Capital Cities: The Top Adventure Hubs in Appalachia

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Looking for the best adventure hubs in Appalachia? Memorize your capitals and then listen to a local. They know what makes their towns tick. Here are the capitals of hiking, running, biking, paddling, fly fishing, and climbing towns across the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic according to their most adventurous citizens.   

Hiking

Damascus, Va.

Jeff Patrick has worked at Mt. Rogers Outfitter for nearly three decades. He sums up his hometown’s love for trail succinctly: “Hiking isn’t a sport. It’s a way of life.” That’s apparent every May when Trail Days comes to town. This three-day festival celebrates hiking with workshops, music, arts, and even a parade. As for actually humping a pack, Damascus has immediate access to high-profile trails, like the Appalachian Trail and the Virginia Creeper Trail, and nearby Mount Rogers Recreation Area harbors 400 miles of trail. While Damascus is certainly a popular destination, it is not short on authentic Appalachian flair. “The best spots? I wouldn’t tell you!” says Patrick. “I’m not gonna butter your toast. That’s what your momma’s for.”   

 Charlottesville, Virginia 

Gear salesman, and trail builder Mike Meintzchel raised two kids in Charlottesville. They spent countless days hiking around the Blue Ridge Parkway. “Everything is within a half-hour reach,” says Meintzschel. “You can get out in the middle of nowhere and have a really productive weekend.” Even when hikers can’t make a 20-minute drive to 500 miles of trail in Shenandoah National Park, they can get their fix downtown. The city has developed urban green space, including the popular Rivanna trails. Great Outdoor Provisions hosts weekly meetups that even include historical hikes. “They’re connecting neighborhoods and making easier access for families,” Meintzschel says.

Hot Springs, N.C.

Hot Springs is an anticipated stop on an Appalachian thru-hike. It has a quaint downtown, a beautiful river, a few good pubs, and only 645 residents. While small, Hot Springs is colorful. “There are some characters in town,” says Dan Gallagher, part-owner of Bluff Mountain Outfitters. From the downtown you can a hike a number loops and side trails, such as Lover’s Leap Ridge. South of town, Max Patch is an iconic bald with stunning 360-degree views. Bluff Mountain, Laurel River Trail, and the Van Loop Trail are less-popular but equally rewarding hikes. “If you come downtown, I’ll give you a free map,” says Gallagher.

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BIKING

Davis, W.Va.

“There is such a history here,” says Rob Stull, owner of Blackwater Bikes in Davis. “We just had the Revenge of the Rattlesnake for the 34th year.”  Infamous for races, festivals, and rugged riding, the Canaan Valley is steeped in mountain biking lore. “There aren’t many places like it,” says Stull. Riders can access hundreds of miles of singletrack from downtown. The surrounding wilderness includes six different land entities with singletrack. “A lot of it’s backcountry riding,” Stull explains. “Rooty, rocky, and muddy. It’s not something you find just anywhere.” Hellbender Burritos and Sirianni’s dish up tasty post-ride grub, and nearby Thomas has two breweries. While Davis is growing, it’s kept its soul. “We’re still a little rough around the edges,” Stull says, “That’s what I like about it.”

Brevard, N.C.

Professional downhill racer Neko Mulally chose Brevard, North Carolina as his home four seasons ago. For this world-class athlete it proved to be the perfect training ground. “The trails are so good,” Mullaly says. “They’re natural, raw trails. A lot of places are built for beginners, but [in Brevard] there’s still natural, raw riding, and the weather is great. We have enough altitude, so summer isn’t too hot and winter’s not too cold.” Mulally,  who’s sponsored by Brevard-based brewer Oskar Blues, says the culture is as rich as the riding. “We’ve got a couple good bike shops and Carmichael Training Systems out of The Hub. They’re bringing in camps with pros and high-level amateurs. The vibe here is good. I was just driving to the hardware store and saw a couple friends on the bike path. Everybody’s got a bike on their car.”

Joe Driver, Megan Hutton, and Dan Ennis ride Pisgah National Forest in Transylvania County.

Ellijay, G.A. 

“We’ve got a great variety of trail around here,” says Kate Gates, co-founder of Mulberry Gap Mountain Bike Getaway. “It’s flowy singletrack. It’s a really fun style.” Bear Creek, Stanley Gap, Fort Mountain State Park, and the Pinhoti Trail, with its many appendages, round out a lineup of top-notch options. “The Cohutta National Forest is right in our backyard,” explains Gates. “There’s great overlooks, swimming holes, and waterfalls.” Additionally, Ellijay hosts numerous road races and is home to a hip bike shop, Cartecay Bikes, and a handsome, little tavern called River Street.

