Sitting smack dab in the middle of the East Coast, just far enough into the Blue Ridge Mountains, Roanoke, Virginia centers a hub of next level mountain bike trails. In fact, it boasts an amazing set of singletrack right inside its own downtown! But it’s the proximity to several road trip-worthy trails, family-friendly outdoor activities and massive array of amazing restaurants that makes this area worth a multi-day visit.
Technically, Virginia’s Blue Ridge incorporates several counties. And the MTB trails are spread around them. Fortunately, Roanoke provides a great base camp, putting you within 45 minutes of some of the best (and most concentrated) rugged singletrack the eastern United States has to offer.
We spent a long weekend here and really only scratched the surface of singletrack, food, and breweries. Here’s our trip report to help you plan your own mountain bike road trip to Virginia, including intel on several trails we had to save for next time…
Where to Mountain Bike in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains
It’s not just mountain biking. There’s a ton of hiking here, too. And arts. Downtown Roanoke is easily accessible, and easy to get out of when it’s time to go ride. But we’ll get to that in a sec.
In this video, we highlight two trail networks -Carvins Cove and Waid Recreation Park- and the Treetop high ropes course at Explore Park. Keep reading for all the details and pics from each.
It’s worth noting that Mill Mountain Park, on the southern end of downtown Roanoke, is a 10 minute bike ride from most hotels. It has miles of singletrack, ranging from smooth to rocky. It’s where I tried to race local singlespeed legend Gordon “Quadsworth”. Check out that video for a look at those trails. It’s a great little warm up if you get into town in the early afternoon, or a killer family hike up to the Mill Mountain Star.
Carvins Cove Mountain Bike Trails
Sitting just northwest of downtown Roanoke, Carvins Cove Natural Reserve is an expansive network of ~60 miles of singletrack. It borders a reservoir, making a quick mid-ride dip possible on hot summer days.
Speaking of, showing up early (it opens at 6:30am) will help you beat the heat…this is still the south, and it gets very hot and very humid. We each crushed a 2.5L pack and could’ve used more before getting back to the car.
Park at the Bennett Springs lot (4300 Carvins Cove Road, Salem, VA 24153), drop your $3 in the collection bin as a thanks for providing a parking lot, changing booth, bathroom, signage, and maps, then roll straight into the singletrack.
Just be sure to download the area on the Trailforks app first, there’s little to no cell coverage through the park’s 12,500 acres. We brought a paper map along as a backup, too.
There’s more trail here than you can ride in a day, and to hit it all requires a LOT of climbing. To get a good taste of what’s here, work your way up Hi-Dee-Ho from the parking lot, then take a left on Brushy Mountain fire road…and catch your breath, that’s a solid climb right out of the gate. But it’s the quickest way to get to the good stuff.
You’ll see the entrance to Gauntlet, which is one of Carvins Cove’s signature downhill runs, but keep riding to OG. This one’s a newer jump line that quickly merges back into Gauntlet, giving you more kick for your climb. (We’ve got a little footage of all this in the video, showing way more variety than what’s in the photos here)
At the bottom, turn left on Lakeside and follow the water’s edge for a bit before you start a gradual climb toward Hemlock Tunnel. Word of caution: Looking at the map, you might be tempted to go left and climb Hemlock as a “short cut” to the top of more advanced descents…don’t do it.
Hemlock runs the other way and is a brutal hike a bike in the best of conditions. Go right, enjoy yourself, then hit Kerncliff around to Upper Comet.
Another word of warning on Hemlock: It’s one of the rougher, rockier trails here, and it gets covered in leaves in the fall. Which can make it treacherous as you’re basically blind to the terrain underneath.
Carvins Cove has a mix of packed gray dirt, softer “regular” looking dirt, and a lot of broken rock. Several types of rock, from the flat shale-like sheets that crackle under your tires, to the chunkier kinds that challenge all riders. And roots:
In fact, some big roots with eroded cross sections that turn them into substantial impacts. We rode an Evil Offering (150mm front, 141mm rear w/ Vee Rail Escape trail tires) and a Rocky Mountain Instinct (140/140 w/ Maxxis Minion DHF/DHR tires), which were the right mix of long travel and climb-ability to make the most of the terrain here.
