2021 Top Adventure Towns: Readers Select Best Hubs for Outdoor Recreation in the Blue Ridge

The Blue Ridge boasts plenty of towns with backyard trails and waterways, along with thriving communities that help create access to the outdoors. To highlight some of best, we asked readers to cast votes in our annual Top Adventure Towns contest. The ballot started with 100 towns from across the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast and was narrowed down to winners in four categories: top large town (population 75,001+), mid-sized town (population 16,001-75,000), small-town (population 3,001-16,000), and tiny town (population less than 3,000). 

BRO caught up with the people who live, work, and recreate in these four towns, all located along the backbone of the Appalachians within three hours of each other, to learn more about what makes these adventure hubs stand out above the rest.  

mountain biking with asheville in the distance
photo courtesy of Explore Asheville

Top Large Town

Asheville, N.C. (pop. 92,870)

After a post-college thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail, Stuart Cowles wanted to settle down in a place surrounded by the mountains. He eventually decided on downtown Asheville where he opened Climbmax in 1993. “By choosing a location in the middle of town, it allowed us to be a viable part of the community but also helped us to develop this community of rock climbing,” said Cowels, who opened a second gym at the Smoky Mountain Adventure Center by the French Broad River in 2015. 

Over the last two and a half decades, Cowles has watched Asheville grow from a lows-key mountain town into a bustling city with the infrastructure and innovative community to support outdoor recreation for locals and a constant influx of tourists. “It is a testament of the small business owners that are striving to keep this adventure alive and sharing our experiences with thousands and thousands of others,” he said. 

photo courtesy of Explore Asheville

And Asheville is a coveted destination for good reason. Its location offers what Cowles calls “that quickly accessible remoteness,” found in backpacking epics like the Art Loeb Trail or riding the maze of amazing singletrack in the surrounding Pisgah National Forest.

Growing up in Asheville, Emi Kubota appreciated these seemingly endless outdoor opportunities and recently has been focusing on sharing them with her daughter, who loves to bike, ski, and swim. “It gives her an outlet to discharge energy, to have an active, healthy lifestyle, as well as just have fun while connecting with friends and family,” she said.

This summer, Kubota started KidCycle Club as a way to get more toddlers and youth connected to that side of themselves through parent-child bike classes and bike rentals. “Just to start the seeds of that outdoor appreciation with your little ones is really what we’re going for,” she said. In the future, Kubota hopes to start holding adventure-oriented spring break and summer camps to introduce kids to more of what Asheville has to offer. 

Asheville Must-Do’s

If you’re visiting with kids, Kubota recommends the Explore Loop at Bent Creek, biking around Lake James, and testing out some new skills at Richmond Hill Park and Kolo Bike Park. Cowles favors hiking the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, climbing at Rumbling Bald, and visiting many of the city’s 30-plus breweries around town. 

Runners Up

Roanoke, Va. (pop. 99,143)

Make your way to the top of Mill Mountain and the Roanoke Star, hang out by the riverfront with access to a variety of outdoor activities at Explore Park, and take a tour through the area along the Roanoke Valley Greenway network. 

Charleston, S.C. (pop. 137,566)

Scale the climbing wall at James Island County Park, walk the wooded trails at the Woodlands Nature Reserve, and float the many waterways of the Low Country. 

rock climber in boone
photo courtesy of Explore Boone

Top Medium Town

Boone, N.C. (pop. 19,667)

As trail boss at Rocky Knob Mountain Bike Park, Kristian Jackson and a group of dedicated volunteers have put in over 10,000 hours of work to maintain Boone’s first park with dedicated bike trails. “The impetus was to build something that would be amazing enough to attract visitors, but also serve as a community space for locals as well,” Jackson said of what has now become a recreation fixture in the lively college town—home to Appalachian State University—in the North Carolina High Country. 

In the 11 years since the park was established, it has become a meeting place for riders of all ages. “In the beginning, we were building mountain bike trails to have a lot of fun,” Jackson said. “But what ended up happening was we were creating a space for more and more people to have access to mountain biking. People from all different walks of life are out here together riding bikes, learning more about themselves, each other, and their environment.”

In addition to biking, Boone is known for an abundance of hiking options, many just off the nearby Blue Ridge Parkway, and world-class climbing at crags like Ship Rock. “Watching my boys grow up, being born and raised in Boone, and seeing their understanding of themselves through the natural world is really profound for me,” Jackson said. “That’s directly a result of the outdoor recreation that they participate in.”

Ready for a change of pace from their life in Chicago, Christina Fryzel and her family moved to the Boone area in the spring to take over Wahoo’s Adventures. “We liked the variation in climate that’s here—the milder winters and more active outdoor life,” she said. 

photo courtesy of Explore Boone

In the months they’ve been running the outfitter, which offers camping and rafting on the nearby Watauga and Nolichucky Rivers, Fryzel has seen a steady influx of visitors looking to try new outdoor activities. “People are asking about a lot of different things, things they never thought they would have done before,” she said. 

Boone Must-Do’s

In addition to countless climbing crags and waterways, Jackson suggests checking out the High Country ski resorts, like Sugar Mountain and Beech Mountain, and the carriage trails at Moses Cone Memorial Park. Fryzel recommends Grandfather Vineyard and the kid-friendly Mystery Hill. 

Runners Up

Charlottesville, Va. (pop. 47,266)

Mountain bike the new trails at Ragged Mountain Reservoir and Heyward Community Forest, standup paddleboard the Rivanna River, and hike to sweeping overlooks or refreshing falls in nearby Shenandoah National Park. 

