Mountain Biking

Stars and Bikes | Riding the New Capital for Mountain Biking on America’s East Coast

We went to Virginia's Blue Ridge to see how it's become a heaven on earth for mountain bikers

The 100ft neon star at the top of Mill Mountain in Roanoke, a city on the East Coast of the United States, is comfortably the most distinctive man-made landmark in the Blue Ridge Mountains. After all, it’s a 100ft neon star and it’s on top of a mountain. Come on now.

It also happens to be surrounded by a plethora of mountain bike trails, and there’s something quite comforting about that, isn’t there? If the number one attraction on TripAdvisor is also a hotspot for mountain biking then you can safely presume that the place is probably a ‘mountain biking town’ by definition, and that you’re going to meet a lot of ‘mountain people’ while you’re there; the type that don’t mind if you’re covered in mud and won’t ask if you’ve ever competed in the Tour de France when they hear you’re there to ride a bicycle.

“The Roanoke Star has at least 94ft on the Bollywood legend”

The Roanoke Star is the largest freestanding star this side of the stratosphere. A quick Google search for the ‘biggest star in the world’ suggests that Indian film star Shah Rukh Khan is actually the biggest star in the world of course, but we doubled checked the maths on and Kahn is only 5ft 8”, so the Roanoke Star has at least 94ft on the Bollywood legend.

The star was originally installed on the 1738ft Mill Mountain in 1949 as a Christmas decoration, but like a student household who leave their fake Christmas tree up so long that eventually, there’s not much point taking it down at all, the locals in Roanoke liked the star so much that they decided to make it a permanent feature, and it’s now an icon of Virginia’s Blue Ridge. Rigged up with 2000ft of neon tubing, the star lights up each night, and on the way up to the star, and particularly on the way back down, there’s a lot of fun to be had.

Photo: Stuart Kenny

We spend the best part of an hour or so weaving and winding our way up to the top of Mill Mountain. You can see the star from almost any street in Roanoke, so we’d been a little wary of the climb – the star being so high up and lurking over us in the days and nights previous – but it wasn’t as punishing as we feared. The sidewinding trail was merciful and offered enough variety and trail features that the climb was actually, dare we say it, pretty enjoyable.

Looking out from the star back out over Roanoke, you get a fantastic sense for how green the whole region is. It’s really, really green. Extremely green. There’s a bit of city in the middle where you can see downtown Roanoke, and the neighbouring city of Salem (not that Salem), and then everywhere else is just… green. Green as a vegan cafe. Which is good, isn’t it? That’s what you want from a trail town. Bit of city. Lots of hills. Best of both worlds.

Pictured: Downtown Roanoke. Photo: Creative Dog Media

When you’re actually downtown in Roanoke it can feel like any other small city. It’s got the coffee shops, some great brewers, art galleries and an intensely chaotic pinball museum, but not every city can boast views of the Blue Ridge Mountains and access to the world famous Appalachian Trail (which strictly, sadly, doesn’t allow mountain biking).

Still, there are no lack of options when it comes to getting your turns.

“Within an hour of downtown Roanoke there’s over 200 miles of singletrack”

There are 13 miles of trail on Mill Mountain alone, a 10 minute cycle from the city. We take a trail called ‘Monument’ back down to the bottom and whizz over bone-shaking rocks, root and dirt in a fifth of the time it took us to get up the trail. There’s plenty of room to connect trails and make the mountain more of a rolling ride though if you wanted to make a day of it.

The good folks at the Roanoke Outdoor Adventures hub, where we rent our full-sus bike, tell us they often head up Mill Mountain to ride over lunch or for a ride after work on weekdays.

“It’s one of the few places where you can be downtown, then get on a bike and be on mountain biking singletrack in 10 minutes,” says Richard Blackwood, my guide to the trails in Roanoke. Richard is Ride Coordinator of the local Blue Ridge Off-Road Cyclists (BROC) group, dedicated to preserving and enhancing the trails in the area.

Pictured: Starr Hill Brewery. Photo: Visit Virginias Blue Ridge

The Mill Mountain trails are just the start of the riding in Roanoke, a city whose newly-received status as an International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) silver-level ride centre is quickly establishing it as the mountain biking capital of the East Coast.

“Within an hour of downtown Roanoke there’s over 200 miles of singletrack,” says Richard. “And that’s not counting fire roads or double track. That’s just pure singletrack.”

“That’s what you want from a trail town. Bit of city. Lots of hills. Best of both worlds”

All-included, there’s a whopping 320 miles of trail within an hour of downtown Roanoke. With that in mind, it’s almost remarkable it’s not become a mountain biking mecca before now.

