One of the best things about living in Northern Virginia is our proximity to destinations with natural scenery and unbeatable views. Roanoke, a three-and-a-half-hour drive from here, offers exactly that.
Nestled amid Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, the region is known as America’s East Coast Mountain Biking Capital, but its trails and roads are accessible on foot and via auto as well, and all of them provide something worth seeing around the next curve.
The Blue Ridge Parkway is an obvious (but rewarding) way to explore. Roughly 10 minutes from downtown and with multiple access points, the parkway is rich with various activities depending on your preference, whether you simply want to pull aside and snap pics or stretch your legs with a hike.
Milepost 120, the exit for Mill Mountain Parkway, is the most efficient entry from downtown. It leads to the Roanoke Star, a massive illuminated installation that has stood above the city since 1949. There’s an overlook for gawking at the valley from above and picnic areas for lunch. (Pick up sandwiches at Crystal Spring Grocery Co.) And biking enthusiasts can get their fill riding up the Riser Trail and down Understory.
Access to Smith Mountain Lake comes via milepost 112; there are 500 miles of shoreline, fishing, and boating. (Canoes, pontoons, and more are available to rent.) The Roanoke River Gorge is off milepost 114.9 (it’s been closed for repairs but is expected to open later this year), and the Peaks of Otter is at milepost 86. The trio of peaks includes Sharp Top, with a craggy 3,875-foot summit that soars above tree-filled slopes. (About 1,300 tree species live in these mountains, from oak to black gum.) Active folks should attempt the 3.5-mile round-trip hike, though the lakeside Peaks of Otter Lodge has a seasonal shuttle that will get its guests within 1,500 feet of the top. Spend a night here to see nature’s grandest colors on display, particularly in the fall.
Do not miss the much-photographed Natural Bridge in the national park of the same name, about 40 minutes from Roanoke. The limestone gorge was carved by Cedar Creek and stands 30 stories tall; it’s a marvel in every sense.
Perhaps one of the easiest places to soak in all the sights is downtown. A roof garden replete with skyline views tops off the Center in the Square museum facility. It’s a short walk to the 54-room Liberty Trust boutique hotel, which opened in March in the former home of the First National Bank. The destination provides a peek into the past — a 20th-century Greek Revival and French Beaux-Arts facade, a columned main hall (inspired by the Temple of Apollo at Delos), and rooms that look out on the city and the surrounding mountain terrain. (It’s also right across from the Amtrak station, which is now offering two round-trip rides between DC and Roanoke, with stops in Alexandria, Manassas, and more.)
Feel like shopping? Crafteria, a midcentury cafeteria-turned-retail-market, peddles giftables from 100-plus artisans, like Stick Candles, which look like colorful twigs. A record store and food and drink stalls also fill the space.
For a restaurant experience, try the award-winning Sidecar for Euro-inspired fare or River and Rail for a Southern menu with regionally sourced ingredients. Kid-friendly Fork in the Alley has a laid-back patio and brick-oven pizza. And if you’d like to pair some activity with a cold brew, hike one of the nearby trails (like Chestnut Ridge, a 2.5- to 5.4-mile jaunt) then stop by Golden Cactus Brewing for IPAs and Pilsners with a desert-meets-mountain vibe.
Where to Stay (and Play!)
Do it all at Explore Park, situated along milepost 115 of the Blue Ridge Parkway. The 1,200-acre destination houses various accommodations, so you can set up camp at a primitive site or simply park your small but decked-out travel trailer. (There are no water or sewer hookups available.)
Yurts and pod cabins can hold up to six for those traveling with friends or family, though there are smaller pods for couples seeking a cozier experience. (Some of the housing is pet-friendly, too.) Wherever you hang your hat, your temporary home will be close to outdoor adventure and woodland eye candy. Zipline courses for all ages span up to 160 feet; tightropes, cargo nets, and swings provide a bird’s-eye view. Fourteen miles of trails beckon hikers. (Nine of those are also perfect for mountain biking.) The destination is a designated site on the state’s birding and wildlife trail (so bring your binoculars), with habitats ranging from oak-hickory-beech forests to wetlands, and birds such as migratory warblers in the fall. Twin Creeks, a weekend-only onsite brewery, has a Virginia wine and cider bar, live music, fire pits, and hearty food, ensuring you never need to leave. Prices vary based on accommodations. 56 Roanoke River Pkwy.
October 14 to 16, the city of Roanoke hosts the Go Outside Festival, a weekend of activities designed to celebrate the world around us — and all the ways you can see it. During the festivities, dubbed
Wander.Discover.Explore, the downtown area will be transformed into an adventure playground of sorts. Slacklines will stretch between building rooftops; expect lumberjack shows, a chance to kayak (in a giant pool!), and 100 free workshops, such as a backpacking 101 class, among other activities. Two music stages, three beer gardens, campfire chats, and the Banff Mountain Film Festival fill out the rest of the lineup. The festival is free to attend, but tickets are required for certain events.
Where to Eat
About 30 minutes outside Roanoke is Fincastle’s 1772 Rooftop on Main. The bar and restaurant boasts panoramas of the Blue Ridge Mountains, a bar made from an old airplane, and a stick-to-your-ribs menu with house-made pimiento cheese and a pork chop topped with bacon-apple compote. 18 S. Roanoke St.
What to Do
A visit to Carvins Cove is a must. It’s the second-largest municipal park in America, with 60 miles of trails and a 630-acre reservoir (the primary water source for the city of Roanoke) for paddling and fishing. You can hike along 4 miles of the Appalachian Trail or have an adrenaline-fueled mountain bike experience. (Trails are split into the more advanced “uppers” and easier “lowers.”) Local outfitter Roanoke Mountain Adventures offers guided tours and instruction (for two-wheeled treks, as well as for paddleboarding and tubing), to make your excursion less daunting. Entry to the park is $7 per car; excursions are priced separately. Park entrances are located at Boat Dock, Bennett Spring, and Timberview.