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Our Roanoke/Virginia's Blue Ridge field guide will take you on some amazing gravel roads, double-track and single-track trails in the counties of Roanoke, Botetourt and Franklin, the cites of Roanoke and Salem. This destination is a true pioneer of the east coast gravel scene.
An exceptional gravel cycling experience awaits you in Roanoke in Virginia’s Blue Ridge.. There is an excitement around what gravel cycling looks like on the East Coast, and Virginia’s Blue Ridge is leading the way. World class road and mountain bike terrain, along with a rich Native and colonial history makes the Roanoke destination an amazing place to explore on a gravel bike.
The City of Roanoke is the “Capital of Virginia’s Blue Ridge’’ due to its accessibility and proximity to everything. No matter the season, or your cycling pursuits, the Roanoke Valley provides a blank canvas for creating a memorable gravel bike adventure. Cultural events throughout the year give even more good reasons to plan a cycling trip to Virginia’s Blue Ridge. This Field Guide has been created to help you discover and enjoy the area from the saddle of a gravel bike.
Each of the guidebook routes travel through one of the most beautiful and iconic American landscapes. The majestic mountains provide a scenic backdrop to some of the highest quality gravel cycling on the East Coast. Go for a ride and you’ll understand why Roanoke is considered a top adventure town, and one of the most bike-friendly areas in the United States.
Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge is excited to share the region’s cycling destination experience with the gravel bike community. Our cycling scene is friendly and accessible to residents and visitors alike. Centuries-old agricultural traditions remain part of our cultural and scenic landscape. It doesn’t take long to find yourself enjoying our rural quality of life on a gravel bike.
How you’ve arrived at gravel doesn’t matter. Whether a road or mountain biker at heart, you’ll be challenged and find something here that suits your gravel interests. From pavement to two-track, to single-track and everything in between on our county, state, Forest Service and National Park roads, Virginia’s Blue Ridge is for gravel cycling lovers.
A highlight of riding in Virginia’s Blue Ridge is that you’re never far from the city amenities of Roanoke. A historic downtown core boasts bike and coffee shops, breweries, hotels, museums, and restaurants, to create memorable cycling travel experiences. Our community’s friendliness and love for cycling means no matter who you are, or where you’re from, consider yourself part of our local gravel bike scene.
The Roanoke Valley’s first trails were pioneered by Native American tribes including the Catawba, Algonquin, Iroquois and Cherokee. The Great Warrior Path was an East Coast network of footpaths running to the north, south, and west, forged by following migrating buffalo herds. These paths subsequently became wilderness roads, farm roads, and later, railroad lines — routes with hundreds of years worth of stories to tell.
Arriving Scotch-Irish and German pioneers adopted the trail system to form “The Great Road,” which brought European immigrants leaving Philadelphia for the western Carolinas to the Roanoke Valley. This led to the founding of Big Lick, the City of Roanoke’s original name between 1834-1874.
Settlers established farms, leading to the development of “tobacco rolling roads.” Farmers packed harvested tobacco in hogshead barrels and rolled them to the wharves along a river. This practice furthered the regional road network’s formation. Travel distance and topography forced rollers following old footpaths to seek high ground and avoid shallow stream crossings to protect the tobacco barrels from water damage. This is why many of our country roads meander from high to low ground.
By the 18th century, roads in Virginia consisted of toll roads and turnpikes. Tolls were implemented to finance needed highway facilities construction beyond the fiscal means of local counties. While roads were dirt and in rough condition, the reliance on travelers spending money led to road surface experimentation, including gravel, broken stone, wood, or macadam surfaces. These are considered the earliest “artificial” or paved roads.
John Loudoun McAdam, a Scottish engineer, brought road building experience from England to Virginia in the early 19th century. He recognized that dry soil itself generally supports the weight of traffic and that pavement was necessary only to provide a smooth riding surface and to ensure dryness. McAdam’s macadam pavement was made up of crushed rock packed tightly into thin layers, with a top surface of sand or finely crushed stone rolled to provide a well-bound surface resistant to the penetrating damage of rain, ice and snow.
McAdam’s road construction specified a uniform thickness of seven to ten inches for the finished road. The first layer of stone was to be “cast on with a shovel to a depth of six inches, after the manner of sowing grain.” It was then compacted with a cast-iron roller, “prepared with a box, or a cart bed, to carry two or three tons of sand” and rolled until “sufficiently solid and compact to receive the second layer.” After raking the surface, the second layer, three or four inches thick was to be “put on, rolled, and prepared in all respects as the first stratum was, until in a state of firmness and solidity, proper to admit the third or last stratum, which can then be put on, and the surface.”
