It is accepted wisdom among mountain bikers that you don’t need big mountains to enjoy the sport. Yes, there is a thrill to spinning along in the shadow of, say, the Dolomites, Tetons or Himalayas, but there is ample challenge and thrill to be had in more humble environs as well.
I am pondering this as I bank down a single-track trail through a loamy forest of hardwood and pine in the hills west of Roanoke, on an overcast Monday in March 2020. I’m in Carvins Cove Natural Reserve which, at more than 12,000 acres, features 60 miles of mountain bike, hiking and equestrian trails. Somewhere behind me is my son, Kai, somewhere far below is my daughter, Christina (in a mountain biking lesson), and ahead of me only the butter-soft path, snaking through the stillness of the woodland.
We are here, in the waning days of normalcy before covid-19 sweeps the United States, in part to accelerate my kids’ learning curve for this sport but also to peek behind the curtain of the Roanoke area’s rising credibility as a prime destination for outdoor recreation. On one hand, this is organic: The Roanoke Valley is hewed from rugged Appalachia, with no shortage of burly terrain, public land, streams and rivers. On the other hand, it is intentional, driven by the development of trails and parks, smart marketing and an engaged population working to build community around a common interest of playing outside.
I first visited Roanoke in 1987, hitchhiking 250 miles from D.C. on a muggy July day to catch a Grateful Dead show. I carried only a concert ticket, $10 and the youthful certainty that I would find my friends so I wouldn’t have to sleep outside.
A decade later I returned to the region to camp with a girlfriend in the Jefferson National Forest, where I attempted to show her the joys of mountain biking on a trail so rugged that she walked most of it. This was before I learned the ironclad rule that one should never try to teach a significant other a sport, especially if one wants the other to remain significant. Regardless, I was awed by the Appalachian topography, the hollows and swimming holes and mountain ridges stacking to the horizon, and the imagery has stuck with me.
We pull into the gravel lot of Roanoke Mountain Adventures, an outfitter on the bank of the Roanoke River, to pick up a rental bike for Christina.
Bikes, kayaks and canoes line the concrete porch of the shop between a neighborhood of 100-year-old Victorians and bungalows and a steady flow of cyclists, dog walkers and joggers on the Roanoke River Greenway, a 14-mile paved path that traces the river. The building, an old icehouse along the railroad tracks, also houses condos, a climbing gym and the Wasena City Tap Room — one of the 30 wineries, breweries and meaderies (yes, that’s a thing) in the Roanoke Valley.
It is this type of scene, almost as much as the 300 miles of trails in the Virginia Blue Ridge region, that earned the area the first Silver Level Ride Center designation east of the Mississippi River from the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA); Snowshoe Highlands, W.Va., has since earned silver level status as well.
“It’s about more than big riding and big landscapes,” says IMBA marketing manager and Roanoke resident Kristine McCormick. “We look at dining options, breweries, what to do if it rains all weekend [or] if someone in the group doesn’t ride or if you’re on a multiday trip.”
Another major factor in the IMBA decision, McCormick says, was Roanoke’s in-town mountain biking. “I can ride three miles from my house on the Greenway to 13 miles of single track at Mill Mountain, and pedal home without ever getting in my car.”
Mill Mountain sounds enticing but, I learn, demands a long climb to earn the downhill and is thus not kid friendly. So, for efficient access to dirt, we drive two miles east then pedal a mile of the Greenway downriver, past warehouses and along the edge of a modest neighborhood to Morningside Park. Teens are shooting baskets on a cracked court amid a reedy field that stretches to a patch of woods, and a 1¼-mile loop of purpose-built single track.
There is no mistaking this for Jackson Hole but, as an in-town training course — complete with berms and jumps — Morningside gives us something to try.
Kai, who is already an intermediate rider, rockets into the woods. Christina, a rank novice, wobbles down a pitch, hits the first roller, topples over and starts wailing. I later learn that local mountain bike teams use Morningside to practice jumping and that it is not the best place to launch a beginner. I dust Christina off and get her to ride a little more, but it’s soon clear we need to turn our attention to other elements of the destination.
