Roanoke College has an expansive mountain playground as its backyard, and students here have access to world-class hiking, biking and paddling, all just minutes away. In fact, readers of Blue Ridge Outdoors magazine named Roanoke as the top large adventure town in the Blue Ridge, a province of the Appalachian Mountains that spans from Pennsylvania to Georgia, and out to Tennessee.
Needless to say, students at Roanoke College are rich in opportunity for outdoor adventures. The Outdoor Adventures program here offers everything from weeklong backpacking trips to caving excursions to stand-up paddleboarding workshops. Here are five of the best experiences as culled from students in the program:
Carvins Cove: Carvins Cove is a natural reserve and reservoir that provides the Roanoke Valley with fresh drinking water. It’s also the second-largest municipal park in the country and a stand-out mountain biking destination. The Carvins Cove marina offers kayak, stand-up paddleboard and other boat rentals and is a quick 20 minutes from campus. The reserve also boasts more than 60 miles of trails used for hiking, trail running, horseback riding and biking, all winding through a variety of ecosystems. Nearby, Hay Rock hike offers gorgeous views of the Cove and surrounding mountains. “It’s one of the most perfect sunset hikes in the area, and there are really great trees to hang your hammock up in as well,” says Roanoke College junior Sarah LeMay. “The view of the sun setting over Carvins Cove - nothing could be better than that.”
Triple Crown: Virginia’s Triple Crown is a three-legged hike that hits the most popular destinations on the Appalachian Trail: Dragon’s Tooth, McAfee Knob and Tinker Cliffs. These can be completed individually as out-and-backs or together as a 37-mile loop, and each trailhead is no more than 20 minutes from campus. Each trail offers expansive views of the valley and mountains, but the view from the top of McAfee Knob stands out as the most photographed on the entire 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail. “I love McAfee Knob because the hike itself is not only fun, but it’s beautiful too and the view from the top is worth the hike,” says freshman Liz Kaminski of the 8-mile round-trip hike.
Up for a challenge? Earlier this year, sophomores Ian Densley, Connor Kinkema and Cole Hensen completed the entire loop in one day as a fundraiser for campus organization Earthbound. “We all woke up at 3:00 a.m. and started hiking at around 4:20 a.m. We finished the hike at around 9:20 p.m. We hiked a total of 38.2 miles with an elevation change of 20,000 feet,” said Densley.
Peaks of Otter and the Blue Ridge Parkway: Not far from campus via the Blue Ridge Parkway is the Peaks of Otter recreation area. While the drive is an attraction in itself, what makes this area noteworthy are two hikes: Sharp Top and Flat Top. Sharp Top is a steep 3-mile round trip hike that offers unrivaled, 360-degree views of Roanoke, Lynchburg and beyond. It is one of the most popular in the region, and at one point was thought to be the tallest mountain in the state. Nearby, Flat Top mountain is a slightly longer, slightly more meandering trek through mountain laurel to another great view. “I like Flat Top because of the rewarding view, and it’s not heavily trafficked,” says senior Isabel Hildesheim.
“We hope that students can learn something about themselves and connect with others on our trips.”
Patricia Lynn, assistant director of campus recreation for outdoor adventures
Roanoke hikes: There are plenty of adventure options within the confines of Roanoke County, city of Salem and city of Roanoke. A hike to the Mill Mountain Star – the one that greets everybody on I-81 South as they approach the valley – is easy, quick and more rewarding than driving to the lookout point. Just beyond Mill Mountain is Chestnut Ridge, a 5-mile loop through the forest ideal for easy hiking or trail running. Read Mountain in Roanoke County and Poor Mountain Natural Preserve in Salem are two more in-town hikes that offer solitude and great views. Explore Park in Roanoke County is a network of trails along the Roanoke River that also offers riverside campsites, cabin rentals and zip lining. Looking for something a bit flatter? The Roanoke River and Salem Greenways offer mostly paved, riverside walking and biking paths through different ecosystems and parks.
Waterfalls: Hikes in our area don’t just lead you to sweeping views of valleys and mountain ranges; you can also trek to beloved local waterfalls. Cascade Falls Trail in Giles County, about an hour south of campus, is the most popular and offers two routes to the extremely picturesque, 70-foot tall falls. Stiles Falls in Floyd County, also about an hour from campus, is an idyllic trail on a summer camp property. Junior Brandt Nethercutt says of the hike, “the waterfall is incredible and the hike is so peaceful. The scenery and mountain views are also spectacular, especially during the fall.” Apple Orchard Falls and Bottom Creek Gorge are hikes more convenient to Roanoke, but if you’re looking to explore near Shenandoah National Park, which is two hours north of campus, junior Camden Rosenfelder recommends Saint Mary’s Falls in Raphine, Virginia. “It’s a beautiful hike along a mountain stream with wild trout and a waterfall at the end that you can jump down.”
This list barely scratches the surface on adventure possibilities a short drive from Roanoke College’s campus. Lucky for students, they have opportunities through the year to experience these and more. “We hope that students can learn something about themselves and connect with others on our trips,” says Patricia Lynn, assistant director of campus recreation for outdoor adventures. “Whether it’s by conquering their fear of heights rock climbing at Pilot Mountain, running a rapid at Balcony Falls on a whitewater kayaking trip, completing our 20-mile Catawba Challenge day hike, or even finding their balance at Roaring Run Trail on our walking meditation trip.”