Over the years I’ve ridden a lot of the best singletrack the Southeast has to offer. From the steep climbs in Georgia, to the rocky trails of North Carolina, Tennessee, and Alabama, I thought I had a solid grasp on the type of trails to expect on the East coast. When I heard I was headed to Roanoke, VA to check out their trails, I figured the riding would be very similar to many of my usual spots. I had no idea of the rude awakening I was in for once I arrived.
IMBA Silver-Level Ride Center
Roanoke was recently named the first IMBA Silver-Level Ride Center™ east of the Mississippi. This means the community has spent years of hard work building an extremely well-rounded network of trails, along with a supportive local mountain bike community. The application process is extremely stringent and requires a determined team of local riders and volunteers to meet the strict guidelines IMBA sets. When considering a Ride Center, IMBA looks at the quality of trails, signage, and local bike infrastructure, as well as bike shops, food, and lodging options. Regardless of your thoughts on IMBA’s effectiveness, becoming a Ride Center is a big accomplishment.
Having never visited Roanoke, I was immediately surprised to find the city is located in a valley, surrounded by mountains. The way the city is situated, it looks like a mountain town ripped right out of the Western USA.
My first stop was Roanoke Mountain Adventures (aka RMA) to pick up my rental bike. The guys there were super helpful, and got me all set up to ride. I rode around town that night to check out the nightlife, which I may have reconsidered had I known what I was in for the next day.
On the first morning of my visit I connected with Roanoke IMBA president Kristine McCormick. We met at a coffee shop downtown, where I attempted to flush out my hangover. I assumed we would be driving from downtown to the nearest trailhead, but once we walked outside, we hopped on our bikes and started riding. Kristine guided me through a few alleyways and gravel roads to the base of Mill Mountain, which features a winding network of singletrack that climbs up to the top of the mountain.
Mill Mountain Trails
We began the climb up a smooth flowy trail called Monument. Once we got a little further up the mountain, we crossed over the famous Blue Ridge Parkway and started getting into some of the more technical trails. Most of the trails were fairly similar, but all were super fun.
I did a few laps on Woodthrush, Ridgeline, and Understory (locals refer to it as Undertaker.) Each trail was rocky, flowy, and slightly technical. I sessioned a few of the rockier sections, as well as a few alt lines which added some excitement to the ride. Once we got to the top of the mountain we rode to the Roanoke Star. Standing over 80 feet tall, the star overlooks the whole city and is visible from 60 miles away. We rested at the overlook, then bombed back down the mountain to grab some lunch.
How’d Roanoke become so rad?
At lunch, I took the opportunity to bombard Kristine with questions. I couldn’t believe that I had never heard anyone talking about the riding in Roanoke. There are amazing trails accessible from downtown, a solid bike culture, and great beer. I figured this would already be an established cycling destination.
Kristine informed me that none of this happened overnight. The local IMBA chapter and the tourism board have been hard at work for the past decade to transform Roanoke into a cycling mecca. Once we finished eating, we headed to the infamous North Mountain.
North Mountain / Dragon’s Back
Just outside of Roanoke in Salem, VA is North Mountain. The parking lot for the trailhead is shared by hikers for the Dragon’s Tooth Trail which is part of the Appalachian Trail. Once you cross the street, you immediately begin climbing.
North Mountain (aka Dragon’s Back) is rated as a double black diamond on Singletracks, and I very quickly found that rating to be accurate. The climb up to the ridge was extremely steep, rocky, and technical. There are several hairpin switchbacks that if you can clear them, will make your heart rate soar. North Mountain is a true backwoods riding experience, with huge rock formations, plenty of wildlife, and no cell service.
Once I got to the ridgeline, I came across a series of giant flat rocks that shifted on top of each other as I rode across them. Kristine had warned me about these, and informed me that the locals call them “Dragon’s Scales.”
Off the ridgeline there are three trails that run down the mountain and are connected by a forest service road at the bottom. These trails are called Deer, Grouse, and Turkey. I was exhausted from the climb, not to metion my morning ride, so I decided to ride Deer as an out-and-back and then head back to the trailhead. Deer was super rocky, but was also pretty flowy and had plenty of spots to let off the brakes and gain a ton of speed.
Once down at the forest service road, I turned around and climbed back up to the ridge. At this point, I was exhausted and knew I had to be smart on the final descent so I wouldn’t make any careless mistakes. Riding down the mountain was extremely technical and challenging. The trail gets very narrow, has several nearly impossible switchbacks, and is littered with huge rocks. Once I got to the bottom, I was ready for a cold beer. After a few drinks with Kristine at a local brewery, I was done for the day.
The next morning I woke up tired and sore. I was dropped off at a trail system near North Mountain called Carvins Cove. I met up with Steve Hetherington, owner of Just The Right Gear bike shop. Steve’s shop is located close to the trails, and he has been riding Carvins Cove for years. After examining the map, I realized that there is a seemingly endless amount of trail here. There is everything from beginner and intermediate singletrack trails to expert level jump trails.
