ROANOKE - On several occasions we have driven all 469 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Extending from Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the south to Shenandoah National Park in the north, the parkway is one of the most scenic routes in America. In all these trips we had not taken much time to tour Virginia's Roanoke Valley until this past October when we set aside several days to explore the area. We discovered Roanoke to be a vibrant city set in a gorgeous valley that offers a number of interesting day trips.  We have enjoyed quite a bit of travel and can report that the fall drive along the parkway was simply outstanding.

The current town of Roanoke initially went by the name of "Big Lick," after the area's salt marshes. No more than a village at the time, its growth commenced in the late 1800s with the arrival of the Shenandoah Valley Railroad. At this point the town's citizens decided to change its name to match that of the river that flows through the valley. Roanoke is derived from the Indian word "Rawrenock," a shell bead that was utilized for trade and worn by Native Americans. The railway that would become the Norfolk and Western helped Roanoke become a major transportation center.

Roanoke Today

With a population of just under 100,000, Roanoke lays claim to being named an "All-American City" on five occasions.  A thriving downtown offers galleries, museums, theaters, hotels, and condominiums, in addition to the usual assortment of banks, restaurants, stores, and offices.

The Historic Market District in the downtown center boasts a thriving City Market that dates to 1882.  Stands sheltered under blue and white striped awnings are open year-round to offer local produce, baked goods, a few meats, and handicrafts from local artisans.  The City Market building that once housed the farmers' market has been renovated and now serves as home to several restaurants.

Center in the Square, a building currently undergoing a $30 million renovation, will house the Science Museum of Western Virginia, the History Museum & Historical Society of Western Virginia, the Harrison Museum of African American Culture, and the Mill Mountain Theatre.  The Center's atrium is to have a 5,500-gallon living coral-reef aquarium plus three smaller aquariums. The building will be capped with a butterfly habitat.

A City of Culture

Downtown Roanoke galleries include Appalachia Press, Gallery 108, The Market Gallery, and Signature 9 Gallery, along with the Taubman Museum of Art. The latter, designed with a unique architectural style, serves as a center for the visual arts.  Collections on display during our visit included a variety of Faberge items and Judith Leiber handbags. Art Venture, a large studio in the Taubman, offers children and parents an opportunity to experiment and create their own pieces of artwork.

Train enthusiasts are drawn to Roanoke's two outstanding rail museums. The O. Winston Link Museum, located in the old passenger train depot, includes the Roanoke Valley Visitor Information Center and is an excellent starting point for a tour of the city. The Link Museum is comprised of seven galleries of Link's famous steam locomotive photographs.  It has been said that his photos are "vignettes into history and sociology of life in the late 1950's along the Norfolk & Western Railway."  A 30-minute film introduces Link and describes the process he utilized to produce his fascinating photographs.

The nearby Virginia Museum of Transportation is housed in the old Norfolk & Western freight station.  The focus here is on the area's railroad history, although the collection has been expanded to include antique cars, trucks, and buses, with aviation to be added soon. The building houses superb model train displays along with other train related exhibits. The rail yard showcases over 50 pieces of rolling stock, including a collection of diesel locomotives and two of Norfolk & Western's advanced steam locomotives.

Exploring the Roanoke Valley

Roanoke is a convenient base from which to explore the Roanoke Valley. Outdoor activities within an hour of the city include hiking, mountain biking, fishing, canoeing, kayaking, and golfing. Over 600 miles of hiking trails, including a section of the Appalachian Trail, are within easy reach. Mill Mountain Star Trail leads to the 60-year-old hundred-foot tall star that serves as the city‘s signature landmark. A nearby overlook offers an excellent view of the Roanoke Valley.

The valley's lakes, rivers and streams provide excellent fishing, kayaking and canoeing. Kayak and canoe rentals are available with or without guides. Guided fishing trips are also offered. Possible catches include large and smallmouth bass, striped bass, crappie, and walleye.

