8 Top-Rated Things to Do in Roanoke, Virginia
Roanoke is an attractive tourist destination for active vacationers who place outdoor adventures high on their holiday must-do list. Situated in the scenic Roanoke Valley in southwestern Virginia, the city is a four-season destination for avid hikers, rock climbers, recreational boaters, and lovers of sport fishing. Urban explorers are equally rewarded with in-town greenways, cultural diversions, varied dining, and shopping discoveries unique to the region.
See also: Where to Stay in Roanoke
1 Hike the Trails at Mill Mountain Park
This 568-acre park has more than 10 miles of multi-use trails (hiking, walking, and biking) where visitors can explore the all-season natural beauty of the region. For a moderately challenging hike, take the Mill Mountain Star Trail, 3.5-miles round-trip from the base trail, and head along the nearby Roanoke River to the peak of Mill Mountain, the highest point in the city at 1,703 feet. Hikers experience an 838-foot rise in elevation and are rewarded with two scenic overlooks atop the mountain. Find ample free parking and good directional signage at the Star Trail parking lot just off Riverland Road SE at the Star/Wood Thrush Connector.
Connect with the short Watchtower Trail for the best panoramic views and photos directly at the base of Roanoke's most legendary site, the Mill Mountain Star. This quirky landmark, built in 1949 as a temporary Christmas decoration by the local merchants association, is today listed in the National Register of Historic Landmarks. At 89 feet high, the giant star is the largest star in America. It is illuminated each evening until midnight and is seen up to 60 miles away.
Hikers are welcome to bring their leashed dogs and will find picnic tables, restrooms, and water at the top and nearby along the Mill Mountain Spur Trail en route to Discovery Center, a naturalist center featuring exhibitions on the park, local wildlife, and trail maps.
Children of all ages will love the Mill Mountain Zoo, a small but lively enclave, with local critters like the Indian crested porcupine, the red wolf, and the yellow-spotted side-necked turtle.
2 Mountain Bike at Carvins Cove Natural Reserve
In-the-know visitors acknowledge Carvins Cove Natural Reserve as a haven for off-road mountain biking, with more than 60 miles surrounding an 800-acre reservoir. The second largest municipal park in the United States, the reserve is almost 13,000 acres, the majority of which are protected by the largest conservation easement in the history of the state of Virginia. First-time visitors are well served by making an initial visit to Just The Right Gear, a cycling shop close to the Bennett Springs parking lot (one of three reserve entrances - Marina and Timber View being the others), where trail maps are available for purchase and bikers can get local advice on which trails are best suited for their experience level. High-end bike and gear rentals are also available.
Beginners will find a gentler rise and more flats along Easy Street, Kit & Kaboodle, The Skillet, and Enchanted Forest trails. Bikers looking for tougher challenges will get all they bargained for on the Comet, Gauntlet, Hoe Trail, and Clownshead. Expect up to 2,400 feet rise in elevation along the most difficult trails. Riders will find packed dirt, loose gravel, and tamped soil along these well-maintained trails.
3 Fish Smith Mountain Lake
One of Virginia's most popular lakes, Smith Mountain Lake has nearly 500 miles of shoreline, earning the well-deserved moniker of the Jewel of the Blue Ridge Mountains. SML, as it's known by locals, has a particularly impressive striped bass population as state fisheries keep the lake well stocked.
Visiting anglers can arrange for half- or full-day charters with SML Fishing Charter/Rodbender Striper Guide Service, a licensed guide service with more than 20 years experience traversing the 21,000-acre lake. They'll provide bait, gear, and all the expertise necessary to ensure those fishing have a safe and enjoyable experience on the lake. In addition to stripers, lake goers may hook crappies, bluegills, or largemouth and smallmouth bass - all good eating fish that make freshwater fishing at SML a top tourist attraction for visitors.
4 Cycle the City on the Roanoke Valley Greenways
Safe, well-populated, and well-maintained, the interconnected Roanoke Valley Greenway Trails allow visitors to experience the city up close and personal by biking along the miles of trails found in its environs. In and around the city of Roanoke, a favored trail for urban cyclists is right along the Roanoke River, where even in town it is not unusual to spot deer, herons, geese, and other creatures that navigate the urban waterway.
