Roanoke, Virginia, which bills itself as "the only city with a mountain within its city limits," is an ideal spot from which to explore America's mountain treasures.
Skyline Drive to RoanokeIf you're going to travel to Roanoke from the North, consider starting your journey with a leisurely spin south on Skyline Drive. It weaves along the crest of 195,000-acre Shenandoah National Park, the northernmost portion of the Blue Ridge Highway.
On one side of Skyline Drive, far below, the rolling valleys of the Shenandoah lie. On the other, the Piedmont mountains stretch to the horizon. Every few miles there's an overlook, each more breathtaking than the last. You can park your car and hike to waterfalls and take in even more spectacular vistas. According to GORP:
"Skyline Drive is a grand-daddy of scenic drives, built between 1931 and 1939, it's a long, slow glide through enthralling scenery.
The drive runs the full length of the park -- 105 miles -- and connects at the south end directly with the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway, another All-American scenic standout."
Blue Ridge ParkwayThe Blue Ridge Parkway spans the Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks, and Roanoke is the largest city off it. Depending on the time of year you travel the Blue Ridge Parkway, wildflowers are usually in bloom. And you can expect to see a variety of wildlife along the parkway. According the the Blue Ridge Highway Web site, which provides information on trails and visitor resources:
"When the sun is high, woodchucks sit erect and chipmunks and squirrels chitter and chat. At night, skunks, bobcats, foxes, opossums, and raccoons may be seen along the roadsides. Whitetail deer and black bears are present, but seldom seen. Look for them in early morning or evening. More than 100 bird species can be seen during the spring migration season."
If you have a limited schedule (or if, like me, you're with a driver who can only meander slowly for so long), hop onto Interstate 81. To get your bearings, it may help to know that Roanoke stands midway between New York City and Atlanta and is 168 miles west of the state capital, Richmond.
First impressions of the Roanoke Valley invariably focus on the breathtaking panorama of the scenic Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains. In any direction, the mountains surround you.
Downtown RoanokeNamed an All-America City five times, Roanoke has a tradition of Southern hospitality stretching back generations. The completion of the Shenandoah Valley Railroad from Hagerstown, Maryland, to its junction with the newly formed Norfolk & Western Railroad in 1882 marked the start of Roanoke's rapid growth as a rail transportation hub.
Ornate Victorian buildings and office towers characterize the city. Yet the heart of Roanoke is its downtown City Market, where for more than 125 years farmers have sold fresh produce and flowers. Crafts people also display their wares, and the market operates seven days a week, twelve months a year. Inside the City Market Building is an array of kiosks that offer a variety of edibles from pizza to pitas.
At Center in the Square, a restored 1914 warehouse, the Art Museum of Western Virginia, History Museum, Science Museum & Hopkins Planetarium, Mill Mountain Theatre, and Roanoke Valley History Museum share space. Opera Roanoke and the Roanoke Ballet Theatre hold performances here. Other local attractions include the Harrison Museum of African American Culture and the Mill Mountain Zoo.
One landmark you can't miss is the Mill Mountain Star. The Star, erected in 1949, is 88.5 feet tall. Lit neon blue till midnight, it overlooks downtown and draws the eye to the peak of the city.