Readers pick the best places to live and play in the Blue Ridge
The Blue Ridge holds an abundance of vibrant cultural hubs nestled up against pristine wild lands that are ripe for adventure, and this year we once again asked readers to pick their favorites. Thousands of votes were cast in our annual Top Adventure Towns contest, as 100 editor-selected nominees were whittled down to winners in four categories: tiny, small, medium, and large towns. Combining world-class outdoor recreation, stunning scenery, and thriving local businesses, these locations are some of best places to live, visit, and play in the region. Read on to learn more about this year’s winners.
Winner: Roanoke, Virginia (pop. 98,865)
A Top Adventure Towns champ three of the last five years, it’s no secret that the Star City has a wealth of outdoor opportunities. That opportunity is among the most accessible in the region, too. The city’s rapidly expanding trail network just surpassed over 100 miles of trails, including the fully wheelchair accessible Roanoke River Greenway, adding accessibility to a region notorious for its ruggedness.
“Roanoke is one of those places where you can get a true introduction to the mountains, and see what being in nature really looks like,” said Xavier Duckett, who grew up in town and now serves on the Roanoke Outside Advisory Board. Duckett moved back to Roanoke in 2016, and soon after founded the nonprofit Humble Hustle, Inc., which helps Roanoke’s underrepresented communities get into the outdoors.
While staples like the uber-photographed McAfee Knob and Mill Mountain are famously scenic, Roanokers rave about lesser-known gems like Carvins Cove, a 12,000-acre municipal park that provides opportunities for boating and fishing, and over 60 miles of mountain biking trails. The cove is a main reason Roanoke has become something of a Mecca for mountain bikers in recent years.
Within city limits, Roanoke’s bustling culture scene goes together with the outdoors. While the up-and-coming Wasena neighborhood has River Rock Climbing Gym and gear and consignment shop Roanoke Mountain Adventures, it also includes local food favorites like RND Coffee and Bloom Restaurant & Wine Bar. The city also has plans for an in-river kayak park near Wasena, adding unique accessibility to the area’s top notch paddling opportunities.
One of the most well-known adventure hubs in the region, Asheville is popular for good reason. World-class mountain biking is nearby in the Pisgah National Forest, while hikers escape to favorites like the Art Loeb Trail.
For post-adventure fun, the city is flooded with killer breweries and live music venues that bring in a steady stream of national acts.
Set just east of the Blue Ridge Mountains and right along the James River, Lynchburg has access to 40 miles of urban trails, including the RiverWalk trail, which runs right through downtown. Another hot spot is Rise Up Climbing, a large gym with top-rope and bouldering routes, known for beginner-friendly instruction.
Winner: Boone, North Carolina (pop. 18,036)
Best known as the homebase for young adventurers at Appalachian State University, Boone has long been one of the best college towns in the country for outside-minded students. But with plenty of locals who stay for the town’s access to the New River and the Linville Gorge Wilderness, Boone boasts a robust outdoor community that extends well beyond the college kids.
In fact, the community is a big part of what keeps people coming to Boone. “The things that make Boone special are the people who work to make it special,” said Kristian Jackson, who teaches outdoor education at App State and has lived in Boone since 2005. Jackson praises the town’s many small business owners, like those at Booneshine Brewing Company, who often collaborate with local nonprofits and outdoor rec organizations.
Boone’s got plenty of options for supporting those small businesses. For coffee, folks can enjoy locally roasted beans at Bald Guy Brew just outside of town, or head into town for acclaimed hole-in-the-wall Espresso News. Boone’s food scene benefits from the culinary school at Caldwell Community College, which feeds adventurous chefs into local restaurants with a history of doing great things with Appalachian ingredients like ramps, pawpaws, and morels. Favorites among tourists and locals alike include Dan’l Boone Inn and Vidalia.
Boone is also home to a humbly prolific music scene—artists from Old Crow Medicine Show to Rainbow Kitten Surprise all have roots here. Fans can check out local bands at intimate venues like Black Cat Burrito, on bigger stages at Appalachian Theatre, or in full festival glory at Boonerang, a downtown festival designed as a homecoming for artists bred in Boone.
Charlottesville sits just east of Shenandoah National Park, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and the Appalachian Trail, and there’s plenty of recreation in town, too. The 20-mile Rivanna Trail, enjoyed by runners, hikers, and bikers, traverses the small city, while just south Walnut Creek Park has 15 miles of twisty, wooded singletrack.
Roots run deep in this border city that sits right on the Tennessee/Virginia line. It’s best known as the Birthplace of Country Music, being where the genre’s first recordings took place, and that culture is celebrated annually at the Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion festival in the fall. And this Southern town also has plenty for adventurers to explore, including the newly developed Mendota Trail and nearby Holston Lake, which holds over 7,500 acres of open water.
Winner: Bedford, Virginia (pop. 6,642)
Bedford is a town where outdoor opportunities are so numerous—world-class hiking, biking, fishing, disc golf, and ultrarunning, to name a few—one of the biggest jobs of the local Parks department is letting people know that it all exists.
“So many people don’t know what’s right in their backyard,” said outdoor events coordinator Lee Wittekind, who first explored Bedford when he moved here during the height of the pandemic. With plenty of time to be alone in the outdoors, Wittekind found more than enough material for the new gig. “My goal with this job is just to be like, ‘hey everyone, all this awesome stuff is just right here.’”