Trail markers are at most intersections, making navigation fairly simple, but a map or app still helps a lot.
Songbird is one of my favorite trails here. It’s not super technical, but it flows so damn well in both directions that it’s worth riding back and forth. Then, jump on Rattlin’ Run for an intense finish that spits you back out at the parking lot.
Other favorites here include Trough and Four Gorge (plus extension). Gluttons for punishment can follow the course map for The Gamut, a now defunct mountain bike race that hit every. single. trail.
Our loop is a solid 2-2.5 hours of riding (or 5-6 if you’re doing photo and video!), so you could definitely tackle more. Snap a pic of the trail map on your phone and bring more water than you think you’ll need!
Reward yourself for a big day with some killer takeout from Mac & Bob’s, then take advantage of Parkway Brewing’s big selection of fresh, local beer and ample outdoor seating. Both are just south of the park in Salem, VA, and easily on the way back into Roanoke.
Waid Recreation Park Mountain Bike Trails
Looking to hone your ramp and skinny skills? How about monstrous rock gardens? And cool off with a lazy river float afterward? This is your spot.
Highlighted by the all-new Skeletor Trail, Waid Recreation Park in Franklin County is a multisport public park with fields for everything. And about 12 miles of technical singletrack made infinitely more fun by surprise tech features around every corner.
Hidden in the trails are tractor tires, fallen trees turned into skinnies, man-made skinnies, crazy rock sections, and more than a few jumps. Watch the video for a better look at all of these features and the terrain.
The Old Buzzard jump line progresses bigger and bigger as you go down it. For beginners, the length is just enough to run laps on it and practice, and everything’s rollable. For huckers, it’s easy to go big, go fast, and catch serious air. Neither of us usually take big jumps, but we quickly got the hang of it and felt comfortable pushing our comfort zone (just a little).
Waid’s trails are an odd mix, offering flow trails and technical sections, jump lines and virtually road-smooth transfer sections. With a stream crossing, fire roads and paths through active farmland, too.
The maps don’t do a great job of highlighting a logical route, so we’d suggest tackling them in this order:
- Take Old Carolina Road up to the top
- Upper Skeletor to Skeletor
- Boone Farm Loop Trail, then cross the river
- Old Buzzard Jump Line, then ride back to its start
- Turn right into woods on Boone Farm Loop Trail
- Ride Shine Runner Technical Loop
- Shine Runner
- Calico Rock Loop Trail
…then take the path around the field back to the parking lot. From here, head back up the entrance road and duck onto Sourwood, Revenuer’s Run, First Run, Second Run and Thumper for a few laps around the middle.
Check out their promo video for another look at the trails, and download the trail map before heading out. And when you’re done riding, $5 gets you a inner tube and unlimited use of the river. A 10 minute walk rewards you with a 30 minute float in refreshingly cool water!
Local intel and more area mountain bike trails
Local singlespeed pro Gordon Wadsworth, who we tried to race (and lost) on his home turf, can’t say enough good things about Mill Mountain. It drains fast, so it’s rideable year round, and presents 10+ miles of technical challenges and fast descents…all earned by legit climbs.
We ran into Bike VA rep Kyle Inman, who also loves Mill Mountain as a quick after work ride. He provided a wealth of other trails worth riding, too:
- Ft. Lewis Mountain is a 20-mile long ridge with 2000′ vertical and a double black drop called Elevator Shaft that the Blue Ridge Gravity boys and girls love and fear. Also check out Big Bad Wolf, a terrific CCC built singletrack.
- Dragon’s Back, officially North Mountain, is the infamous 12 mile spine that always takes a pound of flesh, and that’s before you make it up there on any one of the CCC handbuilt singletrack climbs (and sweet descents). In addition to the undulating (often steep) ridge full of embedded limestone scales and teeth, it has endless views when leaves are down.