We immediately hammered up a steep climb to the ridgeline and hopped on a double-black trail called Royalty. The trail was very narrow and rocky, with several rock-filled chutes to guide riders down the mountain. I would’ve rated it as just a black diamond compared to North Mountain, but it was a super fun techy trail.
From Royalty, we rode a connector trail called Lakeside, which brings riders alongside the reservoir. We connected Lakeside to another double black called Hemlock Tunnel. This trail leads through brushy growth with several creek crossings and tech features. We came around a turn and saw a huge black bear resting in the woods. The bear got up, looked at us, and walked deeper into the woods, ignoring us entirely.
We continued down the winding trail and began to climb the Brushy Mountain trail back up to the ridgeline. Steve tells me the locals refer to this section as the “2 Mile Climb.” It was every bit of 2 miles long, a grueling exposed gravel climb that had me in my granny gear the whole way up.
We rested at the top before beginning our final descent, a black-diamond trail called OG which we connected with a double black called The Gauntlet. These trails are both super technical and run alongside several huge jump lines. We chose to stay close to the ground and bypass the jumps. The rest of the trail was extremely fast and flowy, while remaining technical enough to be challenging. We rode 22 miles total which is only about a third of everything that Carvins Cove has to offer.
Roanoke Bike Shops
Whether you’re planning to rent a mountain bike for your trip to Roanoke, or need to make a quick repair, these shops are a good choice.
Roanoke Mountain Adventures is a full-service outfitter, offering everything from bike rentals and shuttles to paddleboards and kayaks. Make sure to swing by for their “Thursday Night Special” mountain bike ride every Thursday at 5:30pm.
Underdog Bikes is located at the base of Mill Mountain and is a full service bike shop. They carry a wide selection of mountain bikes, as well as rental bikes to use on the nearby greenway. Be sure to say hi to their shop dog, Zombie!
Just The Right Gear is located outside of Roanoke in nearby Salem,VA, near Carvins Cove and North Mountain. Just The Right Gear has the best mountain bike selection around. They are the real deal; an old school mountain town bike shop.
Downshift is equal parts bike shop, coffee shop, and bar, Downshift is a unique shop for Roanoke. Focusing mainly on commuters, it is still a great spot to pony up to the bar for a brew and some shop talk.
Parkway Brewing, located in Salem, is the perfect spot to hit after a ride at Carvins or North Mountain. Founded in 2012, they have an incredible space, and even better beer. I recommend their Get Bent Mountain IPA, and the Majestic Mullet Krispy Kolsch.
Soaring Ridge Craft Brewers started out as a home brew operation, quickly gained steam, and transformed into a full fledged brewery. The brewery always has their six flagship beers on tap, along with countless rotating seasonal beers. Their tasting room is equal parts brewery and tailgate party. With large picnic tables, cornhole, live music, and bar games, Soaring Ridge is a lively spot! I recommend their Trailhead Nut Brown Ale, as well as the Switchback IPA.
Twin Creeks Brewing Company is located in nearby Vinton, and for them, brewing beer is clearly a labor of love. Owned and operated by three longtime friends who started brewing beer at home in their garage, they live and breathe beer. Their small tasting room hosts live music as well as food trucks every week. I recommend the Raging Rapids Double IPA, and the Lazy Days Saison. Also, be sure to look above the bar to see some of the original buckets they used for their first homebrews.
Ballast Point was started in 1996 in San Diego, CA, and is now one of the biggest names in craft beer. In 2017, they opened a massive operation in Daleville, VA. The 300,000 square foot facility houses a massive packaged sales operation, as well as a full service restaurant and tasting room. Located near an Appalachian Trail trailhead, the tasting room overlooks gorgeous streams and rolling mountains. Be sure to try some of their seasonal options like the Watermelon Dorado IPA as well as their flagship offerings.
Where to eat (and drink some more)
Mac & Bob’s is just a short drive from Just The Right Gear, and is a great spot for post ride grub. Offering up everything from burgers and sandwiches, to pizza and calzones, they will have something for every rider in your group. They have an awesome outdoor patio and a massive beer list.
Holly Jo’s, in Boones Mill, VA, is a great, real deal Southern restaurant. From a small kitchen they pump out Southern delicacies such as fried okra, pimento cheese, and chicken & dumplings. Be sure to leave room for some of their amazing banana pudding.
Jack Brown’s Beer & Burger Joint is right in the heart of downtown Roanoke, and is the spot for late night burgers and brews. From the outside, Jack’s looks like your typical dive bar, but their extensive beer list and food menu sets them apart from the others. Jack’s beer list definitely contributed to the hangover that followed me up Mill Mountain the next morning.
Go to Roanoke
I went into this trip expecting a series of local mountain bike parks with flow trails. Instead, I experienced some of the most aggressive and technical singletrack that I have ridden on the East Coast. After riding these trails, it was immediately apparent that the work done here has been a labor of love. The mountain biking community in Roanoke is strong and honestly, inspiring. I see Roanoke transforming into a major outdoor destination in the coming years, and I can not wait to come back to check out some of the trails that I missed!
Travel support provided by Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge.