Star Quality: Virginia’s Roanoke

September 9, 2011
Filed under Feature Stories, Southeast Camping

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Roanoke is ideally situated to be an outdoor enthusiast’s dream destination. Surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains, there are 145 miles of hiking and biking trails within a 15-minute drive of downtown Roanoke. And in a 60-mile radius, there are 1,000 miles of trails. Both the Appalachian Trail and the Blue Ridge Parkway are less than 10 miles from the city center. If visitors tire of hiking the trails, there is Smith Mountain Lake, the largest inland lake in the state, just 35 miles from Roanoke. Fishing, boating, and swimming are available on the 20,000-acre lake. Back in the city, Mill Mountain has 12 miles of trails for more hiking and bicycling, and nearby Carvins Cove offers abundant choices for outdoor recreation.

The history of Roanoke comes with tales of Native Americans, early settlers and railroading. This important passageway was originally called “Big Lick,” named for a large outcropping of salt near the Roanoke River, when it was established in 1852. Fortunately, the name was soon changed. Even during its early history the site of Roanoke was important for its trails and roads. The Great Wagon Road, one of the most heavily traveled roads of the eighteenth century, ran through the Shenandoah Valley through the Roanoke Gap. From there it continued as the Wilderness Road, which headed to the southwest toward Tennessee and beyond. The railroad system through Roanoke has transitioned through several names, but the Norfolk and Southern currently operates the line.

Today, Roanoke continues to be the hub of great activity. Within the city limits, Mill Mountain Park offers visitors more than 12 miles of hiking and biking trails. The 500-acre park also has a small zoo and a discovery center, where children can learn about the flora and fauna of Mill Mountain. A wildflower garden and trail are also part of the discovery center. The park naturalist has made a checklist and drawing guide to assist visitors in the identification of the various species of trees and shrubs. According to the checklist, there are 23 canopy species, five of which are of the Quercus (oak) family — Black, Chestnut, Northern Red, Scarlet, and White.

Atop Mill Mountain is the 100-foot illuminated “Roanoke Star,” which was built in 1949. The red, white and blue lights signify the city’s status as an “All-American City.” The star “shines” every day from dusk to midnight. At the base of the star is an overlook to the city that, on a clear day, can provide a view of up to 60 miles.

There are a number of greenways within the city. Most are along the Roanoke River, which runs through the city, and along tributaries of the river. Carvins Cove is one of the city-managed greenways and is the second-largest municipal park in the country. With around 13,000 acres, it makes all kinds of outdoor recreation available within a short drive of downtown Roanoke. The park is located near Interstate 81 and has 14 miles of frontage on the Appalachian Trail. With more than 40 miles of trails, Carvins Cove is a mountain-biking, hiking, and horseback-riding haven, and upon its 800-acre reservoir fishing and boating are also popular activities.
Outside The City
Forty miles north of Roanoke just off I-81 is Natural Bridge, a 215-foot geologic formation. U.S. Highway 11 runs across the top of the formation. That gives some perspective of its size. An $18 fee is charged at the “official” Natural Bridge viewing area, but a trail passes under the large arch, and following the trail visitors get a view from its less-photographed side. In addition, at the end of the trail there is a small waterfall in Cedar Creek, a tributary of the James River, that helped to form the bridge. There is also a nearby town called Natural Bridge (ironically) in Rockbridge County.

In the opposite direction about 60 miles from Roanoke along I-81 is the New River Trail State Park. The park, part of the Rails to Trails Program, is a 57-mile-long biking, hiking, and horseback riding trail following an abandoned railroad from Galax to Pulaski. It was donated to the state by Norfolk Southern Railroad when the railroad discontinued the line and removed the tracks. There are several entrances into the park allowing easy access. The park parallels the scenic New River for 39 miles and passes through Grayson, Carroll, Wythe and Pulaski counties in southwestern Virginia.

The New River Trail State Park has four primitive campgrounds at Cliffview, Millrace, Baker Island, and Double Shoals. There is no access for vehicles to the campsites and no facilities, only places designated for camping.

The one at Foster Falls is called Baker Island Campground and is situated beside the New River. Foster Falls is the location of the park office and the bike rental office. It is also near the 254-acre Shot Tower State Historical Park, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, and overlooks the New River. The Shot Tower was built over 150 years ago to make firearm ammunition for the early settlers. This is a fee area, but visitors can climb the tower at the end of the 1.2-mile trail.

Blue Ridge Parkway
The entrance to the Blue Ridge Parkway is only 8 miles from downtown Roanoke. The Parkway runs 469 miles from northern Virginia at Waynesboro and ends at Cherokee, North Carolina. It connects two national parks — the Shenandoah National Park, or Skyline Drive, and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The speed limit along the Parkway is 45 miles per hour and there are pullouts for scenic overlooks and trailheads. It passes through some of the most beautiful scenery in the country and parallels Interstate 81 a major portion of its length through Virginia.