- Dody Ridge is the rocky moonscape, Mineshaft is a neat glimpse back into pig iron mining, Spec Mines the delicious 2 1/2 mile drop from the 96 mile marker. Most climbs to the ridge are 1000′ over two-plus miles.
- Arcadia is the big, deep woods trail network between Peaks of Otter and I81. Made for all-day epics, a few of the trails are on Trailforks, and many that are not, and many that are being improved or fresh cut (perhaps in a renegade fashion). It’s all Jefferson National Forest, with camping, big climbs, ancient trail descents, trout fishing, and more. It’s also well used for gravel epics, the recent Roa-stoked socially distanced race and the Chamois Shredder Challenge, a crazy 120-mile “gnarvel” ride that spans nearly the entire Blue Ridge zone.
- The Pandapas Pond area in Blacksburg, less than an hour from town, is similar to the Cove in scope and scene. One huge difference is with road access to the ridge, all the best downhills can be shuttled. This area is home to the Rowdy Dawg race, circa 1988.
- Douthat State Park, just 55 scenic minutes from downtown and home to 23 Middle Mountain Momma races, it has CCC-built singletrack galore within the park, and epic backcountry that continues into the George Washington National Forest surrounding. While you’re up that way, check out Hoop Hole and Iron Ore Trail, too.
Kyle mentioned more trails, but some are of dubious legality…for now. Roanoke is actively expanding their riding opportunties. Like the new flow trail at Morningside Park, with beginner-friendly trails that are still fun for “real” riders, making it a great spot to introduce your kids to berms and flow.
Local Bike Shops
Just The Right Gear is on the road to Carvins Cove’s Bennett Springs trailhead. Word is owner Steve Hetherington is a racing legend from the early 90’s. At 61, he still kills folks half his age. They also have a 60-member youth race team.
Cardinal Bicycle is the local Specialized dealer and new owner Whit Ellerman is active in trail development, a force behind an all new city park trail-with-features project.
Trek dealer East Coasters has been on the scene in support of many things for many years, including MTB races, CX races, pioneered youth racing, repair clinics, and much more.
Downshift Bikes and Brews started as a cafe/lifestyle bike shop and is now fully in the mountain scene picking up Norco and Ibis. They’re also into e-bikes.
Explore Park Treetop Quest high ropes course
All ride and no play makes for some grumpy families sometimes. So we’re always looking out for ways to mix up the experience with other family-friendly outdoor adventures. We started our trip with the Treetop Quest high ropes course at Explore Park. Just 20 minutes southeast of downtown Roanoke, it’s easy to get to and a great spot for getting wiggles out.
It’s a serious workout, and we worked up a serious appetite. Visit on a weekend and you’ll be able to grab a burger and a beer from Twin Creeks Brewpub at Brugh Tavern, located right inside the park.
Unfortunately, they’re not open on weekdays yet, but Twin Creeks Brewery is in nearby Vinton, VA, which is sort of en route back to downtown Roanoke. Or, pack a picnic lunch and head down to the edge of the Roanoke River…also directly on site:
Bring water shoes as the bottom is rocks, rocks, and more rocks. But it’s refreshingly cool, with a floatable current. Blue Mountain Adventures runs tubing shuttles there, and manages cabins, glamping tents and rustic campsites in the park, too. So, if you wanna stay out of the city, this is the spot.
They do have mountain bike trails here, but even they’ll admit they’re a work in progress. As of this post, there’s a half million dollar skills park and singletrack network planned for construction in 2021.
Where to eat, stay and play in Roanoke, VA
We mentioned Mill Mountain’s legit singletrack and hiking (it’s steep, for real) with a gorgeous view as the payoff, but Roanoke has a lot more on tap (literally) for foodies, beer connoisseurs, and art lovers (like this massive Art Walk starting at Black Dog Salvage).
