Best of the Blue Ridge

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What’s the best bike shop in the Blue Ridge? Who are the top raft guides and most inspiring thru-hikers? Where is the most scenic waterfall? What are the toughest events in the region? And where can you get the best local beer and pizza after a day of adventure? Thousands of readers from across the region decided the winners of our seventh annual Best of the Blue Ridge Awards, which include 75 categories, from burgers to biking trails.

Hiking Trail

Greenbrier River Trail

Caldwell—Cass, W.Va.

Paralleling the Greenbrier River for nearly 78 miles, this easily accessible rail-trail provides an intimate look at both the history and natural beauty of West Virginia.

FINALISTS

Cascade Falls, Va.

Art Loeb Trail, N.C.

A.T. Section

McAfee Knob

Catawba, Va.

The iconic rock outcropping along the A.T. at McAfee Knob is engulfed by near-360-degree views of rolling Blue Ridge Mountains. Expect to work hard for those vistas—the trail climbs a butt-busting 1,700 feet in just 4.4 miles.

FINALISTS

Roan Mountains, Tenn.

Dragon’s Tooth, Va.

Swimming Hole

Blue Bend Recreation Area

Monongahela, W.Va.

With three overlooks into the Monongahela National Forest and a cozy overnight shelter, the trail is a gem in its own right, never mind the brisk mountain-fed swimming hole.

FINALISTS

Devil’s Bathtub, Va.

Skinny Dip Falls, N.C.

Running Trail

Mill Mountain

Roanoke, Va.

With over 10 miles of trails just minutes from downtown, Mill Mountain Park makes it easy for Roanoke residents and visitors to squeeze in a quick trail run before, after, or even during work hours. Climbing to the Roanoke Star at 1,847 feet justifies a post-run beverage.

FINALISTS

Jackrabbit Trail, N.C.

Blue Ridge School Trails, Va.

Paddling River

New River

North Carolina—West Virginia

Designated a Wild and Scenic River in 1976, the 320-mile long river starts in North Carolina’s High Country. After long stretches of flatwater in Virginia, it becomes world-class whitewater in West Virginia.

FINALISTS

Nantahala River, N.C.

James River, Va.

Climbing Crag

New River Gorge

Fayetteville, W.Va.

The sheer quantity of bullet-hard sandstone in the New River Gorge makes the area one of the best sport and traditional rock climbing destinations in the world. Many climbers of international renown have journeyed to this quiet pocket of southern West Virginia to test their mettle on the area’s (oft-sandbagged) 1,400+ established routes and boulder problems.

FINALISTS

Seneca Rocks, W.Va.

Looking Glass Rock, N.C.

Campground

Big Meadows

Shenandoah National Park

Post up for the weekend with backdoor access to Shenandoah National Park’s treasured waterfalls and trails. Within minutes of leaving your campsite, you can be at the base of Dark Hollow Falls or hiking along the Appalachian Trail.

FINALISTS

Deep Creek Tube Center & Campground, N.C.

Flag Rock Recreation Area, Va.

Biking Trail

Greenbrier River Trail

Caldwell—Cass, W.Va.

Take a day or a week to pedal this historic rail-trail, which passes over 35 bridges, through two tunnels, and along some of the state’s most remote and vibrant forests.

FINALISTS

Carvins Cove, Va.

Bryce Mountain Bike Park, Va.

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Urban Park

Mill Mountain

Roanoke, Va.

This nearly 2,000-foot mountain is visible from just about anywhere in downtown Roanoke and serves as a constant reminder for the Star City’s residents to make time to go outside and play.

FINALISTS

James River Park, Va.

Steele Creek, Tenn.

Ski Run

Cupp Run

Snowshoe Mountain Resort, W.Va.

Hope your quads are ready. This run plummets 1,500 vertical feet in just over a mile.

FINALISTS

Shay’s Revenge, Snowshoe Mountain Resort, W.Va.

Cliffhanger, Wintergreen Resort, Va.

Terrain Park

Snowshoe Mountain Resort

Snowshoe, W.Va.

With 28 acres of freestyle terrain and five different terrain parks, you can session Snowshoe’s features all day long and still not hit every jump or jib.

FINALISTS

(tied) Wintergreen Resort, Va., and Canaan Valley Resort, W.Va.

Bryce Resort

SUP Spot

Summersville Lake

Summersville, W.Va.

Over 28,000 acres in size, Summersville Lake is West Virginia’s largest lake. Its 60 miles of shoreline are largely undeveloped and dominated by soaring sandstone cliffs, which served as the venue for PsicoRoc 2016, the country’s first outdoor deep water soloing competition.

FINALISTS

Fontana Lake, N.C.

Roanoke River, Va.

Blue Ridge Parkway Spot

Peaks of Otter

Bedford, Va.

Comprised of three rolling mountaintops—Sharp Top, Flat Top, and Harkening Hill—the Peaks of Otter were once prized Native American hunting grounds. Today, visitors can fish the iconic waters of Abbott Lake, wine and dine at the Peaks of Otter Lodge, or camp out under the stars at the base of Sharp Top Mountain.

FINALISTS

Black Balsam, N.C.

Mount Mitchell, N.C.

Waterfall

Cascade Falls

Giles County, Va.

The 69-foot falls plunges between 200-foot rock walls into a vast and deep pool. The idyllic waterfall might look like the picture-perfect place to swim, but its waters should only be appreciated from the banks.

FINALISTS

Crabtree Falls, Va.

Linville Falls, N.C.