A great starting point for exploration is at Vic Thomas Park, just off Memorial Drive south of the river. Pick up the Roanoke River Greenway here.
The renowned Black Dog Salvage is less than a block away. The nationally recognized purveyor of reclaimed architectural, commercial, and industrial fixtures and elements delivers on an intriguing one-of-a-kind inventory that differs with every visit. Black Dog specializes in doors, windows, wrought iron, period lighting, garden statuary and all manner of specialty home components that draw visitors from all 50 states.
After visiting Black Dog, head southeast on the Roanoke River Greenway towards Wasena Park. Check out the kids hanging ten on their long-boards at the Wasena Skate Park. The park is always a hub of activity, and it's fun to check out the latest skatewear along with the fancy footwork displayed by the locals on their boards and blades.
Continuing on the greenway, you'll cross the Mill Mountain Greenway en route to the Tinker Creek Greenway. Follow that north for less than a mile and reward yourself with a packed lunch at the picnic facilities at Fallon Park.
5 Climb and Boulder at McAfee Knob
With its incredible vistas and the spectacular rock overhang perch, McAfee Knob is one of the most photographed spots on the entire Appalachian Trail. Many enjoy hiking here on the 3.5-plus miles of intermediate-to-difficult trails from the Virginia 311 parking lot leading up to the knob. Climbers know it for more than 70 challenging boulders of gnarly sandstone and slick quartzite that make for days of mini-summits to tackle. Most boulders are between 10 and 20 feet high with many offering plenty of vertical, lots of crimps, jugs, pockets, and edges. Bring pads, lunch, and a buddy; it's never a good idea to tackle the rocks solo, and McAfee is often deserted.
6 Explore Bottom Creek Gorge
Birders, nature lovers, and outdoor photography enthusiasts love the scenic Bottom Creek Gorge. Less than 20 miles south of Roanoke, Bottom Creek is one of the important headwaters feeding the Roanoke River and offers visitors several well-marked trails to take in the vast hardwood forest, unspoiled landscape, and Virginia's second highest waterfall.
Photography enthusiasts will want to take the Red Trail (the longest trail here, at five miles round-trip) for the best vantage point to capture the 200-foot cascading waterfall. Be sure to bring a long/telephoto lens as the overlook at the end of the trail provides a clear, open shot, but the falls are some distance away. Other falls vantage points are down a side path off the Yellow Trail. Wild turkeys, owls, and numerous bird species can be spotted in the wildflower meadows and unique topography of the gorge.
7 Shop and Dine at Roanoke's City Market
Visitors feel the pulse of Roanoke at the historic City Market all year-round, with boutique shopping, local produce, flowers, meat and cheese, local dining favorites, and the best people-watching in the city. Pay close attention to the market's four mosaic tiled entrances - each revealing a bit of the history of this storied public space in more than 2,000 pounds of porcelain tiles.
In the heart of the city's Market District, the market is a great spot for lunch and to admire the architectural gem, renovated in 2011. Fork in the Market is a local favorite with wood-fired pizzas, gourmet hot dogs, and the best burgers in town.
8 Explore Center in the Square
Find an 8,000-gallon Living-Coral Reef Aquarium, indoor multi-story Butterfly Garden, and unique museums including the Science Museum of Western Virginia, all at Center in the Square in the heart of downtown Roanoke.
Don't try and see everything in one visit to the Square; this central location also houses the Museum of African American Culture, Rooftop Gardens, shops, and even a game room for kids. Weekends offer the best crowd-watching, but midweek visits leave more opportunities to linger in exhibitions.
At the Roanoke Pinball Museum, visitors can try their hand at vintage machines from the 1930s all the way up to the classics of today - no quarters needed!
Where to Stay in Roanoke for Sightseeing
We recommend these highly rated Roanoke hotels near top attractions like Mill Mountain Park and the City Market:
- The Hotel Roanoke & Conference Center, Curio Collection by Hilton: 4-star historic hotel, outdoor pool, elegant decor.
- Hampton Inn & Suites Roanoke - Downtown: mid-range pricing, fantastic location, free breakfast, fitness center.
- Holiday Inn Express Roanoke-Civic Center: affordable rates, convenient location, thoughtful staff, free hot breakfast.
- Econo Lodge Civic Center: budget hotel, close to downtown, clean rooms, complimentary continental breakfast.