5 Best Fall Foliage Adventures in Roanoke’s Blue Ridge Mountains
Roanoke is the highest rated mountain biking center in the East Coast, and it has far more outdoor activities besides. Here’s how to get outdoors on a fall foliage weekend in Virginia Blue-Ridge-Mountain town.
Roanoke sits in a valley surrounded by mountains that are lushly green in spring and that burst into impressive colors in the fall. With this funky, growing town as your base you can take in the fall foliage in the Blue Ridge Mountains in your car, on a hike, by mountain bike, road bike and even by kayak. If you want to sleep outdoors, too, there are some cool glamping opportunities not far from town with impressive views of the fall foliage.
Here's your guide to getting outdoors and enjoying the warm fall weekends in Roanoke.
Mountain Biking in Roanoke
The Roanoke Valley is the highest rated center for mountain biking on the east coast. This designation reflects the wide variety and quality of trails and the availability of cycling amenities. It also reflects a general bike-friendly culture in the local community.
You’ll find mountain biking trails ranging from easy to extremely advanced, as well as organizations and outfitters to ride with if you want a group experience.
For leaf-peeping while trail riding, you can’t beat Carvins Cove, a 12,500-acre park that’s ten miles from downtown and boasts impressive fall foliage. Its 60 miles of trails run through forests, around lakes, and up and down mountains. You’ll find beginner mountain biking trails with barely any rough patches, along with challenging downhill and off-road cross-country trails. Just exploring this park thoroughly could take a weekend—here’s what to pack for your mountain biking trip.
Mill Mountain Park is three miles outside of town and home of the Roanoke Star, which you can see from all over town. You can get to Mill Mountain via Roanoke’s greenway, so you don’t need to mount your bike on a car to get here. Not surprising, it’s a popular place for locals to catch a quick trail ride. It has 10 miles of biking trails. And you can combine road and trail biking so you can choose to do either your uphill or downhill ride off-road if you like.
Bicycling Around Roanoke
If you like getting around on two wheels but aren’t ready for mountain biking, bring or rent a road bike and explore Roanoke and the surrounding area via 30 miles of connected greenways. The sections that follow the Roanoke Riverand that head out toward Mill Mountain will provide some of the best autumnal views.
Tip: If you need to refuel during a long ride, locavore-favorite Blue Cow Ice Cream sits just off of the Roanoke River trail (right near the Walnut Avenue SE overpass). With all the exercise you’ve been getting you can happily tuck in to creative flavors like banana puddin’ and goat cheese with blueberry swirl.
If you don’t want to travel with your bike, you can rent bicycles and mountain bikes—and book guided rides—with local outfitters.
Packing Tip: The Stash crossbody bag is an ideal day tote for cycling. Wear it around the waist or across your torso, in front of you or behind. It’s just the right size for your essentials: phone, wallet, keys, sunscreen, lip balm, and a tasty trail snack. It’s light and moisture wicking, so you can wear it under your clothes without the items inside getting damp.
Hiking Near Roanoke
Mill Mountain Park, just three miles out of town, is also the place to head for a short, moderately easy hike with a great reward at the end.
There are several hikes up the Roanoke Star. And while they are uphill, none of them are more than a mile and a half—and the elevation gain is nothing compared to that on some of the nearby Blue Ridge Trails. Plan on 90 minutes to two hours round trip.
From the top You can get an up-close look at the star and panoramic views of Roanoke and the mountains and foliage for miles around.
If you’re looking for something more adventurous, hike up to McAfee Knob on Catawba Mountain, about 25 minutes outside of town. It’s an 8 to 11 mile out-and-back hike with a steady climb up of 1700 feet. It’s considered moderately difficult, mostly because of the elevation gain.
The payoff for your effort is one of the most photographed vistas on the Appalachian Trail. Give yourself a good half-day to do this hike. And consider packing lunch; it’s an amazing spot for al fresco dining with a view.
