The Appalachian Trail is an epic roughly 2,180-mile stretch between Springer Mountain in Georgia all the way up to Katahdin in Maine. For some, hiking through the trail's 14 states is a months-long adventure filled as much with nature as new friends. "I love walking and thinking," says Corky, 52, who's been hiking the trail since April 5 and is expecting to finish sometime in August. “It’s stunningly beautiful here. It’s also about the people -- you meet people you never would have otherwise.”
But for the rest of us -- for whom tasting a smaller slice of the Appalachian is more realistic -- Virginia's Daleville, where we met Corky on a supply run, is a fantastic place to start. It's just one of the many places were the trail crosses the Blue Ridge Parkway, a National Park that stretches 469 miles through North Carolina and Virginia. These parts have trails for all skill levels, not to mention a host of other outdoor activities when you want to take a break from hiking. Here, just four of the great paths you can take:1. Explore Park
Located at Milepost 115 on the Parkway, Explore Park features hundreds of acres of pristine woodlands along the Roanoke River, all within a 20-minute drive of downtown Roanoke. It’s the perfect urban getaway with all of the city life and amenities nearby -- and a designated site on the Virginia Birding and Wildlife Trail. The visitor center is excellent, with a museum highlighting the history of the region, a movie about the parkway, and a gift shop selling local artisan wares.
An easy walk takes you through a variety of reconstructed buildings from the 1700s to 1800s, including a fort, homestead, schoolhouse, barn, blacksmith shop, and grist mill. There are 14 miles of walking and biking trails through a deciduous forest, ranging from easy to moderately difficult. Nearly, two miles of river frontage makes for excellent birdwatching, fishing, and boating -- you can launch kayaks and canoes at Rutrough Point.
2. Peaks of Otter
The Peaks of Otter are three exceptional mountain peaks situated close together in the Blue Ridge Mountains in the Jefferson National Forest. They include Sharp Top (3,862 feet), Flat Top (3,994 feet) and Harkening Hill (3,372 feet), with Abbott Lake at their feet. Hiking levels range from easy, with the one-mile trail around Abbott Lake; to moderate, like the 2.1-mile Johnson Farm Trail and 3.3-mile Harkening Hill; to strenuous, with the 1.5-mile Sharp Top and 4.4-mile Flat Top trails.
This region is great for those looking for ways to unwind in nature beyond hiking -- and it's a great family destination for all ages, too, if you have an extended family trip on the books for summer. A shuttle bus takes visitors to the top of the Peaks of Otter for spectacular vistas and photo opportunities, and there’s even a Wine Shuttle package that includes an overnight at the Peaks of Otter Lodge and transportation to three local wineries, with breakfast and a box lunch included. Just looking for a lunch spot? The Lodge offers regional specialties made with fresh local ingredients, with a side of more scenic views.
3. Botetourt County
One of Virginia's most scenic and historically significant counties, Botetourt is filled with rolling hills, scenic rivers, and historic towns -- all framed by majestic mountain backdrops. It goes without saying that there's plenty of outdoor recreation here. Check out the Greenfield Trail System, a 125-acre park with access to hiking, horseback riding, and sports fields; or the Upper James River Water Trail, with 45 miles of the Upper James (14 of which is designated as a Virginia Scenic River).
While you're in the area, history buffs can visit Historic Fincastle and its restored courthouse, blacksmith shop, jail, churches, and many beautiful historic homes -- including an original log cabin depicting pioneer life, outfitted with furnishings and tools of the time. The 200-year history of Fincastle includes numerous visits by President Thomas Jefferson, whose signature you can see on a document in the courthouse vaults, and William Clark, who returned here after his epic journey with Meriwether Lewis to marry a local girl. The Historical Museum behind the courthouse is open seven days a week, and walking tours can also be arranged.
Hungry hikers shouldn't miss lunch at the White Oak Tea Tavern, a pub-style tearoom situated in the Cloyd House built in 1783. The tavern serves two delicious chicken salad sandwich options along with a huge selection of house-blended teas. We have real-life testimony from locals Lois Carter Kerns and her mother, who have been coming here every Thursday for years. “We love the food and every single tea; you can’t go wrong,” Kerns says. “It’s so lovely, we just pretend we’re on a little vacation when we come here.”
4. Blue Ridge Beerway
If simply kicking back and enjoying the local food and beverage amidst the stunning natural scenery is your thing, you’re in luck. Roanoke Valley's quality waters and pristine landscape have made it an increasingly popular location for craft brewers, and the Beerway is a self-guided loop tour that includes eight independent breweries.
Flying Mouse Brewery is one of our favorites along the trail, right off both the Appalachian Trail and TransAmerica Bicycle Route 76. The brewery’s unforgettable mascot, steampunk Bartleby Hopsworth, came to life because owner and brewmaster Frank Moeller is a huge comic book fan. From there, it's about a half-hour drive to the breweries in Roanoke, and under an hour to the two southernmost participating breweries in Callaway and Hardy (Chaos Mountain Brewing Company and Sunken City Brewing Company).