   

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RUNNING

Chattanooga, Tenn.

“We’ve got trails galore to run on, from easy trails through the parks to more burly technical mountain runs,” says ultra runner Eric Loffland. “We’re surrounded by mountains. With the Chattanooga River dividing the city, the views are awesome.” As a sales rep at Fast Break Athletics, Loffland selflessly directs visitors to his favorite spots: Lookout Mountain, Sunset Rock from the Bluff Trail, Snoopers Rock via the Cumberland Trail, or the Chickamauga National Battlefield. “You’ve got history, a beautiful trail, and great views,” he says.  Loffland moved to Chattanooga from Athens, Georgia to take advantage of the city’s thriving ultra-marathon scene. In the last four and a half years, he has seen the city thrive. “Every time I turn around there’s another brewer. Beer seems to bring runners and cyclists together.” His personal favorites: Heaven and Ale and Hutton and Smith.

Asheville, N.C.

Asheville runner Joe Quinlan loves running and living in Asheville for a multitude of reasons. First, there’s the people. “It’s a very accepting, open community,” says Quinlan. “There is an overwhelming friendliness, regardless of where you’re at in your talent or experience in running.” Then, of course, there’s the access. “There are so many trails no matter which way you go. It’s very humbling. There are endless trails that are very steep that take you to some remote peaks that give you a sense of how small you are and how big our world is.”  Did he mention racing? “What I really enjoy about the racing is how there is a different race for every level. There’s the Rock to Rock, Grand Further 25k, The Quest for the Crest. There is a 100-miler in April, Asheville’s first 100-miler. It’s going to be an incredible race.”

Asheville, North Carolina, USA at twilight.

Lynchburg, Va.

For Alexis Thomas, a mother of four children, running in Lynchburg has been an inspiration. Despite zero experience in collegiate or even high school racing, she started a running club in 2013, The Blue Ridge Trail Runners. “I don’t have a history in running,” Thomas confesses. “Getting in with the people and the races totally changed my perception. If it was not for the people, I wouldn’t have kept running.” Thomas also loves Lynchburg’s trail networks, especially Candler Mountain, Riverside Park, and Blackwater Creek. Every Monday and Wednesday the Blue Ridge Trail Runners meet at any one of scores of trailheads to pound dirt and build community. Lynchburg also hosts a variety of races, including a gutsy Lynchburg Ultra Series.

PADDLING

Friendsville, Md.

“What’s great is we are right at the upper Youghiogheny,” says paddler Ian Wingert. “It’s a pretty central location. We are 30 minutes from Ohiopyle and the Lower Yough, 40 minutes from the Blackwater River and Red Creek—class IV and V whitewater. We are also near the Cheat, an ultra classic, big-water run and Big Sandy, a big-time-classic class five.” Friendsville is sleepy, but Wingert and a core group of local paddlers can always hit Ken’s Irish Pub or Water Street Cafe after a run. “People are usually hanging out there,” Wingert says. For outfitting or a raft trip, Wilderness Voyageurs Outfitters has a stellar reputation.

Asheville, N.C.

Chris Mclain is living the dream. He’s a sales rep at High Wire Brewery in downtown Asheville, and he’s paddling the Green River Narrows constantly. “That’s why I’m here,” he declares. Mclain cut his teeth seven years ago paddling the French Broad, the Upper Green, the Nantahala, and the Pigeon. Today he’s after consequential runs, like Raven’s Fork, the Linville River, and of course the Green. “In the Asheville area we have everything from beginner to expert. It doesn’t matter what your skill level is, there is a run for you. We have the full spectrum here. It’s also an outstanding place to develop as a paddler. There’s a lot of resources. There are so many great breweries and bars and outstanding food. For me Asheville has it all.”

Fayetteville, W.Va.

“There is always something to paddle. If the New River gets too low, the Gauley runs all the time,” explains West Virginia native Shane Groves. “Proximity is the big thing that separates Fayetteville from all other destinations. There are a ton of paddlers here. We have a core group of paddlers, but a lot of young guys are getting into it. Fayetteville’s vibe is down-to-earth, not much pretense to it. Sometimes random groups from Quebec come down. There really isn’t a bad season.” Groves, a local math teacher, likes to hit Pies and Pints (started by a former raft guide) or Secret Sandwich Society after a long day of paddling. “A lot of people are coming to Fayetteville to eat. It’s become a food destination too. West Virginia is such a quirky state and then you have this outdoor mecca in the middle of it. It’s so cool.”

 

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CLIMBING

Chattanooga, Tenn.