Wilderness Area

Dolly Sods Wilderness Area

West Virginia

This high elevation wilderness area is laced with spruce trees and tannin stained creeks, rhododendron-choked trails and blueberry-studded meadows. Wild and lush and teeming with life, this 17,000+-acre wilderness area is unlike anywhere else in the Southeast.

FINALISTS

Linville Gorge Wilderness, N.C.

Cranberry Wilderness, W.Va.

Kid-Friendly Outdoor Destination

FloydFest

Floyd, Va.

No matter their age, kids will love exploring, creating, and imagining in the Children’s Universe and Little Planets play area at FloydFest. Bring some instruments and costumes, too, to participate in the annual Peace Parade.

FINALISTS

Bryce Resort, Va.

Sliding Rock, N.C.

Pet-Friendly Outdoor Destination

Blue Mountain Brewery

Afton, Va.

Centrally located to a wealth of outdoor adventure, Blue Mountain Brewery’s ample outdoor space seats more than just explorers of the two-legged variety. Bring your pup after a day on the trail and soak in the Blue Ridge mountain views and locally made brews.

FINALISTS

Canine Social Club, N.C.

Jackrabbit Trail, N.C.

Place for Outdoor Singles to Live

Asheville, N.C.

Given the endless outdoor adventures, nightly live music offerings, and booming craft beer scene, it’s no wonder that Asheville has become a haven for the young and restless.

FINALISTS

Roanoke, Va.

Shenandoah Valley

Place to Raise an Outdoor Family

Roanoke, Va.

Though the city’s population is close to 100,000, Roanoke’s close-knit districts give it a small-town, know-your-neighbor feel. Couple that sense of community mindedness with in-town greenways, trail systems, and river access, and you’ll be wondering why you didn’t move to Roanoke sooner.

FINALISTS

Bryson City, N.C.

Shenandoah County, Va.

Place to Engage in Nefarious Activities

Not telling

Various locations

That’s probably a good call. We’re not in the business of keeping secrets anyway.

FINALISTS

Gauley Fest, W.Va.

Blue Ridge Parkway, N.C., Va.

Place to Play Hooky

Fayetteville, W.Va.

While Fayetteville certainly has plenty of novice-level trail and paddling adventures like riding the Arrowhead Trails or SUPping the Upper New, if gnar is what you’re after, gnar is what you’ll get. Nothing like a little chunder to make you forget about the “guilt” of skipping work.

FINALISTS

Green River, N.C.

Massanutten Resort, Va.

Fly Fishing River/Creek

Shenandoah River

Virginia

The lazy Shenandoah River provides some of the best smallmouth, largemouth, musky, and carp fishing in the country, and with relatively mild temperatures, you can float it year-round.

FINALISTS

Mossy Creek, Va.

Davidson River, N.C.

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Flatwater

Summersville Lake

Summersville, W.Va.

This mammoth body of placid water hides countless rock features and inlets to explore, making it possible to paddle out onto the lake and escape the crowds even in the height of summer.

FINALISTS

Smith Mountain Lake, Va.

Lake Lure, N.C.

Luxury Destination

The Greenbrier

White Sulphur Springs, W.Va.

Set amid the rolling Allegheny Mountains, a visit to the Greenbrier is about as close to visiting a Parisian chateau as we can get here in Appalachia. But with on- and offsite adventures like biking the Greenbrier River Trail and fishing Howard’s Creek, there are plenty of opportunities to see the wilder side of West Virginia, too.

FINALISTS

Primland, Va.

The Omni Homestead Resort, Va.

State for Outdoor Activities

Virginia

Within a five hours’ drive, you can be paddling whitewater on the James River, shredding singletrack at Douthat State Park, bouldering at Grayson Highlands State Park, or hiking on any number of the state’s 544 miles of the Appalachian Trail. It’s a one-stop-shop for adventure.

FINALISTS

West Virginia

North Carolina

What Makes a Great Place to Raise a Family? 

Our top two finalists for the “Best Place to Raise an Outdoorsy Family” couldn’t be more different. The mid-sized city of Roanoke, Va., has a population of nearly 100,000, while the small town of Bryson City, N.C., is home to just over 1,400. Where Roanoke was historically a railroad town, early Bryson City residents earned their living from farming.

Despite their differences, there is one theme that unites them as the region’s leading adventure basecamps for families: access.

“The Appalachian Trail is a 15-minute drive away, and the Blue Ridge Parkway is only 10 minutes away,” says Roanoke resident Nicole Lenderking, whose 10-year-old son is actively involved in the youth cycling scene. “Our house sits on the edge of Carvins Cove and feels like it’s out in the middle of nowhere, but then you’re less than 20 minutes from downtown.

“Where we used to live in town, we could jump on the greenway and ride our bikes, without cars, to the bottom of Mill Mountain and its extensive trail network,” says Nicole’s husband Troy. “It’s pretty unique to have that type of a trail system just one mile from downtown.”

Down in the westernmost corner of North Carolina, Bryson City is the literal gateway to a number of the region’s most prized outdoor destinations, such as the Nantahala River, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Fontana Lake, and Tsali Recreation Area. For Bryson City, N.C., resident Mac Brown, who runs his own fly fishing guide service, that proximity to the outdoors was appealing to him, first as a thru-hiker on the Appalachian Trail (’86), then as a seasonal guide for the Nantahala Outdoor Center, and later as a father.

“The more you give kids a passion for the outdoors, the more likely it will make them better citizens down the road,” says Brown. “Swain County is a huge playground, with 90% of the land being federally owned. We run and ride mountain bikes, and I know it makes my kids more responsible individuals.”