Packing Tip: It’s always a challenge to choose the right day bag for a weekend getaway that’s both outdoors in town. The Wayfinder Crossbody is an ideal solution because it has all the room of a backpack. You can wear it crossbody to keep your hands free while hiking. It’s also waterproof and has a handy water bottle holder on the outside, too. But it also works as a standard shoulder tote while you’re exploring the Saturday farmers market or local restaurants.
Fall Kayaking Near Roanoke
In southern Virginia, it can still be warm enough to get out on the water and go kayaking in the fall. The Upper James River in nearby Botetourt County has beautiful foliage and lots of places to stop for riverside picnics (outfitters will give you dry bags, and here’s what to pack for kayaking since it’s BYO for provisions). The rapids are class 1 or 2 by early summer. Unless your visit follows some heavy rain, this will be an easy paddle in the fall. It might underwhelm hardcore adventurers but it means you can relax and enjoy the scenery. Kids and dogs are usually welcome onboard the kayaks.
Smith Mountain Lake is a long lake with several branches, all surrounded by lush landscape that you can see from the water. The lake will be calm with a lot of the summer boat traffic gone, and it’s nice to see the surrounding fall foliage on the trees and reflected in the water. You can rent kayaks from several marinas around the lake and there are a handful of public boat launch spots if you bring your own.
Some marinas rent sailboats, too. An excellent option for seeing more of the lake and working a little less hard.
Fall Camping in the Blue Ridge Mountains
The camping season around Roanoke goes from April through November. Fall camping is a great way to be closer to the outdoor activities you want to do.
Explore Park is a county park about six miles from downtown Roanoke—or ten miles if you take the scenic route along a stretch of the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Private vendors manage pod cabins, yurts, large canvas platform tents, and treetop platforms. The pod cabins and yurts sleep two to six people and have refrigerators and microwaves as well as places for grilling and camp fires. The cabins have heat and air conditioning and some have gas fireplaces. The yurts allow pets. They’re BYO when it comes to food, bedding, and other equipment.
The large canvas tent comes with a queen-size bed and bedding and two twin-size fold-out beds. It also has dishes and cutlery and a propane gas grill.
The treetop platforms are just platforms. You need to completely pack for a camping adventure: bring your own tent, sleeping bags, and everything else you need for an overnight camp out. But you get to enjoy the foliage up close from inside your cozy sleeping bag—follow winter camping guidelines if you’re camping late in the season.
Explore Park has mountain biking and hiking trails, a treetop adventure course, river access for those with their own kayaks, and its own brewpub with local beers on tap. If you plan to camp here, leave time to enjoy the park.
If you want to make your kayaking an overnight activity, a company called Twin River Outfitters will set you up for one and two-night trips. Their private riverbank campsites have platform canvas tents with cots, a fire ring and Adirondack chairs, and an outdoor kitchen with a prep area, camping stove, basic pots and pans, and firewood. They’ll supply you with your kayaking gear, water and dry bags for you food, sleeping bags, and other gear. The one-night paddle is 22 miles; the two-night journey is 37.
Packing Tip: For total outdoor weekends, bring the 30-liter Wayfinder backpack, which can handle anything. It has a soft pocket for sunglasses, an outside pocket for a wet jacket, a side water-bottle pocket, a water-resistant pocket for your electronics, and even a place to attach a bicycle light, in case the day gets away from you. It’s designed to be roomy without being bulky and the straps should keep your shoulders from getting tired, even on your longer days out.
Scenic Drives along the Blue Ridge Parkway
If your legs need a break from all your outdoor adventures and you still want to enjoy some fall foliage, there’s an entrance to the Blue Ridge Parkway about 7 miles from Roanoke. In either direction you’ll pass scenic overlooks, and you can take turns at the wheel so everyone gets a chance to gaze at the mountains and the gorgeous fall colors. The National Park Service has online maps and other resources to guide your drive.
And of course, there are places to park and hike if you find out you aren’t so tired after all.
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By Eileen P. Gunn October 13, 2020
Eileen P. Gunn is a veteran journalist, parent and traveler. She’s written for Fortune, The Wall Street Journal and U.S. News and World Report. She’s traveled on five continents (three with her daughter). And she founded the family travel website FamiliesGo! You can follow her on Pinterest.