Have you ever discovered a band before it hit the big time? It can be a conflicting find. Should you tell all and spread the word, or tuck the artist away in the recesses of your playlist, your own little secret? Stumbling upon the next Asheville is kinda the same. Lucky for you, we’re not in the business of keeping secrets. Steer away from the throngs of tourists this summer and discover the adventure in these four mountain towns. With thriving art scenes, backdoor adventures, and nightlife culture to boot, the only thing missing here is you. What are you waiting for?
Cradled by the Blue Ridge Mountains to the east and the Allegheny Mountains to the west, the city of Staunton is a literal crossroads of adventure. Its downtown district is quaint and quiet with rolling hills that seamlessly fade to farmland in a matter of miles, which makes it even more surprising that the city is just minutes from the I-81/I-64 interchange.
It’s precisely that proximity to low-traffic, country roads that attracted Black Dog Bikes owner James Burris to settle in Staunton back in 2004. At the time, says Burris, Staunton was mostly known for its art scene and historical attractions like the American Shakespeare Center’s Blackfriars Playhouse and the Frontier Culture Museum of Virginia. While the city’s rich history in both arenas had certainly provided a solid foundation, Burris saw potential elsewhere—namely, a lot of cyclists and no bike shop.
“I stayed because it was easy to get into the mountains,” says Burris. “It’s funny that places like Asheville are known for their outdoor recreation because when you go there, you sit in traffic. You’re in a city. In Staunton, we’re close to the Blue Ridge Parkway, Skyline Drive, Shenandoah National Park and the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest, but it’s totally a small town.”
Now, Burris’ bike shop is at the heart of Staunton’s outdoor community. Group road rides leave from the shop every Tuesday and Thursday at 6pm, and a women’s only ride meets at Queen City Brewing Company on Wednesdays. Each ride brings out 15 cyclists or more, and with bike-specific events like the Lee Warren Queen City Century and the Shenandoah Fall Foliage Bike Festival bringing in out-of-town cyclists from near and far, the momentum only continues to grow.
Play: Road biking outside of Staunton is a lot like how we imagine touring around Europe’s countryside would be—sprawling farmscapes nestled against a backdrop of rolling blue ridgelines. Short of a few farm trucks and Sunday drivers, you’ll mostly have the roads to yourself. Check out shenandoahbike.org for some suggested routes in the area. Mountain bikers can get a quick singletrack fix at Montgomery Hall Park before embarking on another adventure like hiking to Elliot Knob, the highest point in Augusta County, or fishing for rainbow and brown trout on the Maury River. Cap off the evening with late night jams at Byers Street Bistro or free jazz performances every Thursday night from July through August at Gypsy Hill Park.
Stay: Downtown Staunton is loaded with bed and breakfasts like the Frederick House (rates starting at $140 per night) and The Bard’s Nest ($145 per night). Visitors can find more rustic accommodations at the Staunton/Walnut Hills KOA (rates starting at $22 per night) or the Shenandoah Valley Campground (rates starting at $36 per night). Camping on Elliot Knob’s grassy summit is highly recommended and has the most affordable rate around town—free.
Eat: Start the day off right with a cup of coffee from Blue Mountain Coffees. For a casual lunch, head over to Cranberry’s Grocery and Eatery, where you can even stock up on all of your health foods and products. Newtown Baking is another laidback lunch spot, and from Wednesday thru Saturday the bakery opens for dinner hours and serves up some savory wood-fired pizzas (order the #1, just do it). For a multicourse meal with a remarkably chill vibe, make a reservation at The Shack, where Chef Ian Boden is cranking out some incredible locally sourced and inspired dishes. Visiting craft beer and wine lovers will not be disappointed in Staunton. The city alone has six craft breweries and six vineyards within a 30-mile radius of town.
