Mill Mountain, Roanoke City
It wasn’t always easy to get people to the top of Mill Mountain. At the turn of the 20th century, a trip to the summit overlooking downtown Roanoke meant a bumpy ride in a horse and carriage or a daunting trip up stone steps on foot.
Remnants of those steps are still visible in the steep mountain slopes, as are portions of an incline railway that operated from 1910 until 1929. The old carriage road up the mountain was widened to accommodate motorized vehicles in the early 1920s. After that, the car was king. By the 1930s, 20,000 vehicles would take people up the mountain to enjoy the scenic views each year.
Now, a century later, Roanoke Parks and Recreation is developing a new trail plan to make it easier to leave the car at home. The plan will add more walkable and bikeable connections from neighborhoods to the base of the mountain, where the old mountain road—now a mixed-use pedestrian, biking and motorized vehicle route—helps make up part of the larger Roanoke Greenway System.
“If you live anywhere near a Roanoke greenway, you can get to the mountain,” says Renee Powers, who coordinates Roanoke Parks and Recreation’s trails and greenways. “But we want to keep improving connections, and the public can help. The landing page for public input will be up soon, and folks can weigh in with suggestions starting October 1st.”
Whether you choose to hike it, bike it, or drive it, there is much to do on the mountain. You can visit Roanoke’s famous neon star, which is located on an overlook with stunning views of the city and the valley and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. You can also visit the park complex, where an education center and zoo give visitors opportunities to learn about nature up close.
Matt Allenbaugh supervises environmental education programs and Mill Mountain Park for Roanoke Parks and Recreation. He manages the Discovery Center at the park, which offers programs oriented toward homeschooled students to supplement their nature- and science-based learning.
Classes meet for a Tuesday-Thursday session, and students can attend each of the five sessions per year. “Each session is different and tied to the season,” Allenbaugh says. “Students can attend all five times over the course of the year and not get the same thing.” In all, 120-150 children aged 6-10 come to the center each year to learn about the habitats, animals and trees in the park. There are plans to expand course offerings with more in-depth science and nature programming for older students.
The Discovery Center programs are on hold while coronavirus restrictions are in effect. The Mill Mountain Zoo is open, but at limited capacity. Reservations are encouraged and can be made here.
In the meantime, people are taking advantage of opportunities to explore the rest of the mountain. Powers says trail use has increased 200 percent since coronavirus restrictions began, although people are coming in smaller groups. “Lots of people who live here are rediscovering the outdoor recreational opportunities we have right here in town. They are looking less for organized events and more for ways to escape into nature,” she says.
That escape has been protected since 2010 by a conservation easement co-held by the Virginia Outdoors Foundation and the Blue Ridge Land Conservancy. The easement limits division of the property, as well as construction and timbering to protect the scenic and ecological values of the mountain, which is visible from and connects to the Blue Ridge Parkway.
As the trail planning committee expands trail offerings on the mountain itself, it is taking the protective measures of the easement
into account. “We were aware of the sensitive nature of forest ecology here, with its big trees and steep slopes, and we wanted to make sure we weren’t proposing anything that was going to compromise the integrity of the mountain habitat.” Powers states. “We explored every corridor on foot to look at grades, topography, and trees of value, so that we ended up restricting mechanized trail building through sensitive areas. Some trails will be built by hand.”
If you want to explore existing trails, and see the remnants of earlier attempts to get up the mountain, Roanoke Parks and Recreation has a map of the city greenways that can get you there. A printable map of the trails on the mountain itself is also available on the Roanoke Parks and Recreation website.