One of mountain biking's beautiful ironies is the simple truth that mountains are rarely involved in this pursuit. Pinkbike sees over 3 million unique visitors on a daily basis, and while there are certainly those who are fortunate enough to call the mountains home, a large portion of that massive number (myself included
) spend our time on trails found in flatlands and on modest hillsides. This is not an indictment on that fact at all as there are countless hours of fun to be had on trails that barely rise above sea level. But this is about the pull. The same pull that inspired the likes of John Muir, the renowned mountain man who eloquently stated "Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike.
" We may not all spend our time in the mountains, but we have all felt their draw. Muir may have spent most of his career exploring and writing about the summits of the western United States, but these ripples that span our planet's topography have a magnetic pull on mountain bikers that cannot be denied, regardless of which side of the Mississippi they may rise from.
The Appalachian Mountains are a venerable, if not ancient, chain that stretches 1500 miles from southeastern Canada into central Alabama. Erosion has whittled what was once a range that reached heights rivaling the Rockies or Alps down to the humble and knobby peaks and ridge lines we know today. While the summits may not be what they once were, many of the valleys below the range sit at or close to sea level, making for more than enough vertical for some imposing and beautiful vistas up and down eastern North America. One of the most celebrated and stunning regions throughout the Appalachians is the Blue Ridge mountain range. This particular area ranges from the Mid Atlantic to the Southeast and contains many of the east coast's most fabled and prolific mountains and trail networks. Cities and towns such as Asheville, Brevard and Harrisonburg have long dominated the attention of the mountain bike community and for good reason; they have massive trail systems and are home to some of the world's most talented riders. But there is a new contender ready to step up into the top ranks of east coast destinations and it sits squarely in the heart of the Blue Ridge mountains."Enjoyed your piece on PB. I'd welcome you to stop sometime and explore Roanoke, VA along the 81 corridor. We got some really good stuff growing, easy access to fun stuff and access to some epic backcountry."
The note was from Skip Huffman, Roanoke resident and one of the town's most vocal mountain bike ambassadors. Skip had read the story from Brevard and wanted to make it clear that the Blue Ridge mountains are home to more than just what you'll find in Pisgah. The 35 year old control room operator for a cement manufacturer grew up in Roanoke before moving away at the age of 18 and coming back 7 years later, primarily because he missed the riding. He has spent over 20 years of his life dedicated to riding trails and has never been more excited about the scene in and around Roanoke than he is now and for a good reason. The city itself holds three different trail networks within its limits including Mill Mountain and the growing legend of Carvin's Cove. Within a short drive lie some of the east coast's most well known destinations such as the George Washington National Forest, Douthat State Park, Dragon's Back on North Mountain and dozens of others all within an hour's drive of downtown.
Skip introduced me to Dan Lucas, one of the managing directors at Wilderness Adventure Center at Eagle Landing, the year-round retreat 30 miles outside of downtown Roanoke. What started 25 years ago as a youth camp with a single-roomed farmhouse has since developed into a 500 acre resort of sorts, with an 11 bedroom main lodge, two additional housing facilities including another 11 bedroom lodge and a lofted cabin, a fishing (and bike-jumping-into) pond with a gazebo, a bike shop, a sauna, zipline, climbing wall, ropes course, hiking and riding trails and one of the coolest office spaces you will find anywhere. This would be home base for the trip and would help cement the region as one of the best places I could ever imagine riding my bike. "We want to play a role in helping people get back in touch with nature." Dan tells me over a hot and delicious breakfast one morning. "Having bikes here is a big part of that. Its a sport that has been growing immensely and we live in an area that is perfect for bikes. We want to show people how beautiful this place is and do it by bike."
The Roanoke Valley has been long held in high regard amongst locals, with trails and riders coming from these parts for decades. But only recently have the city and county begun to take notice and fortunately they appear to see an enormous amount of value in the vast networks of existing trails and the potential for quite a bit more. With the formation of a local IMBA chapter and a rapidly increasing number of riders getting involved, Roanoke has embraced the mountain bike community in a way that many other towns and cities are hesitant to: by putting dollars into the trails. "The city caught wind of a lot of the work that was being done with some gravity trails and wanted to support it," says Dan. "It's kind of unheard of; a city supporting this gravity stuff, but they put their money where there mouth is and helped out to build these trails."
Julia Boas came to Roanoke 8 years ago fresh out of the University of South Carolina and b-lined to Wilderness Adventure with her freshly inked degree. The last thing she wanted to do was spend her time working in a traditionally professional setting and the opportunities available at WAEL were all too enticing to pass up. She worked her way up over the years to eventually become the Program Director before leaving last April to begin working for Roanoke Outside; a regional partnership program designed to bring more outdoor enthusiasts to the region, helping make endeavors such as mountain biking a big part of the economic development of the city and region. "One of the things everyone in the area thought was under-utilized were our mountains and trails. They were kind of completely overlooked for some time. There were people in the area that used them, but it wasn't something that drew people's attention in. So Roanoke Outside was initially created just to start getting the word out about our resources. But over time it has changed and is as much about the development of these resources and trails. We're helping with the greenway and river put-ins and helping to develop comprehensive trail maps."