Back in the late 1800s, Johnstown was a hub of activity. As the country’s leading producer of steel, the city helped lay the way for westward expansion. The majority of steel rails that constituted the country’s first railroad tracks were forged right in Johnstown (the first railroad tunnel, Staple Bend Tunnel, still stands just four miles outside of town).
Now, of course, only steel mills and outbuildings remain from the city’s industry legacy. But thanks to a new collaborative initiative called LIFT Johnstown, the city is working to harness that storied past and weave it with the threads of a more progressive future, one that embraces the arts, entrepreneurship, and of course, outdoor recreation.
“There are a number of things I love about Johnstown,” says Johnstown native and LIFT Johnstown coordinator Brad Clemenson. “It’s a small enough city that we joke about rush minute instead of rush hour. The cost of living is very reasonable, the cultural and arts organizations and music venues are fun, but the thing I like most about it is all of the outdoor recreation and beauty that surrounds us. If you go out of Johnstown in any direction, you are going to go through or over some pretty big mountains.”
Engulfed by the Laurel Highlands to the west and the Allegheny Mountains to the east, Johnstown is undoubtedly a “mountain” town. Look at any aerial image of the city and you’ll see a vibrant downtown (recognized as a national historic district) fronted on all sides by lush green mountains and bisected by the Conemaugh River.
Historically, the largest tourist turnout to Johnstown is Thunder in the Valley, an annual motorcycle rally that brings thousands of riders into town. But in the spring, the city is flooded with enthusiasts of a different sort—whitewater paddlers. The annual Stonycreek Rendezvous, organized by the Benscreek Canoe Club, celebrates the whitewater releases on the Stonycreek River, a fabulous class III run that flows into the Conemaugh. With an in-town play park and more than 90 miles of class II+ whitewater within a 30-minute driving distance of town, paddlers are no stranger to Johnstown, and you shouldn’t be either.
Play: History buff? You’ve come to the right place. Take a quick ride along the Staple Bend Tunnel Trail to see the country’s first railroad tunnel. Along the way you’ll see remnants of the Allegheny Portage Railroad, central Pennsylvania’s first mountain-traversing railroad. Step up the pedaling on any number of mountain bike trails located within a 45-minute drive of Johnstown. The intermediate-advanced rider hungry for technical rock gardens and gorgeous western Pennsylvania ridgetop riding should check out Forbes State Forest. While certainly not easy, the road riding around Johnstown is also exceptional, and out-of-towners should take a look at the routes available on the Laurel Highlands On & Off Road Bicycling Association, or LHORBA’s, website at lhorba.org. Paddlers can go to benscreekcanoeclub.com to see a listing of the 2017 Quemahoning scheduled whitewater releases for the Stonycreek. Though the bulk of the paddling season is in the spring, wet fall weather can keep the reservoir levels high enough for continued releases well into October.
Stay: For reservoir-side camping, head to the Quemahoning Family Recreation Area. Rates are an affordable $15 per night for tent sites, though campers can rent out cabins and RV sites for $10-20 more. The Meadowbrook School Bed & Breakfast is a nice alternative to car camping and at $85 per night (cash or check only) provides all of the at-home comforts you need without breaking the bank.
Eat: Named after the historic Johnstown Flood of 1889, the Flood City Café is a relaxed place to grab coffee and breakfast before you head out for the day. With fresh bread and homemade soups available in the afternoon, it’s not a bad spot to stop for lunch either. For a truly unique dining experience, head up Johnstown’s infamous Inclined Plane, an 869.5-foot funicular, or vertical railroad, that was originally used to transport people, horses, and wagons to the hilltop community of Westmont. Visitors can still ride the incline to the top, where Asiagos Tuscan Italian is located. Johnstown’s ethnic history is deep-seated and extremely diverse, which makes the Italian restaurant more authentic than you might initially think. Plus, when was the last time you dined high up on a mountain overlooking a city? It’s probably been a minute. Post-dinner tunes and brews can be found at Press Bistro conveniently located right downtown.