We stayed at the Hampton Inn & Suites Downtown, which is both centrally located and conveniently across the street from Deschutes’ east coast operation:
It’s also right across the street from their Saturday morning farmer’s market, which gets a late start around 9-ish. (Technically, it’s open daily, but there’s lots more there on the weekend. We love that it’s a permanent fixture smack dab in the middle of their city!)
Breakfast presented a number of great options. Trust me, you want these things before a big day of riding.
Top row is Crumbles’ DGB (Double Sausage Bacon) meat-and-egg-and-cheese biscuit and their amazing honey-drizzled cinnamon buns. Also try their Angry Chick(en) biscuit. I’d drive back just for these, but it’d have to be on a weekday…they’re closed on weekends.
Bottom row has fresh chicken biscuits and cinnamon rolls from Scratch Biscuit Co., which is a great weekend morning option that does curbside pickup (and has outdoor seating) And they have Brisket biscuits and other big, meaty combos to fuel all-day epics. On the right is Downshift’s breakfast bowl, their singular food item to go with a big selection of hot, iced and nitro’d coffee drinks.
Downshift Bikes & Brews is also a bike shop, with a great sorta-secret rooftop patio that makes a fine spot to welcome the day.
Post ride (and hopefully post shower), hit Big Lick Brewing Company. They have plenty of outdoor seating and a solid collection of beers to satisfy everyone in your group. Just wait until the sun comes down a bit, their patio bakes in the afternoon sun. Weeknights are far less crowded, but even the Friday night crowd wasn’t too crazy.
Dinner options abound, with an international smorgasbord of ethnic options. Like tacos. Tuco’s Taqueria Garaje sits right across the street from Big Lick. If you like supersized Mexican dishes, definitely hit up Alejandro’s Mexican Grill for monstrous (and delicious) burritos.
A few other favorites from our trip include Benny Marconi’s (eat their 28″ pizza in 28 minutes and win $280…good luck, one of us tried), Leonore’s Venezuelan food and their mouthwatering (and shareable) Pepito Sandwich stuffed with steak, chicken, chorizo sausage, bacon, mozzarella, parmesan, and topped with coleslaw.
Walk some of that off with a stroll down to A Few Old Goats Brewing, then check out the worn-through boot rest at Texas Tavern. Open since 1930, it’s a 24/7 spot for hotdogs and hamburgers (order the Cheesy Western and a dog, trust me), perfect for those late night cravings.
COVID safety precautions on this trip
Here’s what we, and the VBR area, did to practice social distancing and keep everyone healthy during our visit in July 2020:
- Roanoke has a COVID19 resource page listing businesses, restaurants and bars that are open, offering takeout, or making other arrangements.
- Our hotel had plexiglass barriers between front desk workers and guests, and limited access to the lobby. Breakfast bags were made available to-go only, and they only offered coffee via in-room machines. Our room had a small balcony, which let us open the door and move fresh air in/out of the room, which was nice (the room didn’t smell, we just wanted to get air movement before settling in).
- A few Roanoke restaurants have outdoor seating, but all were limiting headcount inside and required masks until seated. All of the ones we visited offered food to go. Besides an otherwise empty dining room during lunch one day, we did not sit inside any restaurants to eat.
- Some breweries remained closed. We stopped in Deschutes for a drink, where the staff wore masks the entire time, but otherwise only patronized locations offering outdoor seating. AFOG, Big Lick and Parkway breweries required masks to enter and order and weren’t allowing anyone to stand around inside.
- Generally speaking, Roanoke businesses and people seemed to get it, and there are ton of options to suit anyone’s comfort level. Outside of Roanoke, businesses and locals had mixed levels of mask wearing and apparent concern. VBR tells us they’re actively communicating with all surrounding counties and local businesses to encourage proper safety and precautions, so our best recommendation is this: Take a peek inside any establishment before committing to a seat, and if they (and the patrons) meet with your expectations and comfort level, go for it.
Got any other favorite spots around Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains? Add them to the comments, along with any questions about the area or our rides.
Full disclosure: Visit VBR covered our hotel, most of our food, and provided financial support for us to make this trip.