With frequent family friendly festivals and events, a reasonable cost of living, and a central location to a number of other major urban centers, it’s no wonder outdoorsy families are flocking to these communities.

“There’s not any amount of money that would make me want to leave from here,” says Brown. “I wouldn’t move anywhere else in America.”

Running Event

Blue Ridge Marathon

Roanoke, Va.

Each spring, hundreds of runners from all walks of life head to the Start City to see if they have what it takes to tackle the country’s toughest road marathon. The course certainly packs a punch, with over 7,430 feet of climbing in just 26.2 miles.

FINALISTS

Park to Park Half, Va.

Shut-In Ridge Trail Run, N.C.

Biking Event

Tour de Valley

Waynesboro, Va.

Ride through Shenandoah Valley’s bucolic countryside on this fully supported century and metric century. Though technically a race, this event has a much more inclusive feel, almost like a big group ride.

FINALISTS

Shenandoah Mountain 100, Va.

Assault on Mount Mitchell, N.C.

Paddling Event

Gauley Fest

Summersville, W.Va.

Since 1983, the annual whitewater releases on the Gauley River have pulled paddlers from their respective corners of the world to the banks of this rowdy, big-wave river. The festival includes vendor exhibitions, downriver races, and plenty of Pillow Rock Creature Craft carnage to keep even non-boaters entertained (if you don’t know what a Creature Craft is, do yourself a favor and look it up).

FINALISTS

Green Race, N.C.

Nantahala Racing Club Whitewater Open, N.C.

Climbing Event

New River Gorge Craggin’ Classic

Fayetteville, W.Va.

Made for climbers, by climbers, this multiday event is part party, part manual labor. The weekend kicks off on Friday with an all-day stewardship project in the Gorge, slingin’ rocks and wrestling rhodo. Afterwards, it’s all-you-can-boogie glow stick parties and dyno comps.

FINALISTS

Triple Crown Bouldering Series at Hound Ears, N.C.

HomoClimbtastic, W.Va.

Triathlon/Multisport Event

Captain Thurmond’s Challenge — The New River Gorge Games

Fayetteville, W.Va.

This adventure triathlon is the pinnacle of endurance—competitors start by mountain biking 15 miles to the Cunard put-in for the New River Gorge, kayak seven miles of class IV+ whitewater, and run 6.5 miles (which climbs 1,100 vertical feet) back to town.

FINALISTS

App(ugh)lachian Race Series, Va.

Luray Triathlon, Va.

Adventure Race

GO Outside Fest Wild Gear Chase

Roanoke, Va.

Be it a water bottle or a kayak, everybody wins in this checkpoint scavenger hunt. Racers are given a cue sheet with hints to destinations within a two-mile radius of the festival, with the goal being to hit as many of the places as possible. The more checkpoints you visit, the sooner you’ll get to pick your free swag in the gear tent.

FINALISTS

Shenandoah Epic Adventure Race, Va.

Asheville Urban Odyssey, N.C.

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Mud Run/Obstacle Course

Spartan Race Series

Various locations

The challenge-by-choice format of the Spartan Sprint allows participants of all abilities to take part in the action. Start out small with the 3.1-mile distance, or take on the Ultra Beast 12-14-miler before tackling the Spartan’s namesake obstacles like the slippery wall, fire jump, spear throw, and rope climb.

FINALISTS

Mad Anthony Mud Run, Va.

Muddy ACCE Race, Va.

Festival

FloydFest

Floyd, Va.

Nestled high up in the mountains of central Virginia, FloydFest is a festival that has truly mastered the art of paying homage to the region’s musical heritage while still welcoming the eclectic new-age sounds of today. The 2018 lineup is already looking stellar, with Foster the People, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, and Langhorne Slim, to name a few.

FINALISTS

GO Outside Festival, Va.

Mountain Sports Festival, N.C.

Rowdiest Event

Gauley Fest

Summersville, W.Va.

The Power of Events to Do Good

It seems appropriate that the festival celebrating the unruly Gauley River is just as raucous. We’d be concerned if it wasn’t.

Combine live music, beer, food, and likeminded people, and you’re bound to have a good time, but these days, festivals are doing more than hosting big parties. Some of the most popular festivals are actually breeding grounds for do goodery.

Just ask American Whitewater’s Executive Director Mark Singleton. Though AW’s Gauley Fest is undoubtedly a wild weekend of whitewater shenanigans, the event is also the largest gathering of the organization’s supporters in the country. And that, says Singleton, gives AW a prime opportunity to continue education and outreach on upcoming projects, like the organization’s campaign to establish rivers like the Nolichucky River as Wild and Scenic in commemoration of this year’s 50th anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

“Activism was really the genesis of Gauley Fest,” says Singleton. “Back in the early ‘80s, there was a proposal that would have dewatered the upper three miles of [the Gauley] River and put in a pipe from the current dam location down to below Pillow Rock. It was boaters who came together to push back on that proposal and a secondary dam proposal at Swiss. That kind of public engagement shaped AW as an organization that could rally grassroots support and really protect rivers for their recreation and conservation values. Now, the management of the New and Gauley Rivers is a national example of what good river management can look like.”

Three months prior to Gauley Fest and on the other side of the New River Gorge Bridge, Atlanta-based climber Alex Rowland’s brainchild event HomoClimbtastic is paving the way for inclusivity in the world of adventure as the world’s largest queer-friendly climbing convention.

