock paintings or visit The Bat Cave (think bat colonies, not Batman). You can hit the 36 miles of hiking and 20 miles of mountain biking trails. Go birding and spot Peregrine falcons and bald eagles. There’s some killer barbecue in and around town, some hearty country dining, and tasty lakeside dining at Top of the River.
Disc Golfers, mountain bikers, kayakers, and barbecue lovers take note, Evans, Georgia, is the place to be. At the International Disc Golf Center (yes, there’s an International Disc Golf Center and Hall of Fame) you’ll get your fill of flinging Frisbees far and wide, and there are some big rides to challenge you mountain bikers. How big? There’s a 67-mile route called the Thurmond Epic that connects a quartet of trails, and two other rides of 25 and 50 miles, plus the smaller trails. Kayakers will want to head to Betty’s Branch and the Savannah River and April’s Benderdinker paddling event is a great reason to get on the water. There’s the Wildwood Games in June, BanjoBQue music festival and barbecue bonanza on Memorial Day, and events, races, runs, and rides all year long.
Marlinton, West Virginia
Within a 30-minute drive from town you have Snowshoe Mountain for skiing and mountain biking, the 78-mile long Greenbrier River Trail on a repurposed railroad bed, the three falls of Hills Creek, Cranberry Glades, and the largest state park in West Virginia. And at the end of September you have one of the strangest festivals you can find: the Roadkill Cookoff.