The gravel roads of Virginia’s Blue Ridge owe their existence to early Native American inhabitants, and their later adoption by migrating European immigrants. The roads became a natural extension of the flowing Appalachian landscape where human ingenuity has become etched into history. From early industrial mining efforts, and later the logging of timber for the railroad, The Roanoke Valley possesses road routes that hold historical significance to the people and places of the region. These are roads that have withstood the test of time from hunting expeditions, to tobacco farming, and even later moonshine bootlegging.
Photo: Former Elijah Poage store & warehouse on Old Mill Road was able to house a stockpile of sugar and yeast. Most people would tell you is was just for baking cake. Date Circa 1910.
Credit: Virginia Room, Roanoke Public Libraries
A big shout out to the companies that are helping us create the Roanoke, VA field guide. Please click the logo links for more info.
The history of the Roanoke Valley is closely linked with the arrival of the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad in 1852, and the decision of Norfolk and Western Railroad to establish its headquarters in Roanoke. This contributed to the transition from a rural, agricultural-based economy to a suburban, industrial and commercial one. An increased population promoted growth not only in the City of Roanoke, but in the Town of Vinton during the 1880s. This era led to us becoming the metro mountain community of today.
Roanoke’s railroad history continues now as the “Star City of the South” positions itself as the East Coast’s most
accessible rail-cycling destination. On October 31, 2017 Amtrak began service from Roanoke to Washington D.C. A second daily train has since been added to provide traveling cyclists transit options between Northern and Southwestern Virginia, along with the nation’s capital. Connection to other Amtrak routes in Washington D.C. means cyclists can access Roanoke via rail from additional northeastern cities including Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston.
Traveling by train with a bicycle has never been easier for East Coasters living car-free, or for those seeking to leave the car behind, hop on the WiFi, and enjoy window views. The rail train travel experience is an extension of Roanoke’s metro mountain heritage.
Standard full-size bicycles may be carried on and stored onboard in designated bicycle racks (50 pounds max weight)
Racks are available on a first-come, first-serve basis. So we recommend you arrive early to grab your spot 1 hours prior to the scheduled departure.
Amtrak services many locations.
Here are the Roanoke basics:
Departures: Roanoke to Washington D.C.
• Monday - Friday: 6:32 AM & 4:30 PM
Arrivals: Washington D.C. to Roanoke
• Monday - Friday: 1:00 PM & 10:06 PM
!! Boarding time 30 min prior to departure !!
*Schedules are subject to change.
Start navigating and recording your ride on the Ride with GPS app with just a single tap, or get spoken turn-by-turn directions for your routes using the signature voice navigation feature. No data? No problem! You can download routes to navigate while offline and record rides without a data connection. The GPX file is also available for your cycling computer/head-unit.
On the following gravel route pages, scan the QR code with your smart phone to land on our digital route page, making it easy, safe, and fun for cyclists to go on great rides.
We encourage people to get outside, reconnect with nature, and embark on two-wheeled adventures. The Ride with GPS mission is to build a global community of riders who create and share routes, discover new adventures, and go on better rides, more often.
Hover or tap on a route to see the name in a pop-up window.
Click to open a tab to see the digital route.
The seed that grew Roanoke into an amazing outdoor recreation destination was planted nearly 90 years ago. New Deal programs devised by President Franklin Roosevelt to address the Great Depression included the Works Progress Administration, Emergency Relief Administration, and the Civilian Conservation Corps. However, it is the CCC that has had the longest lasting impact in the conservation of human and natural resources in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains and led to an outdoor recreation economy.
The legacy left behind by CCC is felt in the national forests, national parks, and private lands of Virginia. Fire prevention and control work done by CCC crews contributed to a number of unpaved roads in the area, including Brushy Mountain Road near Carvin’s Cove. The CCC built fire lookout towers and laid telephone lines, constructed fire lanes and erected bridges, “piled slash,” and fought forest fires directly. CCC Camps also planted trees and forged recreational development enjoyed even today. They extended the care of, and improved access to, public lands.