Bristol, Tenn./Va. (pop. 43,749)

Walk or bike the Mendota Trail, head underground as you explore the Bristol Caverns, and dive into the city’s musical history at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum

hikers in the channels
photo courtesy of The Town of Abingdon

Top Small Town

Abingdon, Va. (pop. 7,867)

When Jerry Camper and his brother opened the Virginia Creeper Trail Bike Shop in 2002, they had 10 bikes available to rent with the hopes of one day getting up to 30 rentals to service the increasing number of visitors coming into the area. Fast forward nearly 20 years later, Camper’s fleet is at almost 300 bikes available at two locations, as the trail’s popularity has only continued to grow, welcoming over 200,000 visitors a year. 

Born and raised in Abingdon, a quaint town in southwest Virginia’s portion of the Blue Ridge, Camper watched the local community rally around the Creeper since its completion in 1984. The 34-mile rail trail, which runs from Abingdon to Whitetop Station in the vast Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, has been a major economic driver in the region. “To see things grow around the trail has been really interesting,” Camper said. In addition to eight bike shops and shuttle services that provide gear and rentals, the town also has a thriving cultural scene based around the Barter Theater, a regional arts institution, and popular restaurants like 128 Pecan. 

bikers on a fall trail
photo by Sam Dean

There’s also plenty of additional adventure around Abingdon beyond the Creeper Trail. As the manager for five years at one of the local bike shops, Justin Harris often got asked, “What else is there to do after we’ve ridden the bike trail?” So in 2019, he decided to start his own guiding company to show visitors more of the area. At White Blaze Outdoors, Harris offers a variety of guided nature hikes and overnight backpacking trips. Outings range from a reptile and amphibian tour of Steele Creek Park to an overnight among the windswept alpine-like terrain around Mount Rogers, the highest peak in Virginia. “You get up there and see different ecosystems with some wildlife,” Harris said.  

Abingdon Must-Do’s

Camper’s favorite section along the Creeper is the scenic 8.5 miles between the welcome center and Alvarado Station. If you’re looking for a more secluded adventure, Harris suggests a hike on the Iron Mountain Trail. There are also several unique waterfalls to see in the area, including Little Stony Falls, Rolling Creek Falls, and Cabin Creek Falls.

Runners Up

Bedford, Va. (pop. 6,597)

Stop at the Peaks of Otter and other overlooks along the Blue Ridge Parkway, explore miles of shoreline along Smith Mountain Lake, and ride the flowy mountain bike trails at Falling Creek Park.

Black Mountain, N.C. (pop. 8,162)

Hike Lookout Trail for views of the Seven Sisters mountain range, fish from the pier on Lake Tomahawk, and listen to the sounds of Appalachia at the White Horse Black Mountain music and arts venue. 

appalachian trail hiker
photo by Jesse Kokotek

Top Tiny Town

Damascus, Va. (pop. 775)

Visiting Damascus as a child, Anya Faust never imagined one day moving to the quiet mountain town in southwest Virginia. Over the years, it was a place she would go with her family or partner, Hunter, to get away. Then, while in college, she began to notice the town really starting to take off. “When we’d visit, there were places to go out, eat, and shop,” Faust said. “That’s why we wanted to move. The town is growing, and we would love to be part of the journey.”

The couple made the decision to leave the hustle and bustle of Raleigh at the beginning of the year to move to Damascus. “It was a complete 180 but definitely a 180 in the right direction,” Hunter Faust said. Soon after settling in, the Fausts started Experience Damascus, offering guided fly fishing trips and rentals in the area.

appalachain trail days celebration
Photo courtesy of the town of Damascus

Damascus, though, is especially loved by hikers. Nicknamed “Trail Town USA,” seven major trails crisscross in Damascus, including the Virginia Creeper, Iron Mountain, and Appalachian Trail, which runs down the town’s main drag. “Even if you’re just walking on the sidewalk shopping, you’re on the Appalachian Trail,” Jackie Lastinger said.

For A.T. thru-hikers, the town, which has multiple outfitters, local restaurants, and comfortable lodging, is a well-known stop about a month into the journey northbound from Springer Mountain. Every May, large crowds come to Damascus for Trail Days, an annual festival that celebrates A.T. hiking culture with gear vendors, live music, and a rowdy hiker parade.

After completing her thru-hike last year, Lastinger decided to return to the area to help run the Broken Fiddle Hostel and Inn. Splitting her time between Damascus during the hiking season and Maine during the winter, Lastinger enjoys the accessibility to trails. “I really love that I don’t have to drive anywhere,” she said. “You can walk or ride your bike anywhere you need to get here—the grocery store, gas station, your work, the brewery to hang out.”

Damascus Must-Do’s

If you’re looking to spend a day fly fishing, the Fausts recommend Laurel Creek, Whitetop Laurel Creek, Beaverdam Creek, and South Holston River, all offering excellent opportunities to catch native trout. Lastinger says hikers should check out Backbone Rock, a spur off the A.T. with grills and a pavilion right by the creek, for a day hike, and Whitetop Mountain for the best sunset in the area. Look out for the opening of the new Damascus Trail Center in 2022.

Runners Up

Floyd, Va. (pop. 436)

Take in the views from atop Buffalo Mountain Natural Area Preserve, float the Little River, and fly through the trees with Buffalo Mountain Ziplines.

Davis, W. Va. (pop. 631)

Hike to the thundering falls at Blackwater Falls State Park, cross-country ski at White Grass Ski Touring Center, and bike the Blackwater Canyon Rail Trail. 

Cover photo: Trail Days in Damascus, Va., attracts hikers from all over the world. Photo by Jesse Kokotek, courtesy of the town of Damascus

Places to Go, Things to See: