Featured Destination: Roanoke, Virginia

'The It Town for Paddlers': Rivers, Mountains, and Southern Comfort

Roanoke and the Roanoke River at dusk. Photo by Nathanial Jorge

Roanoke and the Roanoke River at dusk. Photo by Nathanial Jorge

Roanoke, Virginia, snuggles on the southern flank of the Blue Ridge Mountains. To the north and west, there are parallel ridges framing long, lovely valleys. To the south and east, the land gently undulates. For the paddler, this means options: whitewater up to Class V, lazily meandering rivers, and pure flatwater paddling too.

Looking for a gorgeous Class III float that’s loaded with pugnacious smallmouth bass? That would be the James River. Twin Rivers Outfitters services the James River, offering kayak, canoe and tube rentals and half-day, full-day, and overnight guided trips, with and without fishing. If you want to gorge on gorges, there's also the Bullpasture River. And the nearby Maury River offers Class I-IV whitewater and fishing through the spring and into early summer.

Photo courtesy Botetourt County Tourism.

Upper James River Water Trail. Photo courtesy Botetourt County Tourism.

Raymond Williams, a high school English teacher and avid paddler, says, "The Maury has more complexity and greater variety. The others are great too, but the Maury has it all, with Class I, II, III, and IV. It has sections for all levels. The scenery is great on the Goshen Pass is especially beautiful, with gorgeous cliffs and big boulders in the river and on the banks."

There's paddling right in town too as the Roanoke River meanders through the urban core, with a parallel trail system known as the Roanoke River Greenway, which paddlers use to shuttle. Visit Roanoke Mountain Adventures if you need to rent a SUP, kayak, or tube.

Photo by Sam Dean Photography.

Roanoke River Gorge. Photo by Sam Dean Photography.

If you want tighter waterways, creeks abound. Bottom Creek is steep with Class V stretches. Don't paddle it without a local guide. Craig Creek is the opposite; it’s a beautiful, meandering creek that feeds into the James River. Wilderness Adventure is located at Craig Creek’s Eagle Landing, about forty minutes from downtown Roanoke, and provides lodging, camping, parking, rentals, and shuttles. Johns Creek (Class IV), Barbours Creek (Class III) and Little Stony Creek are all stocked chockfull of trout. All told, there's more than a score of boat-floating rivers and creeks in and around Roanoke.

There are lakes too. Carvins Cove, the nation's second largest municipal park at 12,700 acres, is 15 times the size of Central Park. It has an 800-acre lake that alone equals Central Park. There are also 60 miles of trails for hiking, biking, and horseback riding. Lake Moomaw, north of Roanoke, is ringed by mountains and national forest, so it's undeveloped. Even its boat landing sites are undeveloped, which means it's mostly used by paddlers. Smith Mountain Lake, rightfully called the Jewel of the Blue Ridge Mountains, has 500 miles of shoreline to explore. Since the lake teems with striped bass, keep a rod handy, for if they rise to feed in front of you, they're powerful enough to literally pull your canoe along. Philpott Reservoir, south of Roanoke, also has undeveloped shoreline, as well as primitive camping on an island and shoreline camping with hot showers and flush toilets.

Photo courtesy Botetourt County Tourism.

Upper James River Water Trail. Photo courtesy Botetourt County Tourism.

Williams said, "My favorite flatwater is Philpott, which has a lot going for it. It's a really beautiful lake for flatwater excursions. There's a marina, but not a lot of traffic."

There's a paddling playfulness in Roanoke, VA, which manifests itself in events like the Pigg River Ramble, hosted by the paddling club Creek Freaks. There's also the Anthem GO Outside Festival, an October event that attracts tens of thousands of paddlers. You can learn to fly fish or watch folks dressed as superheroes run a 5k race. There are hundreds of workshops and a Wild Gear Chase, which has you literally running around Roanoke. The runners are turned loose in a tent, one at a time and in order from most to least checkpoints reached. The tent is filled with toys, from a kayak to a fat bike to Adidas shoes. Sadly, you may only pick one.

Go Outside Festival. Photo by Molly Hagan Photography.

Go Outside Festival. Photo by Molly Hagan Photography.