Chattanooga’s position on the Cumberland Plateau means an abundance of routes. Local Drexel Bakker says there is a rock for every climber in every discipline. “There’s lots of easy areas, places that are super-accessible. Stone Fort at Mott Lake Golf Course is just about the easiest day of outdoor climbing. There’s also back-in-the-outdoors, adventure-style climbing. The rock quality is phenomenal.” Dayton Pocket is a popular urban bouldering locale. Rock Town and Horse Pens offer remote, world-class bouldering within an hour’s drive. And when summertime temperatures soar, Chattanooga climbers take refuge at one of three downtown climbing gyms. Plus, there are hip amenities, like The Crash Pad, an adventure-focused hostel, and their neighbor The Flying Squirrel Bar. “I’ve been to other places like Boulder and people here are climbing just as hard but there is not as much ego,” Bakker explains.

Boone, N.C.

Marshall Gilbert came to Boone for school, but rock climbing is what made him stay. “It has the small town feel. There is this really cool, tight-knit community here.” Gilbert, who works at Center 45 climbing gym, frequents Grayson Highlands, Moore’s Wall, The Buckeye Knob, Linville Gorge, Blowing Rock, or Highway 221, a bouldering circuit just south of town. Above all, he loves Boone’s hidden climbing gems. “A lot of places have been developed, but who knows how many places have been overlooked. There’s so much that draws people,” Gilbert says. When he’s not climbing, he is introducing kids to the sport through camps. When he’s thirsty, he’ll swing by Appalachian Mountain Brewery, which supports his kids camp with fundraisers.

Fayetteville, W.Va.

Kenny Parker opened climbing outfitter Water Stone Outdoors in 1994. “The climbing was always here; it was just in the background,” says Parker. “The quality – you hear it again and again. This is the best rock in the world. There’s just miles of it. That’s what distinguishes it. As far as cragging, you are not going to beat this place.” The New River Gorge, The Meadow River Gorge, and Summersville Lake, all within 20 minutes, have superb cliffs. “The beauty of Fayetteville is you can basically go out your back door,” says Parker. “It’s absolutely a welcoming place. The big ego thing doesn’t work here. One of the big selling points is it is still a very affordable place. There was a never a housing bubble.”

FLY FISHING

Brevard, N.C.

Carlton Murrey’s office window overlooks the Davidson River, one of America’s top 100 trout streams. “It gets a lot of attention from visitors as well as locals,” says Murrey, associate director of the Cradle of Forestry. “It’s a very technical trout stream. The fish are smart. Stealth and presentation are important. Local knowledge can be very valuable.” The Davidson’s stocked lower sections are good places to hook your dinner. Near Looking Glass Rock, catch-and-release anglers can wrestle monster fish that gorge on pellets from the hatchery. Intrepid individuals can push back into side streams where wild rainbows and wild brook trout are more aggressive. Fishing aside, the town is ideal for all stripes of adventurers as well as families. “Brevard is a wonderful place to live. Pisgah Forest, The Parkway, Dupont, Gorges, and Gorges State Park are all incredible. Brevard has a lot of culture in the downtown area, including the Music Center and the many top-notch restaurants.”

Jeff Tyler paddle boards near Hooker Falls in Dupont State forest

Blue Ridge, Ga.

Fannin County is the official fly fishing capital of Georgia. Gene Rutowski says Blue Ridge merits such a distinction. He’s been guiding trips out of Blue Ridge for 14 years through his company Fly Fish Blue Ridge. “It’s paradise,” he says. “People from all over the world love coming here because it’s pristine, beautiful water, and great fish. We’ve got all four species of trout.” The Toccoa River, Rock Creek, Stanley Creek, and Noontootla Creek are all prime public fisheries. There’s also a wealth of private streams that guides can access. As for the town: “It’s really come a long way,” Rutowski says. “It has a lot of good restaurants, a lot of good shops. It’s awesome.”

Harrisonburg, Va.

“There is so much fishing here it’s kind of crazy.” Bob Cramer has been fishing Western Virginia for over fifty years. Thirty years ago he started Mossy Creek Fly Fishing but sold the business in order to spend more time on the river. The shop still exists and now occupies a 200-year-old colonial house in downtown Harrisonburg. Cramer says the secret of Harrisonburg’s success is in its geography. “We have a ton of public land. To the east in the Shenandoah Valley, we have 40 wild trout streams. To the west, George Washington National Forest encompasses 1.3 million acres, and that entire forest has stocked trout and wild trout. Western Virginia’s underground caverns supply countless springs with cold, crystal water. “It’s the perfect environment for trout year round,” Cramer explains.  “We have so much diversity, and we have a really long season. There is something to fish for year round.”

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MULTISPORT

Roanoke, Va.

“We are fortunate to be surrounded by mountains on all sides,” says James Revercomb, owner of Roanoke Mountain Adventures. “If you don’t have time to drive 30 minutes for a morning session, there are trail systems within the city limits. You can ride downtown and be on singletrack in 15 minutes. Then there’s the Roanoke River Gorge or Carvin’s Cove. There’s a lot of close access for everyday stuff.” Revercomb lived in Jackson Hole for three years before returning to start Roanoke Mountain Adventures. “It’s certainly changed for the better,” he says of his hometown. “A lot of locals have known about the outdoor scene. We are seeing it do a lot for the city. It’s affordable and it’s livable. I spent a lot of time outdoors growing up, but I never realized how much we have close by. There’s this great variety.”

Roanoke, Virginia, USA downtown skyline at dusk.

Bryson City, N.C.

Graham County EMT Hamilton Boxberger spent six summers working in Bryson City as a raft guide and wilderness counselor. When he wasn’t paddling down the upper Nantahala, he was bouldering behind the train tracks, swimming in Lake Fontana, or riding singletrack at Tsali State Park. “There’s a ton of stuff to do,” Boxberger says. “It depended on what I was feeling. I really enjoyed the river or being out hiking. Deep Creek is my favorite place to run. Downtown Bryson City is a cool place to hang out. They’ve got quite a lot to offer.” The Road to Nowhere a spooky tunnel northwest of town remains one of Boxberger’s best haunts.  “There’s a lot of hiking into the Smokies from there. I don’t think people realize that’s a trailhead. It’s good access.”

Knoxville, Tenn.

Legacy Parks Director Carol Evans can churn 25 miles on her bike, go for a paddle on the Tennessee River, and still arrive home on time for dinner. “You can do it all from the heart of the city,” says Evans. “It allows you to not reserve your play time to the weekend. You can get out everyday.” As Knoxville’s popularity grows, more urban trail systems are popping up, including purpose-built singletrack with trailside amenities. “We’re seeing the restaurants spring up where the trails are. The city is working on making connections, connecting the urban with the wilderness. Market Square has about 12 restaurants and is pet friendly.” In Knoxville’s surrounding areas, options for recreation grow exponentially. “You can drive 10 miles to House Mountain, the highest point in the county. There’s also Seven Islands State Birding Park and Big South Fork National River. An hour south are the Smokies and TVA lakes. We are surrounded by a lot of state and national parks, which is pretty unique for a city.”

ravine and sunbeams shining through branches of trees

UP-AND-COMING

Johnson City, Tenn.

When whitewater boater and fly fisherman Matt Whitson was just 23 years old he opened his own outfitters.  After two years of business, he says, “It’s going pretty well. I saw an opportunity here in my hometown. An outdoor shop was something the area needed.” With the Appalachian Trail just 15 minutes away and easy access to the Nolichucky Gorge, Watauga Gorge, the South Holston River, Whitson says Johnson City is fast becoming an adventure hub. “It’s grown quite a bit the past five years. There’s a little bit for everybody down here.” One of the most exciting developments is Tannery Knobs, a state-of-the-art mountain bike park located close to the downtown.

Slade, K.Y. 

The Red River Gorge and its climbing community are the backbone of Slade’s outdoor scene. That, however, doesn’t mean Slade is a one-trick pony. River trips, swimming holes, jumping rocks, caverns, fishing, waterfalls, and friendly people make Slade a dynamic town. Danielle Braden, who helps run her family’s river guiding outfit Red River Adventure, says Creation Falls is a must see. “It’s absolutely beautiful. A lot of people go there and propose to their girlfriends.” Climbing dirtbags hang at Torrent Falls Outfitters and Miguel’s Pizza, where you can order a pie, buy gear, or rent a cabin all at the same site.  “It’s grown but it keeps its small-business charm,” says Braden. “It has hidden jewels. It has this rustic charm. It’s really about the people.”

State College, P.A.

The home of Penn State University is young, vibrant, and increasingly crusty. You can ski, road bike, mountain bike, fish, hike, or boulder, and be back on time for the Nittany Lions’ kickoff on Saturday. Grant Corman, manager at The Bicycle Shop, says he’s been watching State College grow as an outdoor community. “The thing about Pennsylvania is our quality and lengthy seasons. We have Rothrock State Forest four miles away with over 100 miles of singletrack. We’ve got tons of public land that is at our disposal, a few areas with bouldering options, world-class fly fishing, lakes for kayaking. There’s four microbreweries in town and others nearby, and a distiller.”  Last year Corman cycled through the winter, and if the snow comes the local ski resort is a good practice slope for Seven Springs or Blue Mountain.

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