Roanoke lies at approximately Mile Marker 120 on the Parkway, but there are a number of access points. The Roanoke Valley Overlook at MM 129.6 provides a panoramic view of the largest city along the route and is at an elevation of 2,125 feet. Going south on the Parkway will take travelers to the Rocky Knob Visitor Center (MM 169), where there are cabins and a campground. Just south of Rocky Knob at MM 176.2 is Mabry Mill, where a working gristmill makes a great photo op. The gristmill has been restored and visitors can see live exhibits and a real mill in operation. The grounds around the mill include other interpretive exhibits. Matthews Cabin provides an example of a typical mountain building. There is also a whiskey still, a sorghum mill, a working blacksmith shop, and a restaurant and gift shop.

Going northward, the Parkway enters the 723,000-acre Jefferson National Forest at approximately MM 105. Combined with the larger George Washington National Forest, the two comprise over 1.8 million acres, which makes them one of the largest tracts of public land in the eastern U.S.

The Peaks of Otter Lodge is located at MM 85.9 along the Blue Ridge Parkway with the visitor center nearby at MM 86. Abbott Lake, a campground and a group of hiking trails are in the complex. The campground has about 140 sites, some with electric hookups. Abbott Lake allows fishing with either a Virginia or North Carolina fishing license. The lake has a one-mile easy walking trail surrounding it with a portion being wheelchair accessible. A boardwalk over the lake’s western end allows for closeup views of cattails and other low water vegetation.

The Peaks of Otter are popular hiking destinations. There are three mountains, the names of which are Sharp Top, with an elevation of 3,865 feet; Flat Top, slightly taller at 4,001 feet; and Harkening Hill at 3,375 feet. Trails lead to each of the peaks. The Sharp Top Trail is one and a half miles to the summit and is the most popular. However, it is rated as steep and strenuous. But the reward at the summit is a 360-degree view of the surrounding area. A shuttle bus to the top operates during the summer, but hikers are not permitted to use the paved route, only the trail.

The Flat Top Trail is 4.4 miles and hikers will make a 1,600-foot altitude change. The Harkening Hill Loop Trail is a strenuous 3.3 miles and begins behind the visitor center. A combination of several trails is possible if hikers want more of a challenge.

The Peaks of Otter are located in Bedford County, along with Smith Mountain Lake. Smith Mountain Lake is located east of Roanoke and contains 20,600 acres with 500 miles of shoreline. It provides water recreation for the area and was created in 1963 with the damming of the Roanoke and the Blackwater rivers. Boating, water skiing, swimming and fishing are popular activities on the large lake. Striped bass is one of the most prized fish. There are several boat ramps and campgrounds on the lake to make access easy.

The Appalachian Trail
Another of the major outdoor attractions of the Roanoke Valley is the nearness of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, the 2,175-mile-long hiking trail that begins on Maine’s Mount Katahdin and ends at Springer Mountain in the state of Georgia. From Roanoke to Waynesboro, the Appalachian Trail (AT) follows the route of the Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive through Virginia. There are multiple access points to the AT from Roanoke and the Blue Ridge Parkway. One of the most popular and most photographed points along the AT is McAfee’s Knob. At 3,197 feet, it gives a 270-degree panoramic view of the Catawba Valley and North Mountain to the west, Tinker Cliffs to the north, and the Roanoke Valley to the east. Walking around the summit gives views of the town of Salem and the Roanoke airport.

The trailhead for McAfee Knob is located just northwest of Roanoke, near Mason Cove off Highway 311. Stay on state Route 311 as it follows Catawba Valley Road 5.6 miles to the parking area. The trail to McAfee’s Knob begins across state Route 311. The AT is marked with while blazed rectangles on trees about eye level. It is difficult to get lost going to the knob because the trail is well used. An informational kiosk is along the trail at the 0.3-mile mark. Two shelters are on this portion of the AT — Johns Spring and Catawba Mountain. They are large enough for four or five sleeping bags.

Various sources estimate the distance from the parking area to McAfee’s Knob at 3.5 to 4.4 miles. The signpost at the parking lost lists 3.7 miles. That would make a round-trip distance of 7 to 8.5 miles — a good day’s hike. An old fire road about one mile from the top is an alternate route back down. It allows for different scenery and several rock formations make for an interesting trip back to state Route 311 and the parking area.

About one-fourth of the AT is located in Virginia. So, aside from the trail to McAfee’s Knob, there are other popular day hikes in the Roanoke Valley. Access to the blue-blazed Dragon’s Tooth Trail is also along state Route 311, but about 10 miles off I-81. The 5.7-mile trail is strenuous but the reward at the end is worth the difficulty. The rock formation is aptly named and the views are of the Catawba Valley.

Just north of Roanoke on state Route 220 the AT ascends Tinker Mountain. The eight-mile round-trip offers views of the Carvins Cove Reservoir and the Roanoke Valley. The moderate hike offers good wildlife and wildflower viewing and has an altitude gain of approximately 1,400 feet.

Whether looking for outdoor adventures on the Appalachian Trail or along the Blue Ridge Parkway, playing on Carvins Cove Reservoir or Smith Mountain Lake, there are plenty of places to participate in a favorite pastime, or find a new one using Roanoke, the Star City, as a navigational point while discovering all there is to do in the Roanoke Valley.

The Roanoke Valley Convention & Visitors Bureau, 800-635-5535, www.visitroanokeva.com.
Blue Ridge Parkway, www.nps.gov/blri.
The Natural Bridge, 800-533-1410, www.naturalbridgeva.com.
Appalachian National Scenic Trail, www.nps.gov/appa.

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