When you have the opportunity to speak with people like Dan and Julia; two who's primary professional responsibility is to cultivate and promote a region and it's recreational resources and they're as stoked about their work as they are their free time, their own passion is easily felt and inspires your own. Over the course of a few days, it became clear that the Roanoke Valley has a community and infrastructure in place that is begging to leap onto the radar of riders everywhere. Whether its the plethora of built up singletrack and trails within the city limits, or the rustic sensory overload found in the hundreds of miles of backcountry trails throughout the region, there is virtually a lot of something for just about everyone. And there is a lot more of that coming.
"Once this movement started happening, it became a no-brainer for the community to embrace it. But I do remember moving here and not really hearing too many people talk about it," says Julia. Within the last 8 years however, Roanoke has gone from 0 breweries to 12 and from 1 bike shop to 7. There are weeknight XC races up and down Mill Mountain organized by one of those very shops. There's been a realization that if the region works to help expand and embrace the mountain bike community, everyone will benefit. This realization has had a profound affect on WAEL as well.
"I want to see us develop our guide service and its become one of my primary goals for the company," Dan notes. "There are 7 or 8 legitimate destination trail systems nearby that I could rattle off right now. We have the stuff in the city such as Carvin's Cove but what we want to start helping people explore is all of the backcountry options. Right now there just aren't a lot of companies offering guide service for this other than maybe Shenandoah Bike Company up in Harrisonburg and they're phenomenal, but there's no one in our area. Our trails are just so good that people deserve the chance to get on them and see for themselves."
Three days was enough time for me to realize I needed to spend many more down here to even come close to see what the region had to offer. Skip and Dan were kind enough to show myself and photographer Abe Landes some of the goods, including the bike park-esque Gauntlet Trail at Carvin's Cove. Starting high atop the ridge line that borders the western edge of the city, Gauntlet follows a flowy and winding trail down the mountain and is loaded with tables, step-ups, step-downs, berms, gaps and drops. It is impossibly fun, and best of all doesn't require a lift pass to ride. Gauntlet is just a small part of the Carvin's Cove trail network, which features miles of bench cut flow trails that can make you feel as though you're riding on an endless pumptrack through the Forest of Endor, or trails that hug the edge of the namesake reservoir and its Caribbean teal surface. Dan credits the amazing trails within the city to the hard work of several individuals working in concert as a collective including Sean Castle, Matt King and Randy Bousch among others. While these guys are hard at work with rakes, shovels, machinery and chainsaws, outside of the city you'll find a completely different but equally satisfying experience on your bike. The backcountry offerings of the region are countless and as word spreads of the area's treasure trove of singletrack, access grows as well. The 3,000 ft ridge known as North Mountain is home to several staples including Dragon's Back, a raw and stunning ride along the knife edge of the ridge line. Or the legendary Douthat State Park just north of the city, a place that has been attracting riders from all around the country for years.
There are certain places you will visit that you will expect to be amazing. A trip to Pisgah, or Sandy Ridge, or Whistler or any number of must-ride destinations that are so well known and beloved. But it's those moments that surprise you that tend to have the greatest staying power, and Roanoke was a mofo of a surprise. I was surprised by Wilderness Adventure at Eagle Landing, with its rustic yet beautiful aesthetics, much like the mountains that surround it and the amazing people who work there. I was surprised by the city of Roanoke, with a bevy of delicious breweries and eats, and an energy that was palpable as you walked the streets of downtown. But it was the trails and the mountains that surprised me the most.
When you come to Roanoke, you're reminded as to why its called mountain biking. These things were built to go up, and more importantly, down
mountains and indeed this place has plenty to offer. The are mountains in town and plenty more outside the city limits. Everywhere you look, you see a skyline of ridges and peaks, which once stood as high as any mountain in the country only to have erosion reduce them considerably. But the Blue Ridge mountains still hold many secrets and their forests are as deep as ever and are begging to be explored. As mountain bikers, we prefer to explore the ups and the downs of our mountains on two wheels; and there is perhaps no better way to feel a mountain's personality than to roll along its own unique topography, with gravity and muscle as our motor. Mountains are certainly no longer a requirement for fun on a mountain bike. If that were the case, most of us would never throw our legs over them in the first place.
John Muir had a lot to say about the mountains he spent most of his life exploring. Some people will tell you that he may have spent a bit too much time in them, but his words resonate with everyone who heed the same call he did. He often spoke of a deeper fulfillment found in their upper reaches and wrote of man's place in the universe from his seat between the pines. So I say head to the hills of Roanoke and see for yourself what they have to offer, for as Mr. Muir famously put it: "Going to the mountains is going home.”
For more information or to plan a visit to Wilderness Adventure at Eagle Landing, click here
For trail maps and help with planning your trip to the Roanoke Valley, please visit the Roanoke Outside website
Special thanks to Parkway Brewing
and Soaring Ridge Brewing
for the tasty brews.
Thank-you to Just the Right Gear
for setting Abe Landes
up with a proper steed for the weekend.