“Climbing can be a tough sport to break into if you don’t already know people,” says Rowland. “When I first started climbing, it felt like a bit of a struggle to find outdoor climbing partners.” So 10 years ago, Rowland started the HomoClimbtastic Club. Its first convention only had a five-person turnout, but Rowland had so much fun, he was hardly discouraged. Now, the event, which is held annually on the third weekend of July, regularly brings in 100 climbers from all over the country. From a drag show to a floatie pride parade on Summersville Lake, the festival is entirely too much fun, and that, says Rowland, was sorta the point.

“A lot of activism can be really tough, and I wanted this to be more than activism,” he says. “This is work, but I wanted it to feel much more like a celebration than anything else.”

FINALISTS

GO Outside Festival, Va.

LOCKN’ Festival, Va.

Toughest Event

Shenandoah Epic Adventure Race

Bentonville, Va.

For eight years running, this 24-hour race has pushed even the toughest endurance athletes to their limits. Cover over 100 miles of ground by bike, boat, and foot, and come prepared to put your navigational skills to the test.

FINALISTS

The Barkley Marathons, Tenn.

The Green Race, N.C.

Costumed Event

Great Outdoor Provisions Surf-n-Santa 5-Miler

Virginia Beach, Va.

Picture this: thousands of racers decked in five-piece Santa suits, running through the night while hundreds more elves hand out candy canes and gingerbread cookies on the course. Sound too good to be true? It’s not.

FINALISTS

Super Hero 5K, N.C.

Thrill on the Hill, Va.

Fly Fishing Event

WNC Fly Fishing Expo

Asheville, N.C.

Considered by many anglers to be the most comprehensive fly fishing event in the region, this expo is no doubt educational, but it’s after the long day of workshops and clinics that the true fun begins: BBQ cookouts, beers, fly fishing films. That’s the stuff true friends are made of.

FINALISTS

Rumble in the Rhododendron Fly Fishing Tournament, N.C.

Mossy Creek Invitational, Va.

Adventurer of the Year

John Forbes

Kingsport, Tenn.

You’ll know John Forbes when you see him on the trail. His long gray beard is unmistakable, hiding behind it a whimsical grin that hardly contains his enthusiasm for hiking in the Tri-Cities region, excursions which he thoroughly documents on his page Tri-Cities Hiking Adventures. Give him a follow!

FINALISTS

Ellie Quinn, Va.

Megan Robinson, Va.

Instagram Account to Follow

@ellieontheat

Did you know that an empty Mountain House package can hold two dirty diapers? Or that an umbrella is a necessary piece of gear if you’re expecting to breast-feed on trail? Though Kanga, Roo, and Sherpa’s (that’s Bekah, Ellie, and Derrick Quirin) thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail is over, their Instagram handle continues to be a great resource and inspiration to active families with young children (plus, that Ellie is just too stinkin’ cute).

FINALISTS

@blueridgemtguides

@moonmegroanoke

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Photographer

Billy Bowling

Lebanon, Va.

Specializing in landscape photography, Billy Bowling is always outside capturing the diversity and underrated beauty of the Southeast, particularly in his home state of Virginia.

FINALISTS

Sarah Rhulen, N.C.

Sam Dean, Va.

Local/Regional Athlete

Ben King

Charlottesville, Va.

Originally heralding from central Virginia, professional cyclist Ben King now spends most of his time in Italy, where he’s training as a member of the prestigious Team Dimension Data for Qhubeka. In the under-23 division, King crushed the competition at the 2010 USA Cycling Pro Road National Championships and the 2010 Pan-American Time Trial and Road Championships, which he won.

FINALISTS

Gordon Wadsworth, Va.

Travis Pietila, Va.

Raft Guide

Will Norris

Nantahala Outdoor Center, N.C.

Will Norris isn’t just a raft guide. He’s a kayaker, canoeist, standup paddleboarder and rower, too. For the past 17 years, Norris has been facilitating downriver experiences for locals and out-of-towners alike, and as a Rescue 3 International swift water instructor, he prides himself on safety first, and fun times second.

FINALISTS

Alisa Hudgel, ACE Adventure Resort

Sexy Tony, New and Gauley River Adventures

Climbing Guide

Deb Simon

Hard Rock Climbing, Fayetteville, W.Va.

Deb Simon’s passion might be rock climbing, first, but with that love comes an even deeper appreciation for wilderness medicine. Last year, both Deb and her husband Bryan, who are co-founders of Vertical Medicine Resources, became the first nurses ever to receive a Master’s degree in Mountain Medicine, and their co-written climbing and wilderness first aid guidebook Vertical Aid has quickly become a standard of excellence in the climbing industry.

FINALISTS

Grant Price, Blue Ridge Mountain Guides

Karsten Delap, Fox Mountain Guides

Fly Fishing Guide

Eugene Shuler

Fly Fishing the Smokies

Born and raised in the Smoky Mountains, Eugene Shuler was destined to be an angler. As a third generation guide, a love of regional rivers and tailwaters runs thick in his blood and is obvious in his many leadership roles—he’s a United States Coast Guard Captain, a certified fly fishing instructor from New York’s prestigious Wulff School of Fly Fishing, and the founder and president of the North Carolina Fly Fishing Team’s Board of Directors (which has won more tournaments than any other fly fishing team in North America).

FINALISTS

Ken Kastorff, Endless River Adventures

Patrick Sessoms, Due South Outfitters

A.T. Thru Hiker

Bekah, Derrick, and Ellie Quirin

Roanoke, Va.

Bekah and Derrick Quirin always dreamed of thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, so when they were blessed with the birth of their first child, Ellie, they decided not to let that dream pass them by. In September 2017, the Quirin family, whose trail names are Kanga (Bekah), Roo (Ellie), and Sherpa (Derrick), completed a flip-flop thru-hike of the white blaze with their then-one-year-old daughter, poopy diapers and all.