If golf is your bag (aren‘t we clever?), at least five public and semi-private courses in the valley are available for working on perfecting your game. A few of the courses offer specials and many lodging facilities offer packages that include golf.

Several sites in the Roanoke Valley area are popular with history buffs. Three of particular note are the National D-Day Memorial in nearby Bedford; Booker T. Washington National Monument in Hardy that preserves the birthplace of this famous American; and Poplar Forest, Thomas Jefferson's nearly forgotten retreat near Lynchburg. Special events are offered at each of the three locations.

Wine, Music, and Crafts in the Roanoke Valley

Oenophiles (wine lovers) will not be disappointed with wineries that are scattered throughout the valley. Several host special events.  During our stay Virginia Mountain Vineyards offered "Wine, Moon, and Stars," that included food, music, an astronomy exhibit complete with telescopes, and, of course, wine. Wine tasting and music were offered on Sunday afternoon when we stopped at the Chateau Morrisette Winery near Mabry Mill on the Blue Ridge Parkway. 

Roanoke Valley is a slice of Appalachia where residents are known for arts and crafts and music rooted in bluegrass and blues. This area is also well known for the making of musical instruments. Artists from a wide area are attracted to this beautiful part of the country and galleries are scattered throughout the Roanoke Valley. The best method for viewing the work of several artists without traveling all day is to attend an arts and crafts festival. Music festivals are also prevalent.

The annual Blue Ridge Folklife Festival held each October at Ferrum College includes craftspeople making guitars, banjos, fiddles, dulcimers, and mandolins. Traditional crafts represented include broom and basket making, chair caning, quilting, knitting, and wood carving.

Those interested in music and/or crafts should check the calendar of events on Roanoke Valley's website.  For those interested in learning or perfecting a craft, classes are offered at the Rocky Mount Center for the Arts in Rocky Mount.  Items made by local craftsmen are offered for sale.


Getting there: Roanoke, Virginia, is approximately 580 miles from Valdosta, depending on the route chosen. Include the Blue Ridge Parkway in your trip and the mileage and time required to get to Roanoke will lengthen. We chose to drive the parkway in slow motion in order to enjoy the fall foliage. A spring drive when the Rhododendrons are blooming would be equally rewarding.  Fights from Valdosta to Roanoke (via Atlanta, of course) start at around $520.

Where to stay:  Most major chains are represented in the Roanoke area.

Historic Hotel Roanoke & Conference Center in downtown Roanoke offers rooms starting around $150. Specials are frequently offered on the Internet (www.hotel The Inn on Campbell is a small, but elegant bed and breakfast with three suites.  Rates start $170 ( Parking is available in a lot across the street.

Where to eat: The Roanoker, at 109 West Salem Avenue, lives up to its reputation for serving award-winning breakfasts. On the Rise Bread Company in the Historic Market area at 303 Market Street is a great breakfast or lunch spot. Awful Arthur's Seafood Company in the City Market Building offers a variety of original hand-crafted beers along with good food. The dining room in the Hotel Roanoke is a good choice for either lunch or dinner. If you do not want to drive to dinner, the three Fork restaurants - Fork in the Market, Fork in the City, and Fork in the Alley - provide complimentary transportation in their Fork to Fork extra-long Checkered Cab.

The Homeplace Restaurant outside the small town of Catawba serves all-you-can-eat family-style meals in a farmhouse setting, Thursday thru Sunday. Ice cream addicts should take time to track down Roanoke area locations that sell Homestead Creamery Ice Cream. The best option is to drive to the creamery located at 7254 Booker T. Washington Highway near Burnt Chimney. Special flavors such as pumpkin, peppermint and gingerbread are available during the holiday season. The homemade eggnog is excellent but the boiled custard is a gift from the gods.

Additional information: Roanoke Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau, 101 Shenandoah Avenue, NE, Roanoke, VA 24016; (800) 635-5535;,

Kay and David Scott are authors of Complete Guide to the National Park Lodges (Globe Pequot). They reside in Valdosta.