While there are hundreds of miles of bike-legal singletrack in the Roanoke region (not to mention all the gravel roads and doubletrack), Carvin’s Cove is the undisputed hotspot. With the main trailhead located just 15 miles from downtown Roanoke (a metro area of 315,000 people), not only are the trails excellent, but they’re accessible as well.
By the time I hit Carvin’s Cove during my trip last November, I had already put in two long days of hard Appalachian Mountain riding, and I had a fourth long day planned for the ‘morrow. With 32 miles of trails in the Carvin’s Cove Trail System, there was no way we were going to be able to fully explore the singletrack solely under our own power. Thankfully, my local friend (Dan Lucas of Wilderness Adventure) is deeply involved in the local riding scene and was able to talk Chris from Roanoke Parks and Recreation into spending a half day shuttling us up to the top of the mountain to hit the higher trails. In addition to helping us save our legs, I was also able to get the low-down from Chris on what’s going on at Carvin’s Cove.
After several conversation-filled rides to the top, I discovered that Carvin’s Cove is a pretty unique trail system. All of the land the trails are located on is owned by the City of Roanoke and, at 12,000 acres in size, it is the second largest municipal park in the United States (behind South Mountain Park in Phoenix, Arizona). All of the land (and the trail system on it) is managed by the Roanoke Parks and Recreation department.
Jeff and mudhunny used to live relatively close to Roanoke and rode Carvin’s Cove back in 2005. After chatting with Jeff and reading their reviews from that time, apparently there were already many trails on that tract of land, but they weren’t very well maintained and the signage was poor. Back then their general impression was that mountain biking at Carvin’s was tolerated more than it was encouraged.
In the intervening seven years, the city’s approach to the trail system has changed dramatically! Signage across the entire system is now excellent, and Roanoke Parks and Rec and the local mountain clubs have been investing time and money to improve and expand the trail system. The historic, largely unplanned trails that formed the core of the original trail system have been joined by sculpted, purpose-built mountain bike singletrack.
This change of heart is in accordance with Roanoke’s general drive to rebrand itself as an outdoor recreation destination. With the Appalachian Trail running along the ridge across from Carvin’s Cove (including Mcafee Knob, the most photographed spot on the Appalachian Trail), many rivers and streams, several rock climbing crags, and the massive George Washington and Jefferson National Forests, Roanoke truly has a lot going for it!
Also, while with 32 miles of trail there’s already a full day’s worth of riding at Carvin’s Cove, Roanoke isn’t satisfied with resting on its laurels. A master plan currently pending approval calls for up to 20 more miles of singletrack to be added to Carvin’s Cove (if everything is approved). With the possibility of a full 50+ miles of trail at Carvin’s Cove in addition to all of the other nearby trails, Roanoke is quickly developing into one of the top mountain biking destinations on the East Coast.
I know what you’re thinking: “Yeah, enough of these boring numbers. What are the trails actually like?! If the riding sucks, all of these numbers mean nothing.”
Well friend, let me tell you very emphatically: the riding is anything but sucky!
One of the things that makes Carvin’s Cove such a gem is the diversity of mountain biking opportunities available. The trails can be mentally divided into two different areas: “up high” and “down low.” While the trails in both of the areas connect seamlessly, the “up high” trails feature much more elevation gain and loss and are generally much more technically difficult. The “down low” trails still have a little climbing and descending, but it’s a much more moderate up-down-up-down style of singletrack. Also in the down low area, there are some very flowy intermediate trails and some flat singletrack trails that are very accessible to beginners.
All of the trails in the trail system are technically two-way, and while you can climb the singletrack to the top, most riders instead choose to climb the gated gravel road that we shuttled up and down.
Buck is a steep, rather techy descent off the top of the ridge. With plenty of off-camber roots and sections of sharp shale to keep you on your toes, the very narrow tread and pretty serious exposure in places compound the difficulty and create a trail that begs to be ridden fast but demands absolute control. Be sure to watch it in the switchbacks!
Hi-Dee-Hoe has the same super-exposed super-narrow bench cut tread as Buck. This trail requires laser-focus to descend fast–one moment of inattention and you could find yourself tumbling down the mountain side! The switchbacks up high can be a bit tricky too: keep your eyes open! After descending the steep side of the ridge, the trail continues to descend towards the trailhead but at a more gradual, rolling pace.
This fast descent off the top of the mountain will leave you wishing for more when you drop out at the bottom. The trail ends up on Timberview Road on the opposite side of the mountain from the main Bennett Springs trailhead, so just be aware that if you drop down this side you will either need to climb back up and over the ridge, circle all the way around the far end of the mountain, or hitch a ride.
The Trough is also home to an optional freeride section, housing most of the freeride features at Carvin’s. With berms, jumps, and drops of various sizes, The Trough is proof that Carvin’s Cove isn’t just a one-trick pony: it caters to all different types of riders!
This is the fastest, rowdiest trail in the entire trail system! While some of the descents off the top are tight and exposed with hairpin switchbacks, The Gauntlet, on average, is much more open with much better flow, allowing you to conserve your speed and blast down the mountain! There are tons of corners to carve up towards the top, but as the trail descends it gets rockier and rootier, transitioning into a high-speed suspension testing zone. Drop the saddle and be prepared to rock on this trail!
Note: Like The Trough, The Gauntlet does drop you down on the east side of the ridge, on the other side of the mountain from the Bennett Springs Trailhead.
While the down low trails are significantly easier than the steep up high trails, there’s still tons of great singletrack to be had!
Comet is a great descent despite being down low, with some super fast, entertaining sections! Still, this trail is pretty easy overall and a fun ride in either direction.
Four Gorge and Four Gorge Extension
Four Gorge is “down low” but still features a little climbing; I’d describe it as “rolling.” This intermediate trail features new school IMBA construction with excellent bench cutting, grade reversals, and trail armoring.
If Four Gorge is a great contoured trail, Four Gorge Extension is that times 10! The newest trail at Carvin’s Cove, Four Gorge Ext. was built with IMBA guidance and uses the latest and greatest IMBA trail building techniques. Excellent bench cutting, grade reversals, superb rock armoring, rollers, and excellent flow are all apparent on this short but oh-so-sweet trail.
A unique trail in this system, this flat singletrack runs through a stand of old growth pine trees. Evergreens aren’t very common in this region, so riding through the deep trees on the quiet of the pine straw is a rare treat for the locals.
While there are many trails that I didn’t talk about specifically in this blog post, that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth riding! Head on out to Carvin’s Cove and check them out for yourself!
Your Turn: Have you ever ridden Carvin’s Cove? What were your thoughts and impressions?