FINALISTS

Jennifer Pharr Davis, N.C.

Joe ‘Stringbean’ McConaughey, Wash.

Inspiring Outdoor Personality

Megan Robinson

Roanoke, Va.

Megan Robinson is an equestrian first and foremost, but more than anything, she’s an advocate for moving bodies and open minds. Catch her at The Y in Roanoke, where she provides active outreach to youth and families.

FINALISTS

Thomas Mabry, Tenn.

Juliet Kastorff, N.C.

Outdoor Legend/Pioneer

Chip Chase

Canaan Valley, W.Va.

Foraging master, shot ski aficionado, dancing machine, Chip Chase brings the party wherever he goes. Ullr reincarnate, Chase is happiest when the snow is falling on his magical kingdom, aka White Grass Ski Touring Center, and the shine is flowing freely (just don’t ski through his parking lot, people).

FINALISTS

Ken Kastorff, N.C.

Mike Fischesser, N.C.

The Power of Adventuring as a Family

Appalachian Trail record holder Jennifer Pharr Davis and her husband Brew have taken backpacking trips on the Appalachian Trail and hiked in all 50 states with their first-born daughter, Charley. But it wasn’t until her most recent thru-hike of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, during which she raised awareness and advocated for continued support of the trail, that she finally started to see the effect that time in the outdoors was having on her children.

“It’s hard to get Charley to do chores and pick up her room. She’s four, and turned five while we were on the trail. But one day during the hike, she was going along the beach picking up trash. I hadn’t asked her to do anything, so when I asked her why she was doing it, she said, ‘I’m saving the turtles.’ She had just visited a sea turtle rehabilitation and rescue center, and had learned the connection between pollution and human impact and the environment and was putting it into practice.”

For Bekah and Derrick Quirin, thru hiking the Appalachian Trail with their one-year-old girl Ellie presented not only the opportunity for their daughter to be steeped in the natural world that first brought the Roanoke, Va., couple together, but also the chance to witness some of her most formative months.

“When Derrick was working full-time and he would come home, he would get bummed that he didn’t get to see Ellie’s milestones firsthand,” says Bekah. “It was really awesome to have him right there when she took her first steps on the trail or started saying ‘Daddy.’ From my perspective, seeing his face light up when she would do those things was a really big deal.”

Of course, all of that is not to say that adventuring, on any scale, with a young family is easy. Jennifer Pharr Davis’ husband Brew struggled being a “stay-at-home-dad without the home,” while he and their two children (both under the age of five at the time) followed and often hiked with Pharr Davis on her Mountains-to-Sea Trail thru hike. And though Pharr Davis does not have any intentions of hiking another long-distance trail in the near future, she’s okay with it, so long as she can continue to show her children the lessons the outdoors can offer.

“We were out there for three months and three days. There were highs and lows and at the end, we came out closer as a family,” she says. “We like to paint a really rosy picture of adventure and talk about the highlights, but getting through the low points and staying committed to the team is also really important.”

For families curious about what it takes to get kids adventuring, Bekah Quirin, who regularly leads Hike It Baby hikes in Roanoke, says to start small on greenways and local parks and build up a solid set of backcountry skills before introducing a young child into the mix.

“The books will tell you to stick to a schedule, but that’s not realistic for an adventuring family,” says Bekah. “If you want a flexible baby, you have to raise a flexible baby.”

Pizza

Pies & Pints

Multiple locations in Ohio, West Virginia, Alabama, Kentucky, and Virginia

What began in 2003 as a one-room pizza shop for Fayetteville, West Virginia’s raft guides has now grown into one of the region’s top dining destinations. The restaurant’s gourmet pizza options (think grape and gorgonzola) paired with top-notch artisanal beer from around the world makes for the perfect post-adventure meal.

FINALISTS

Blue Mountain Brewery, Va.

Hill and Hollar, W.Va.

Burger

Secret Sandwich Society

Fayetteville, W.Va., and Richmond, Va.

The Society’s burgers are of the stick-to-your-ribs variety, the perfect refuel after a hard day on the rock or trail. We like the Eagle for its savory combination of seared mortadella, roasted garlic mayo, pickles, and a pile of crispy onions, all topped off with an over-easy egg. Trust us on this one.

Secret Sandwich Society

FINALISTS

Citizen Burger Bar, Va.

Jim’s Drive In, W.Va.

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Taco

Thunderbird Taco

Lewisburg, W.Va.

Tex-Mex done right. This quaint yet hip taco joint dishes up some truly authentic plates made with locally sourced beef steak and kickin’ ingredients like chili roasted sweet potato and cream cheese-stuffed charred jalapeno.

FINALISTS

A Place to Eat, Md.

Brazos Tacos, Va.

BBQ

Ridge View BBQ

Institute, W.Va.

Sometimes it feels good to be bad. Load up on Ridge View’s hickory smoked, slow cooked BBQ for a true taste of the south, and add the pork rinds.

FINALISTS

Dirty Ernie’s, W.Va.

BBQ Exchange, Va.

Ice Cream

The Stache

Fayetteville, W.Va.

The Stache checks all of our boxes, with an inviting atmosphere, fun rotating flavors (our favs are the cappuccino crunch and dark chocolate raspberry truffle), and an apple pie sundae that rivals grandma’s best. It’s also probably the only place in Fayetteville where you can buy an ice cream cone and a six-pack of fart bombs.

FINALISTS

Blue Cow, Va.

Kline’s, Va.