The best examples of CCC recreational development are facilities and trails throughout the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest. CCC funds were also used to purchase land for the purpose of conservation and scenic tract development. This is how the Blue Ridge Parkway came into existence. Originally designed for automobiles, the parkway has evolved to be an important artery for cyclists. Several of the routes in this guide access unpaved roads and trails like the Crooked Roads of Franklin County with the help of the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Roanoke’s convenient urban access to Virginia’s Blue Ridge backcountry brings with it responsibility. We believe safety must be part of the cycling experience for visitors, businesses, and local residents. Please know your limits. Many of these routes are challenging and take place in rural areas, you can lose mobile cell service in the dip of a Roanoke valley.
Please respect all route signage, including National Forest, Virginia Dept of Transportation, County and private property. Several of the trails and roads are multi-use, including horses. Follow trail etiquette at all times; folks going up-hill have the right of way, bikes yield to horses and hikers.
Always have a plan, carry food & water for your ride distance. Pack appropriate clothing and equipment for the season.
Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge is proud to be an official Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics Community Partner. We invite you to explore and enjoy the incredible gravel bike routes in our region, but we also request that you ride responsibly and do your part to minimize impact on our roads, trails and public lands.
The Adventure Cyclist Leaves No Trace
• Plan ahead and prepare
• Travel on durable surfaces
• Dispose of waste properly
• Leave what you find
• Respect Wildlife
• Be considerate of others
No matter the season, there’s always a good time of year to enjoy the gravel riding and mountains in Virginia’s Blue Ridge.
We experience mild winters. Our average high temperature in December is 48 degrees. A low average annual snowfall means you can go for a ride on a snowy day. Besides, you want to see the sight of the snow-covered Blue Ridge Mountains.
Spring arrives early in the Roanoke Valley. If you’re still shoveling snow and daydreaming of a bicycle destination to visit, Virginia’s Blue Ridge is the place to be.
By mid-March the forests fill with colorful wildflowers. In April, the entire region comes to life with the state flower of Virginia, the dogwood, making its appearance. The macadam roads built centuries ago prove their worth to shed water.
While other places in the south swelter, we have average temperatures in the mid 80s in July and August. Plus, it helps that many of the rides go under a green tunnel of tree shade.
Off the bike, or mid ride, there are many lakes, rivers, and streams to cool off and relax. Remember your sunscreen.
No better time to ride Virginia’s Blue Ridge than in the fall. Temperatures drop, and the oak, maple, birch, and other hardwood tree leaves begin to color the mountainsides.
Peak foliage in the Roanoke Valley is mid-to-late October into early November. Expect the gravel cycling conditions to be on point this time of year.
Please respect wildlife and keep your distance when encountering them. Fight or flight is the natural reaction of an animal that feels threatened or uncomfortable. We have wildlife in Southwest Virginia that can cause you harm, including timber rattlesnakes and northern copperhead snakes plus the occasional black bear. Be aware of your surroundings and always yield wildlife the right of way during an encounter. Never approach them.
Please respect wildlife and keep your distance when encountering them. Fight or flight is the natural reaction of an animal that feels threatened or uncomfortable. We have wildlife in Southwest Virginia that can cause you harm, including timber rattlesnakes and northern copperhead snakes plus the occational black bear. Be aware of your surroundings and always yield wildlife the right of way during an encounter. Never approach them.
In warmer months be mindful of ticks. Always check yourself after a ride. You’re also in close contact with native plants like poison ivy. Remember, you’re in a backcountry setting outside the City of Roanoke.
Ever wonder where injured or lost wildlife might end up? Here in Virginia’s Blue Ridge they’re fortunate to have the Southwest Virginia Wildlife Center. It has been a non-profit state and federally licensed veterinary hospital and wildlife rehabilitation facility since 2000. Staff at the center have decades of experience working with animals and have grown it to be one of the largest wildlife rehabilitation centers in Virginia. They treat over 2,500 animals a year.
Directors Sabrina and Lucky Gravin are members of the National Wildlife Rehabilitators and International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council. They have consulted with veterinarians, at-home rehabilitators, and wildlife centers nationwide. Numerous organizations seek them as conference speakers. Their dedication to protecting a variety of species in southwest Virginia makes them an expert wildlife resource for the Roanoke Valley.
You can learn more by visiting: swvawildlifecenter.org
For more great stories on Roanoke and Virginia's Blue Ridge, please grab a copy of the field guide. The Local's Section also has info on places to eat, sleep, drink & relax.
We sat down with Jon & Dan with the Rider-Up Podcast to talk about analog and digital routes, Gravel in Roanoke, and some of the other great places we get to ride bikes.
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