It may not have a zoo or star, but Roanoke Mountain offers one of the best short hikes around.
Kevin Myatt | The Roanoke Times
Hiking dog Cindy takes a curious look back as we ascend the 110 stone steps to the summit of Roanoke Mountain.
- Location: On top of Roanoke Mountain, on the 4-mile scenic loop trail that begins at mile marker 120.3 on the Blue Ridge Parkway. One way to go is to keep following Walnut Avenue/Fishburn Parkway past the Mill Mountain exit until it intersects with the Blue Ridge Parkway, and the loop road begins just a tad to the left of that intersection.
- Length: 1/10 mile.
- Elevation: About 2,200 feet at the summit.
- Gottasee factor (scenery, scale 0 to 4): 2: Just a pretty stroll with views, rock outcroppings and lots of trees and bushes.
- Gottabreathe factor (difficulty, scale 0 to 4): 1: If you're out of shape, the 110-step climb past the big rocks might make you breathe harder, otherwise, it's no sweat (unless you do it on a July or August afternoon). It's only 1/10 of a mile, so it can't be that hard.
Mill Mountain must have better public relations agents than Roanoke Mountain.
Not only does Roanoke Mountain tower 400 feet over its little sibling, you can literally see the bare backside of the Mill Mountain Star down below on your way up the 4-mile scenic loop road on Roanoke Mountain. But Mill Mountain is well known to everyone for miles, while Roanoke Mountain seems to be barely known at all. Size isn't everything, I guess.
What Roanoke Mountain does not have is a base-to-summit hike, as Mill Mountain does. Also, no zoo, sprawling city park, or giant bug-zapper shaped like a star. But there is one of the neatest short hikes around at the top of Roanoke Mountain, one that is suitable for almost anybody (except those in wheelchairs) and briefly gives a taste of the Blue Ridge experience with just enough uphill climbing to make the heart beat just a little faster.
The Roanoke Mountain loop hike is not something grizzled backpackers and avid dayhikers are going to flock to, but it's a wonderful place to go if you only have about an hour of down time and just want to kick up a little mountain dust. I frequently go there to walk my dog around the loop when I know there's not much chance of tackling a multi-mile adventure. You can be there from downtown Roanoke in less than 15 minutes by following Walnut Street up Mill Mountain and then keep going until it hits the Blue Ridge Parkway.
The scenic loop drive up and around Roanoke Mountain is a treat all its own. The neatest pullout is where you can see the Star's rear end, and beyond it, some of Roanoke's downtown buildings partially obscured by Mill Mountain itself. Hopefully the time-worn maps naming all the different mountains in view will still be intact when you arrive there.
When the loop drive finally peaks out, there is a large parking lot. This is the summit, with impressive views off both directions. To the northeast, Sharp Top's pointed massif can be seen on a clear day; to the southwest, Franklin County's Cahas Mountain dominates the horizon. The loop trail begins at the far end of a parking lot, marked by a sign that informs hikers of the 10-minute walk. Unlike the vast majority of trail signs I have encountered, this one is pretty accurate on that count.
As the trail takes off out of the parking lot, it glides downward on 42 stone steps, levels out around a depression I have dubbed the "Roanoke Mountain Crater," then climbs 110 stone steps past some rocky outcroppings to the summit. The summit is almost entirely tree-shrouded, so in leaf-off there are lots of views, but in the green seasons, just lots of pretty vegetation (its own treat, with birds singing and katydids chirping).
The trail continues fairly level on the summit, wraps back around to the right and gradually descends through a grove of mountain laurel bushes (explosively blossoming in spring). It then comes around the side of the "crater" I mentioned earlier, and where hikers can look back across at the rock outcroppings that were passed on the way up. This crater reminds me just a tad of a volcano caldera, though I've been assured by a local geologist that active volcanic activity is quite implausible in this region. The trail then inclines slightly, back to the lot.
That's pretty much it. You may want to take another loop around it, perhaps in the other direction, so the 110 steps are headed down instead of up. I'm always amazed at just how different a trail looks by going the other direction.