Restaurant

Secret Sandwich Society

Fayetteville, W.Va., Richmond, Va.

The SSS doesn’t just make good food, they do good, too. The restaurant recycles everything and is 100% wind powered, which speaks volumes in this day and age.

FINALISTS

Blue Mountain Brewery, Va.

The French Goat, W.Va.

Farm to Table Restaurant

SHiFT

Frostburg, Md.

For SHiFT, “farm to table” isn’t just a marketing ploy—it’s a way of life. Dine with the seasons at this locally sourced, vegetarian and vegan friendly eatery in downtown Frostburg.

FINALISTS

Wild Wolf Brewing, Va.

The Station, W.Va.

Vegetarian

Laughing Seed Café

Asheville, N.C.

Veggies unite! This vegetarian only restaurant was the first of its kind in downtown Asheville and has been serving up some impressive, internationally inspired veggie dishes for over 20 years. Try the Harmony Bowl smothered in sesame ginger sauce once, and you might never go back to meat.

FINALISTS

Firefly Fare, Va.

Gillie’s, Va.

Breakfast

Cathedral Café & Book Store

Fayetteville, W.Va.

No trip to the New River Gorge is complete without breakfast at Cathedral. Located smack in the center of town, this place cranks out everything from pancakes to breakfast burritos and has won the hearts of so many locals and tourists alike that their iconic mugs have been photographed in everywhere from the Carolina coast to the mountains of Nepal.

FINALISTS

Scratch Biscuit Company, Va.

Sunny Point Café, N.C.

Lunch

Secret Sandwich Society

Fayetteville, W.Va., Richmond, Va.

Say ‘goodbye’ to your boring old PB&J brown bag and ‘hello’ to your new favorite lunch. For a sweet and savory sammy, check out the Truman, which features turkey, peach jam, blue cheese spread, and crispy onions piled high on a toasted baguette. Hungry yet?

FINALISTS

Wild Wolf Brewing, Va.

Bellair Market, Va.

Post Adventure Hangout

The Grove

Fayetteville, W.Va.

Beer on tap? Check. Groovy atmosphere? Check. Poetry slams and live music? Double check. The Grove is the place to be during your next weekend in the New River Gorge.

FINALISTS

Silverback Distillery, Va.

Parkway Brewing, Va.

Bar/Pub

Dante’s Bar

Frostburg, Md.

Every good outdoor town needs a place to kick back with a beer or cocktail and let loose a little. Dante’s is just that, offering killer happy hour deals, free pool and karaoke on Wednesdays, and live music throughout the weekend.

FINALISTS

Blue Mountain Brewery, Va.

The Grove, W.Va.

Brewery

1812 Brewery

Cumberland, Md.

After a day biking the C&O or Great Allegheny Passage, stop in at this truly unique brewery. Housed inside a barn that dates back to 1812, the 2,500-foot, two-story brewery is a destination in its own right. Head there on Thursdays for game night—Sorry is a lot more fun with a couple of IPAs in you.

FINALISTS

Greenbrier Valley Brewing Company, W.Va.

Blue Mountain Brewery, Va.

Winery

Toasted Goat

Frostburg, Md.

Admit it. You’re a sucker for labels. So are we, and Toasted Goat’s quirky hand drawn labels are among some of our favorites. It’s just a bonus that the wine is pretty tasty, too.

FINALISTS

King Family Vineyards, Va.

Veritas Vineyard & Winery, Va.

Cidery

Bold Rock

Nellysford, Va., Mills River, N.C.

No matter which end of the Blue Ridge you reside, it’s guaranteed that if you pick up a bottle of Bold Rock, it’s going to be made with apples grown right in your backyard. With a wide selection of hard ciders ranging in dryness, Bold Rock is setting the standard for regionally made hard cider.

FINALISTS

Hawk Knob Hard Cider & Mead, W.Va.

Blue Toad Hard Cider, Wintergreen

Distillery

Silverback Distillery

Afton, Va.

Bottom’s up at this green-thinking Virginia-based distillery. Silverback utilizes geothermal technologies to produce its vodka, gin, rye whiskey, and honey rye whiskey, which means that your spirits were produced with the least possible impact on the environment.

FINALISTS

Smooth Ambler Spirits, W.Va.

Virginia Distillery, Va.

Late Night Eats

The Station

Fayetteville, W.Va.

From beer to bread, The Station’s mission is to source all of their ingredients from local suppliers, so if you’re starving after a night of dancing at The Grove, you can partake in all of that regional goodness until midnight.

FINALISTS

C&O Restaurant, Va.

Texas Tavern, Va.

Coffee Shop

Clatter Coffee

Frostburg, Md.

As if their decadently smooth pour-over wasn’t reason enough to frequent this café, Clatter also offers a stylish space to meet, plus a substantial food menu to keep you fueled through your work. Try the Appalachian Ramen bowl if you’re there for lunch.

FINALISTS

Mudhouse Coffee Roasters, Va.

Sweet Donkey Coffee House, Va.

Beyond the Dish

When April Moon Harper opened up Sunny Point Café in West Asheville 14 years ago, the neighborhood hardly had any restaurants, let alone competing breakfast joints. Now, the district is hoppin’, with a whole suite of restaurants, music venues, and bars. And despite the increase of businesses, Harper says Sunny Point’s success is largely due to their commitment to the neighborhood.

“I worked in a neighborhood restaurant in Atlanta and really felt like they were the way to go,” she says. “Once you get that core of regulars, you really become a member of the community.”

