BEST MID-SIZED MOUNTAIN TOWN: ROANOKE, VIRGINIA
The city of Roanoke is perfectly located: In the heart of the valley, with a river running right through town, and adjacent to George Washington and Jefferson National Forests. Not surprisingly, it's rapidly gaining a reputation as one of the country's top outdoor destinations.
From its beginnings as a railroad depot and industry-central town in southwest Virginia, Roanoke has transformed itself into an outdoor mecca. Built on the backs of blue-collar, industrious railroad workers, the city initially did not put much effort into its outdoor infrastructure because there was never a demand for it. As the population began to age, young people left in droves after high school, creating a generation gap. Many saw Roanoke as a quasi-retirement community.
That began to change in the late 1990s as a group of concerned citizens made the push for a large system of greenways tracing the Roanoke River as it flows through downtown. Then in 2007, Roanoke Outside (RoanokeOutside.com) was created to promote the city as an outdoors destination, and soon after, Virginia Tech opened its medical school in the city. These two events had a dramatic effect on the populace, simultaneously bringing an influx of young professionals and revealing Roanoke's world-class outdoor offerings.
"Roanoke has started to tout its amazing outdoor assets," says Aaron Dykstra, owner of 611 Bicycles. "People who work for the city, even if they don't ride bikes or hike or do anything like that, still support the outdoors because they know the impact it already has made here."
Dykstra is a case in point. After growing up in Roanoke, he bolted the city with all of his friends as soon as possible. Following stints in Chicago and New York, he returned to his hometown to start his business-611 makes handmade steel bicycle frames in a downtown shop-due to the low cost of living. As the city has changed, so has his attitude toward it.
"It's exciting to be a part of it and see the development," he said. "I certainly take a lot of pride in the fact that every bike that goes out the door here has a ‘Made in Roanoke' badge on it."
Stratton Delaney, who owns Starlight Bicycles, a bike shop that also produces custom apparel, says he would not have started a bike shop in Roanoke 10 years ago. Now his business is thriving, and he credits the community working together as a whole for the city's changing identity: everything from the dedication of the parks and recreation department to the development of downtown living space to the creation of events like Go Fest and bringing the Banff Mountain Film Festival's Radical Reels to town.
"It's our community that has made the difference," he said. "You can't just be a mountain town because you're in mountains. You really need a community that's going to promote it and get new people out. It seems like now every other car has a bike or kayak on top."
The outdoor opportunities have been here for decades. The Blue Ridge Parkway and Appalachian Trail run right outside of town. You can see McAfee Knob from downtown, and you can ride singletrack on Mill Mountain right from the greenway and Carvins Cove Natural Reserve is Virginia's largest conservation easement, holding over 40 miles of multi-use trails. There's also Douthat State Park, Smith Mountain Lake, and the New River all within an hour's drive.
Brent Cochran is another Roanoke local who returned after years out West. He has since helped create farmers markets and local non-profits, along with a climbing gym integrated into a new residential/commercial space. He believes all these aspects of the community are connected.
"People are coming here and saying, ‘These are the type of things we want in a community; we want that work/play lifestyle.' That's driving the food scene, that's driving the music scene; it all works together. You don't have one without the other," he said.
You can see it firsthand in the renovated Market Building downtown where locally sourced food is served at Firefly Fare or in the Carvins Cove parking lot after a Roanoke Outdoor and Social Club meet up. Delaney credits outings like communal bike rides every day of the week and group hikes organized by the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club with developing a social scene outside of bar hopping for people just moving to the area.
The city's reinvention over the past five years has been remarkable, and Cochran only sees good things coming in the future.
"Roanoke is definitely having a renaissance," he said.
ROANOKE QUICK HITS
Grab your rod and fish the delayed harvest section of the Roanoke River as it flows downtown; check in with Tom at the Orvis store for info (orvis.com). Bike up local favorite Monument Trail or Big Sunny to the top of Mill Mountain, and don't stop till you hit the star.
Cycle out to the Blue Ridge Parkway and enjoy the best riding on the East Coast in either direction. Explore Park, right off the Parkway, has 10 miles of IMBA-built mountain biking trails.
Hop on the A.T. and hike 3.5 miles to the most photographed spot on the entire trail, McAfee Knob. Over 40 miles of trail await hikers, bikers, and trail runners at Carvins Cove, just 20 miles outside downtown.Hidden Valley: Roanoke is nestled in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Appalachian Trail, and the Blue Ridge Parkway.
WHAT MAKES A GOOD MOUNTAIN TOWN?
No concrete criteria exist to quantify what makes a mountain town or how you achieve such a distinction. Not every town at a high elevation is a mountain town, but not every mountain town is in the actual mountains.
So what makes a good mountain town? The simple answer, to quote Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, is "I know it when I see it." You can usually tell if that dot on the map has an outdoor culture the minute you pull into town. Commuters on bikes, runners on a lunchtime jog, or a full tasting room at the local brewery are all good indicators you are in the midst of a mountain town paradise. These things are a big hint that the outdoor lifestyle is central to what makes up the fabric of a community, but ultimately they are a result and not a cause.
The single most important aspect of a mountain town is, and always will be, the people. You can have all the open space and money in the world, but it is the people of any given town that define it as true mountain town or not. Without a community committed to building the infrastructure, you are left with just a town in the mountains, not a mountain town. It is the people that enable a place like Chattanooga to transform their city from the most polluted in America to the most progressive; or a sleepy stopover like Damascus, Virginia to become "Trail Town, USA."
That's the funny thing about outdoor recreation: it takes a commitment from the people to maintain. Trails need clearing, rivers need cleaning, and access needs protecting. It would be easy for Asheville to rest on the laurels of its already robust outdoor reputation, but the community is constantly striving to improve the opportunities for its citizens to access the outdoors in any way possible.
Sure, bike lanes and municipal parks are great-really great-but the bottom line is these improvements attract the type of person who will settle in a town and open an independent outdoor outfitter or climbing hostel. It is this independent, can-do spirit that sustains a mountain town's economy and infrastructure for decades to come. What makes mountain towns special is the combination of local governments, entrepreneurs, conservationists, artists, and local outdoor enthusiasts working together to maintain their happy little hamlets.