Among all that awesome stuff are the Peaks of Otter, which tower over the town’s north end. Sharp Top and Flat Top are strikingly prominent—with few other mountains in their way, the Peaks offer some of the most sweeping 360-degree views you’ll find on the east coast and are accessible via the Blue Ridge Parkway year-round.
Additionally, a burgeoning ultrarunning community has grown here, with the Hellgate 100k and the Promised Land 50k held in the mountains nearby. Mountain bikers can test their skills at Montvale Park or Falling Creek Park, where a growing number of races, many for young riders, are held from January to November.
There are plenty of options for less extreme experiences, too. Walkers can enjoy “the loop,” an unofficial route of about three miles on the north side of town that’s been a favorite of locals for generations. Disc golf has also caught on in a big way. Bedford County’s New London Tech DGC will host to Disc Golf World Championships next year, but it’s one of several great courses open to the public for play year-round.
In town, folks can find a thriving food and arts scene that rivals the big cities nearby, highlighted by local favorites like Beale’s, a woolen mill-turned brewery with good beer and even better service; ElectricCoBistro, an acclaimed eatery that hosts live music and an art gallery; and the storied Bower Center for the Arts.
This southwest Virginia small town holds the southern terminus of the Virginia Creeper Trail, a 34-mile rails-to-trails path that’s become a popular regional destination for bikers and hikers. Locals can also be found fishing and paddling at Hidden Valley Lake before grabbing beers at Sweetbar Brewing Co. or catching a show at the renowned Barter Theater.
Lexington is a quaint college burg—with Washington and Lee and the Virginia Military Institute in town—located in the southern end of the Shenandoah Valley, not far from the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest. The scenic hiking routes of House Mountain can be accessed close to downtown, while cyclists favor the 45-mile Lexington-Goshen Loop that includes a tough climb up North Mountain.
Winner: Blowing Rock, North Carolina (pop. 1,397)
With a legendary namesake, a nearby ski hill with world class terrain parks, and an in-town mountain bike pump track, it’s hard to imagine a more exciting place to be outside right now than Blowing Rock.
Named for the storied outcropping that overlooks the nearby Pisgah National Forest, Blowing Rock is a special small town surrounded by rugged terrain. Sitting atop the Eastern Continental Divide, the landscape makes it easy to get away from the crowds most WNC hotspots have gotten used to, and it also provides some of the most thrilling outdoor opportunities in the region.
Many of those opportunities lie a stone’s throw away from town. Locals rave about the Glen Burney Falls and China Creek Trails, which plunge 600 and 1,600 feet, respectively, into the Johns River Gorge, passing by waterfalls through old growth forest often described by locals as “primordial.” The best part? Both trails begin in town: China Creek starts in a western neighborhood, while Glen Burney Falls begins a block from downtown.
It’s terrain like this that keeps locals here. “It just feels like home,” said Drew Stanley, who serves as director of terrain parks at Appalachian Ski Mountain. Known as “App” to locals, it’s one of only a handful of ski resorts in the state, and sits just a 10-minute drive from town.
Stanley has skied mountains all over North America but has since returned to his hometown. “Blowing Rock is just special,” said Stanley. “There’s so much attention to detail here, and the town’s really gone above and beyond to keep the quaint, well-kept atmosphere it’s always had.”
Contributing to that atmosphere are old mainstays like Blowing Rock Brewing Company and Blowing Rock Art & History Museum, as well as newer faves like Hellbender Bed & Beverage. With a tightly packed downtown—the whole town only covers about three square miles—your next hike is never far from your next drink, bite to eat, or bed.
Damascus is rightly known as Trail Town, USA, as multiple pathways—including the Appalachian Trail—pass right through town. Beyond the plentiful hiking, adventurers also come to ride bikes on the Virginia Creeper and explore the vast and scenic Mount Rogers National Recreation Area. Every May, the town hosts Trail Days, a vibrant festival that celebrates outdoor culture and serves as a reunion for A.T. thru-hikers.
Set in the southwest Virginia stretch of the Blue Ridge, Floyd mixes old-school mountain town charm with a thriving arts scene. The rural surroundings are ripe for recreation, including hiking Buffalo Mountain Natural Area Preserve or paddling the Little River, while back in town a must-do is catching bluegrass tunes at the Floyd Country Store’s Friday Night Jamboree.
Blue Ridge Outdoors’ annual Top Adventure Towns contest is sponsored by Lowa.
Cover Photo: Bikers in Roanoke, Va. Photo by Jennifer Griffin/courtesy of Visit VBR
Top 100 Towns
LARGE TOWNS 2023
Bowling Green, Ky.
Lynchburg , Va.
Virginia Beach, Va.
MEDIUM TOWNS 2023
Johnson City, Tenn.
Mount Holly, N.C.
SMALL TOWNS 2023
Black Mountain, N.C.
Clifton Forge, Va.
Travelers Rest, S.C.
TINY TOWNS 2023
Banner Elk, N.C.
Berkeley Springs, W.Va.
Blowing Rock, N.C.
Blue Ridge, Ga.
Bryson City, N.C.
Cape Charles, Va.
Edisto Island, S.C.
Hot Springs, Va.
Old Fort, N.C.
Park City, Ky.
St. Paul, Va.