Each month, the restaurant uses tabletop donation envelopes to raise money for local organizations like Friends of the Blue Ridge Parkway, which Sunny Point then matches up to 20 percent.

Secret Sandwich Society’s flagship restaurant in Fayetteville, W.Va., also supports local organizations and events like the New River Gorge Craggin’ Classic, the Gauley Fest Animal Race, and the annual Video Boater Challenge. In November, they joined a number of Fayetteville businesses in supporting the inaugural “Boulder Bounty” by putting up $500 with another local business for a combined $1,000 on one of the Gorge’s 10 toughest and unconquered boulders.

“If you send the boulder and show it on social media, you win the bounty. The response has been crazy,” says Secret Sandwich Society owner Lewis Rhinehart. “There are international climbers in town right now trying to get these bounties. This is what Fayetteville is about and it’s what West Virginia is becoming about.”

Outdoor Company

Diamond Brand Outdoors

Asheville, N.C.

What started in 1964 as a simple 900-square-foot glorified garage has now expanded into more than just a brick-and-mortar retail space. Diamond Brand helps its customers not only gear up for their adventures but also learn how to recreate safely in the outdoors through regular clinics and the annual Asheville Outdoor Show.

FINALISTS

Endless River Adventures, N.C.

Blue Ridge Mountain Guides, Va.

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Outdoor Shop

River Rock Outfitter

Fredericksburg, Va.

“Adventure in any direction,” with the help of River Rock’s seasoned staff. Opened in November of 2014, the family owned outfitter is located right on the Rappahannock River where the company offers water-based instructional courses in flatwater and whitewater paddling.

FINALISTS

Endless River Adventures, N.C.

REI, Various locations

Fly Fishing Outfitter

Fly Fishing the Smokies

Gatlinburg, Tenn., Bryson City N.C.

Float or wade, walleye or smallmouth, winter or summer, these guides can do it all. If you need another adventure to add to your bucket list, tack on the outfitter’s Smokies Backcountry Trip, a two-day, one-night backpacking and fly fishing trip into the heart of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

FINALISTS

Endless River Adventures, N.C.

Mossy Creek Fly Fishing, Va.

Running Shop

Fleet Feet Sports

Various locations

From the outside, Fleet Feet might look like any old specialty running store, but talk to the staff behind the counter and you’ll see what makes this fast-growing chain of franchises one of the most respected in the industry. Fleet Feet works hard to introduce non-runners to the sport through inclusive clinics and non-intimidating group runs.

FINALISTS

Foot RX, N.C.

Ragged Mountain Running, Va.

Bike Shop

New River Bikes

Fayetteville, W.Va.

Located in the old Fayetteville feed store, New River Bikes embodies everything we love about Fayetteville—the quirk, the character, the shirt-off-your-back hospitality. The shop’s owner Andy Forron is like a walking encyclopedia when it comes to any and all forms of riding, be it mountain biking, road riding, or bikepacking. Just don’t tell him you like Strava.

FINALISTS

Motion Makers, N.C.

Blue Ridge Cyclery, Va.

Environmental Organization

Southern Environmental Law Center

Charlottesville, Va.

Now more than ever, it’s hard to keep track of the numerous threats and policy reversals that risk damaging the places we love. That’s why the Southern Environmental Law Center exists, to be not only a resource for concerned citizens in the Southeast but also the warriors who defend those without a voice—our water, air, mountains, forests—in the courtroom.

FINALISTS

Trout Unlimited, Various locations

Friends of Rappahannock, Va.

Raft Guide Company

Nantahala Outdoor Center

Bryson City, N.C.

When Payson Kennedy and his wife Aurelia opened the NOC in 1972, they never envisioned their outfitter would become one of the most recognized breeding grounds for competitive paddlers in the world, but that’s just what it’s become. Raft guides here do more than push rubber. They’re well rounded paddlers of all disciplines, and 22 of the NOC’s staff have gone on to be Olympians.

FINALISTS

Endless River Adventures, N.C.

ACE Adventure Resort, W.Va.

Climbing Guide

Seneca Rocks Climbing School

Seneca Rocks, W.Va.

Named for that iconic flake of rock that rises high above the community, Seneca Rocks Climbing School has been showing both new and veteran climbers the ropes since 1971 when the school and climbing shop were based out of the back of a Volkswagen bus.

FINALISTS

Blue Ridge Mountain Guides, Va.

Fox Mountain Guides, N.C.

Climbing Gym

River Rock Climbing

Roanoke, Va.

For the fourth year in a row, River Rock has taken the cake as Best Climbing Gym in the region. Their facility is impressive (and conveniently located next to a taproom), offering a diverse mix of beginner and expert problems, hands-on instruction, youth teams, and yoga classes to balance out all of that upper body training.

FINALISTS

Peak Experiences, Va.

Climb Max/Smoky Mountain Adventure Center, N.C.

Ski Resort

Snowshoe Mountain Resort

Snowshoe, W.Va.

Few places in the Southeast rival Snowshoe when it comes to natural snowfall. The mountaintop resort can receive upwards of 180 inches, and with 251 acres and 57 trails to explore, it’s a big kid’s literal winter wonderland.

FINALISTS

Wintergreen Resort, Va.

Beech Mountain Resort, N.C.

Après Spot

Wild Wolf Brewing

Nellysford, Va.

Just a short drive away from the Appalachian Trail and Crabtree Falls, Wild Wolf is almost too conveniently located to pass up after a day on the trail. Their food portions are hearty, not to mention locally sourced, and with 13 beers on tap, it’s easy to find a brew that works for you.

FINALISTS

Stumptown Ales, W.Va.