We pedal back to the car and decamp to Beamer’s 25, a gastropub in a converted warehouse in the West End neighborhood, in the original core of the city. As we kick back on the sunny patio, within sight of Roanoke’s old rail yards, I take in yet another side of this eclectic city: A 60ish guy, in jeans and a designer T-shirt, sampling whiskeys; a 50ish woman nursing a globe of red wine, golden retriever at her feet; and a gaggle of young adults, in business casual wear, dining on entree salads.
The West End embodies what a local described to me as Roanoke’s “transformation from a train city to a brain city.” The first White settlers came to the area in the 1740s, drawn by deer, buffalo and other game that congregated in the valley’s salt licks, and the village of Big Lick was born. By the time the railroad rumbled into the region in 1852, the county and river had already taken the name Roanoke — reportedly Anglicized from the Indigenous rawrenock for the shell beads the local Tutero and Tutelo Indians traded — and in 1881 the burgeoning town followed suit.
For the next seven decades Roanoke thrived as a rail town, and many neighborhoods still feature the modest, tightly spaced housing of 20th-century working-class America. Today, the dominant employer by far is the Carilion Clinic, a hospital and health-care empire with ambitions to become the region’s answer to the Mayo or Cleveland clinics. As a result Roanoke looks like a city but, for now, still feels like a town, with a core of blocky concrete office buildings, hospitals and hotels rising around highways and small, character-rich neighborhoods in the broad, tree-filled valley.
After lunch we walk down Campbell Avenue to the city square, site of the longest-running outdoor farmers market in Virginia (since 1882), and the adjacent Center in the Square, a seven-story building packed with attractions, including museums — of African American culture, science and even pinball — an arcade, performing arts theater and kids’ interactive learning zone. We have arrived too close to closing time to justify paying, so we take in the center’s free offerings — an 8,000-gallon coral reef aquarium and the rooftop gardens, with a koi pond and sweeping views of the city.
A 10-block drive brings us to the Roanoke Boutique Hotel, a late-1800s Italianate house that Diane Hailey bought for $19,000 in 2016 and restored into a bright, inviting B&B, with a high-ceilinged kitchen, interior exposed brick, polished wood floors and a bank of bay windows facing the street. Hailey, a tall and lean 50 years old with a no-nonsense demeanor, is yet one more embodiment of modern-day Roanoke — an enterprising DIYer with a strong affection for the outdoors. In her spare time, she volunteers to maintain a six-mile stretch of the nearby Appalachian Trail, one of only a few female sawyers on the AT. “If you’ve never hiked with a 20-pound chain saw, I’m here to tell you it isn’t easy,” she says. Hailey also leads willing guests on eight-mile sunrise hikes to McAfee’s Knob — reputedly the most photographed spot on the entire 2,184-mile trail — and asks if we want a 4:30 a.m. wake-up call to join her.
I file that invitation under “next time” but, as a consolation, shuttle over to Mill Mountain, which rises 850 feet just south of downtown and is bridled with walking and biking trails and a parkway popular with road cyclists, all of which culminate at one of the more whimsical tourist attractions I have sought out: the world’s largest free-standing man-made star, an 88-foot steel totem laced with 2,000 feet of neon tubing to promote long-distance visibility at night. The star was erected for the 1949 Christmas season but has sustained, and Roanokers seem unironically proud of it.
On Monday we head out to Carvins Cove to meet a mountain bike instructor who, per my ingenious plan, will occupy my children while I steal 90 minutes of challenging riding.
We find Dan Lucas, an affable 37-year-old former welder turned mountain biking evangelist, in a roadside parking lot and pedal a wending ribbon of pavement through bucolic scenery for a mile to a forest full of options — from green-dot to double-black-diamond trails. This is all laid out around the crescent-shaped cove, a 630-acre reservoir carved from the limestone. As Lucas advises me on a route, the kids blow up my plan, announcing that Kai will ride with me while Christina takes the lesson. There’s a scrum in my brain as instinct, reason and parental authority collide, and in the end I acquiesce.
When Kai and I return, Christina has a glow familiar to anyone who has ever been smitten by trail riding, a buzz of accomplishment, exhilaration and wanting more. She is eager to brandish her new skills and leads me down a trail, aptly named Enchanted Forest, that winds through tall stands of pine. It’s practically flat, but you wouldn’t know it by her whoops of joy, rising through the brisk spring air, to the treetops and beyond.
Briley is a writer based in Takoma Park, Md. His website is johnbriley.com.
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