The Appalachian Trail runs just north of Roanoke for day or overnight hiking. Once you're atop a ridge, you can coast for a dozen or so miles before descending and ascending again. If you're less ambitious, there's Mill Mountain, which overlooks Roanoke. Climb it at night to see the glittering lights of Roanoke's 43 neighborhoods. South Roanoke, Grandin Village, and Old Southwest are all worth their own walk.

All the paddling, pedaling, and hiking is likely to leave you hungry. Roanoke is such a grub hub that it attracts food critics from Southern Living to the Food Network to Fodor's Travel Guide. The menu ranges from meat and potatoes to posh. For the former, there's Shakers Good Food & Drink, where you can get catfish with all the fixings, finished by Red Velvet Cake. Local Roots is well-named, as it's a farm to table restaurant. Their roasted sweet potato soup followed by Sunburst Farms trout is a twin win. If you're hankering for a different flavor profile, there's Cedars Lebanese Restaurant. Chicken shawarma is winner-winner chicken dinner from across the pond. Hamburger America considers the burgers at Texas Tavern to be in the Top 150 Burgers in America. With its white painted brick exterior and cozy seating, it's been feedin' folks 24/7 since the Depression. If you order a "walkin' dog with," they'll give you a hot dog with onions to go for $1.30. If your sweet teeth are chomping at the bit, there's Viva la Cupcake.

Emily Oliver, baker, said, "Viva is our signature. It has four chocolates. One of our most popular ones is a strawberry shortcake. It's got white cake with cut up strawberries and jam inside of it."

Photo by Sam Dean Photography.

Photo by Sam Dean Photography.

Pete Eshelman, Director of Outdoor Branding at the Roanoke Regional Partnership and Director of the Roanoke Outside Foundation, suggests everything from fine to funky: "The River & Rail Restaurant has won many awards and for the second time, it's been named one of the '100 Best Restaurants' in Southern Living. It was also voted '10 Best in the South' by USA Today. Sweet Donkey Coffee is an old brick house renovated into a coffee house. Be sure to make it to one of their Friday Food Truck n' Tunes events, with food trucks, music, and beer on the lawn and in the beer garden."

There are plenty of other places to grab a cold one, of course.

"We like our beer, with new breweries popping up every year,” says Eshelman. “Blue 5 Restaurant has 46 beers on tap and was voted one of Top 25 Best Beer Bars in America and recently voted Best Beer Bar in Virginia. Area breweries include Big Lick Brewing, Parkway Brewing, Soaring Ridge Craft Brewers, Flying Mouse Brewery, Sunken City Brewing, and Chaos Mountain Brewery. We also like our music and a new venue just opened, The Spot on Kirk." In March, the well-known Deschutes Brewery of Bend, Oregon announced plans to build an east coast brewery in Roanoke.

So, what's the origin of the word, Roanoke?

Roanoke was first called Big Lick, named for a large outcropping of salt which drew the wildlife to the site near the Roanoke River. The name Roanoke is said to have originated from an Algonquian word for shell money. This was also the name of the river that bisected it (probably where shells had come from).

“Roanoke was the launching point for pioneers seeking to stake their claim in the unexplored Wild West. We still have that same pioneering spirit."

That spirit manifests in their love of the land.

Eshelman says, "We are a fit community, with weekly runs, rides, and climbs. If you're a runner, join us for America's Toughest Road Marathon in April, the Foot Levelers Blue Ridge Marathon."


Want to play away from water? There's the Roanoke Pinball Museum, where you get to play pinballs, vintage to new, all day for ten bucks. Another place for your inner child (and children!) is the Virginia Museum of Transportation, where you can ride gleaming, steaming locomotives. Woo-woo!

Looking for lodging?

Check out the James River House (located on the James River) which is owned and operated by Twin River Outfitters. The Ramada Inn is located in Roanoke, right on the Roanoke River Greenway and Roanoke River Blueway. It's an easy walk on the Greenway to River Rock Climbing Gym, Wasena City Tap House, Green Goat Restaurant, Sweet Donkey Coffee, and River & Rail Restaurant.

Looking for something plusher, but still central?

Cambria Suites is located one block off of the Roanoke River Greenway & Blueway.

Photo courtesy Kurt Sisson.

Photo courtesy Kurt Sisson.

In short, you can't beat ol' Big Lick, with so many rivers running through and around it.

More from C&K

Featured Destination: Roanoke River Paddle Trail

Featured Event: Roanoke's GO Outside Festival