Appalachian Mountain Brewing, N.C.

Yoga Studio

Asheville Community Yoga

Asheville, N.C.

Paying $20 for a yoga class seems to be the standard fare in larger cities, but it’s that pay-to-practice philosophy that pushes away the people who need yoga most. Asheville Community Yoga is a nonprofit that offers yoga classes on a donation basis. In 2016, the center crowdfunded over $150,000 to purchase their building outright, a testament to the tribe that supports this community-minded yoga facility.

FINALISTS

Uttara Yoga, Va.

Now Yoga, Va.

Zip Line

Adventures on the Gorge

Fayetteville, W.Va.

Humans might not be able to fly, but they can zip line, and short of donning a wingsuit and jumping off a cliff, this is the next best (and safest) thing. Sail 200 feet above ground on a mile-and-a-half course, where you’ll zip through the trees at a speed of up to 65 miles per hour.

FINALISTS

The Gorge Zipline, N.C.

Navitat, N.C.

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Farmer’s Market

WNC Farmer’s Market

Asheville, N.C.

Open year-round, seven days a week, this centrally located farmer’s market was first opened in 1977 and has since become an impressive facility over 38,000 square feet in size. Aside from vendors selling items like local fruits, vegetables, preserves, and crafts, the market also houses a deli that whips up delicious sandwiches.

FINALISTS

Charlottesville Farmer’s Market, Va.

Downtown Roanoke Farmer’s Market, Va.

App for the Outdoors

Strava

Strava’s ability to connect, inform, and motivate athletes of all disciplines is changing the way we go outside and play. Athletes can track mileage and elevation profiles, test themselves on timed segments against a leaderboard of area athletes, and join challenges to give their training the extra edge it needs.

FINALISTS

Mountain Hub

Yonder

Outdoor Adventure Automobile

Toyota Tacoma

Pop a camper shell on the bed of this do-it-all adventuremobile and you’ve got yourself a home-on-wheels.

FINALISTS

Subaru Outback

Jeep Wrangler

Up-and-Coming Outdoor Business

River Rock Outfitter

Fredericksburg, Va.

Born of a love between Keith and April Peterson, two like-minded, adventurous souls from Louisiana, River Rock’s mission is to provide an accessible and unassuming experience for all levels of outdoor enthusiasts.

FINALISTS

Gearu Outdoor Rentals

UOU Outdoor Guides, RVA

Long Live the Independent Retailer

Now more than ever, independent outdoor retailers have to figure out ways to stay relevant and contend with the pressures of the Internet. Though it might seem like an uphill battle, the challenge is presenting shops the opportunity to be more than a retail space.

“Our old location was really just four walls and the epitome of old school retail,” says Diamond Brand Outdoors’ Marketing Manager Chris Bubenik. “It wasn’t a destination necessarily. But when we moved, we rethought our place and redesigned it as a space where customers could really immerse themselves in the experience.”

The Asheville shop added some special touches, like complimentary coffee available right when you walk in the door. It also created “personal shoppers,” who customers could set up appointments with, before or after business hours, to get one-on-one advice and attention. All of that, combined with free monthly clinics and community support initiatives totaling in $70,000 of funds raised for over 60 local organizations, has really allowed Diamond Brand to become a mainstay of the Asheville outdoor community.

“We have always felt respect and support from the Asheville area, so we look to it as a responsibility on our part to put that support back out there and make things happen,” says Bubenik.

Up the road at Motion Makers Bicycle Shop, owner Kent Cranford feels a similar sense of responsibility not only in supporting local events and group rides but also in being a voice for the area’s cycling community.

“It’s important to maintain the riding we have now, but we want to promote and grow the opportunities we have to get people to ride bikes,” says Cranford. “Our old customer base was people who were already in the cycling community, whereas now, we have an amazing amount of first-time cyclists that we’re selling stuff to. Advocating for continued increase of greenway miles is going to be super important in the future.”

“You’re really looked at as an expert,” says New River Bikes owner Andy Forron. “At the bike shop, you get to see firsthand what people want to ride, whether it’s singletrack or rail-trails. It’s like a research project. So then, when those planning meetings and efforts start in town, we already have a lot of firsthand knowledge as to what people want to ride.”

Forron says that, though the retail side of the business might dwindle in years to come, he feels pretty confident that the independent bike shop will continue to be a hub for information, service, and even socializing.

“It’s almost like a bar,” he says of his Fayetteville-based shop. “There’s almost always someone just sitting in here. And even though people have apps like Strava or Ride With GPS, they still come in and ask where to ride. All of that local knowledge, that’s still at the bike shop, and so is the service. The Internet is not going to fix your bike.”

“We’ve lived in states all over the country and no matter where we moved, the first place we always went was the local outfitter,” says River Rock Outfitter co-owner April Peterson. “They knew about the fun things to do in the area, and the moment you step into any outfitter, you instantly feel like you have friends. That alone speaks to why independent outfitters will always have a place in communities.”

Since opening in 2014, River Rock has helped Fredericksburg, Va., residents rediscover and preserve the town’s incredible natural resources. Peterson sits on the Main Street Exploratory Committee as the board’s Vice President, and she says it was important to her and her husband that the outfitter be involved in the revitalization of Main Street from the very beginning.

“Retail is not dead, and you can see that in the power of Main Street communities and downtowns everywhere,” she says. “We partner with local businesses, breweries, restaurants, coffee shops, and even other retail spaces, because I believe at the end of the day that there’s not a finite pie. We’re not all fighting for the same crumbs. We can make that pie bigger and bigger and we can each have a bigger slice.”

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