The trails aren’t particularly new, either. Most of them were built within the last 15-20 years. The difference recently though, and something that sets Roanoke apart from a lot of places with great mountain biking potential, is that the city is doing all it can to help mountain biking grow in Roanoke. Bureaucracy doesn’t get in the way here.

Photo: Stuart Kenny

“It started off as just a few trails,” says Richard. “There was a trail called Four Gorges built by four brothers. It had been ridden a lot but it was unofficial. The city knew they could fight it and just constantly have people putting the trail back in, or just say ‘okay let’s make it a trail’.

“That was one of the first ones out and then it expanded from there into the lowers. Once they realised there were people who were willing to come on out and work on the trails, and that they weren’t having to dump a bunch of money into it, they really gave their blessing.”

We rode the ‘lowers’, a section of the nearby mountain biking paradise of Carvins Cove, the previous day, taking us through enchanted forests, up winding climbs quickly rewarded with technical downhills and past wild deer and turkeys and below hawks. We hear stories of the black bears that often roam the trails though sadly, or perhaps luckily, none pop up.

Carvins Cove Natural Reserve is the second largest municipal park in the country, covering 11,363 acres. It includes McAfee Knob, one of the most commonly photographed spots on the Appalachian Trail, and more importantly, boasts 45 miles of mountain bike singletrail.

Photo: Stuart Kenny

The area can be divided into the upper, steep climbs rewarded by stunning panoramas of the surrounding mountains and reservoir, and the lowers, which offer up an enormous variation of rolling forest mountain bike trails expertly maintained and always expanding.

“There’s a really strong volunteer organisation and its stepped up since the city stepped up and started backing the riders and giving permissions to expand the trails,” Richard says.

“It’s made a huge difference in people’s willingness to help out and do more instead of just going out to ride occasionally. We have a couple of different crews now, and they’re all volunteers. They build trail because they love doing it and they get enough out of it that they want to give back and help build Roanoke into an even bigger mountain bike destination.”

One of the things that strikes us when we ride is how well the builders have made use of the forest; with what must have been meticulous planning in order to map out trail routes which offer variety in both feel and views, without ever feeling like they’re imposing on the forest or taking away from its beauty and wild feel. As a mountain biker, these are the sorts of trails you like to dream are in every forest you drive past on a daily basis, but rarely actually find.

Pictured: Carvins Cove. Photo: Sam Dean Photography

It was in May 2018 that Roanoke were recognised by IMBA for their efforts. IMBA say their Ride Centres denote the “pinnacle of mountain bike communities”, and there are currently only 39 in the world. Roanoke is the first spot on the East Coast to be awarded silver status.

“It’s very recent but we’re already seeing an influx of people coming in and riding from different areas,” says Richard.

“Roanoke might just be on the brink of becoming one of the most visited mountain biking destinations in the United States”

“I think that’s really going to ramp up as the weather gets better through spring and summer.”

There are plans to develop certain areas of Roanoke, including the camping and luxury camping options in the city; in anticipation of the expected influx.

The trails are always developing too – we pass three new builds underway in Carvins Cove on our route. The half-finished ‘Rock and Roll’ route makes a fantastic out-and-back, flowing both ways, with beautifully sculpted stone bridges and river crossings, and the trail will make for a tantalising prospect when it’s done. It seems the trail network is always growing more, alongside the other essentials that Roanoke already has covered.

Photo: Stuart Kenny

The 10-stool Texas Tavern dates back to the 1930s and will whip you up something cheap and greasy if you want to put those calories back on after your ride, and the craft beer scene is flourishing – check out Starr Hill on Tuesday for a pub quiz or Deschutes on Wednesday to drink a huge variety of beer to a soundtrack of traditional string band Americana music.

We’re told on more than one occasion that most people who grew up in Roanoke used to get out as soon as they could, and only came back when it was time to raise a family or to retire – but that’s changing now.

The mountain biking community has given the city a new focal point; and a new pull for the youth to stay. There’s award-winning bike shops – check out Just The Right Gear – a diverse and developing trail network, and it all offers such variation.

Roanoke might just be on the brink of becoming one of the most visited mountain biking destinations in the United States, and they’ve got there in the best possible way – through the hard work of a community that just loves digging trails, and loves riding bikes.

Do It Yourself

We flew from Heathrow to Washington (Dulles) on British Airways, then got the Amtrak (train) from Washington D.C to Roanoke in Virginia’s Blue Ridge.

We rented bikes from Roanoke Mountain Adventures, rode at Carvins Cove Natural Reserve and on Mill Mountain Park, ate at the Texas Tavern, Tuco’s Taqueria Garaje and Fortunato and drunk at Starr Hill brewery.

For more information on travel to Virginia and the wider Capital Region visit:

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