Roanoke, Virginia was once one of the largest hubs for railroad activities in the Southeastern United States. Today, is is once again a major hub for a different kind of industry: tourism. Sitting in the middle of the boundaries between Southwest Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley, Roanoke bills itself as the Gateway to the Blue Ridge Parkway. But when you drive to the top of nearby Mill Mountain you realize it is much more than that.
Mill Mountain Park is located high atop Mill Mountain in Roanoke, Virginia. The park includes many iconic destinations such as the Roanoke Star, Mill Mountain Overlook, and Mill Mountain Zoo. It is easily accessible from all points around Roanoke and shares a connection with the Blue Ridge Parkway.
I arrived in Roanoke for a two-day travel writing and photography trip early in the morning. I made a quick stop at the Visitors Center and O. Winston Link Museum to introduce myself and grab a few brochures (I practically collect those things). Then I headed up the mountain. Mill Mountain.
I had already done some research online so I knew this would be an amazing place for some scenic photos. I used my Photographers Ephemeris app on my iPad to verify the position of the sun. I knew this was the right time of day to be here. The drive from downtown Roanoke to the top of Mill Mountain was simple with only a few turns and took about 20 minutes.
When I arrived inside the park I saw the Discover Center off to the side and passed a sign pointing toward the Mill Mountain Zoo. I crossed over a few hiking trails. Finally I pulled into a parking spot behind the infamous Roanoke Star. It was late October, I was here shooting photos of fall foliage, and it was windy. Quite a bit windy. Which made it quite a bit cold.
I grabbed my camera bag and headed out toward the Mill Mountain Overlook. It was a very short walk along a concrete sidewalk. The overlook stands directly in front of the Roanoke Star. It offers one of the most amazing views I’ve ever seen in the Appalachian Mountains. Far below sits the historic downtown sector of Roanoke. In the distance you can see the Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport. Further out you can see the city of Salem. Along the horizon a tall chain of mountains provides a natural backdrop. It was an amazing site.
In addition to the overlook, Mill Mountain Park also features ten miles of multipurpose trails. A couple of these trails are easy to walk, such as the Watchtower Trail that begins at the overlook in front of the Roanoke Star. If you’re looking for a great, invigorating hike, try the Star Trail that ascends much of the mountain. Most of these trails are less than a mile in length, but ascend or descend great elevations of a couple hundred feet. It’s a good mixture for both casual hikers and people who need to stretch their legs quite a bit more.
The entrance to the park meets a T-intersection. If you came from Roanoke, Salem, or any point along the interstate, you would turn left at this T-intersection to return to the city. However, turning right begins the Mill Mountain Parkway, a short extension leading to the Blue Ridge Parkway. At this particular junction of the Blue Ridge Parkway you can turn left to find scenic overlooks at Roanoke Mountain, the Roanoke River, and the Peaks of Otter within 40 miles. Turning right will take you to Devils Backbone, Tuggle Gap, and Mabry Mill in about 50 miles.
But if you really want to enjoy a beautiful site, or if you have a date you want to impress, come back to the Mill Mountain Overlook at night. Although heavy light pollution from the suburbs of the Roanoke Valley drown out more than half the visible stars, it is still an amazing place to view some constellations, set up a telescope to watch the moon, or snap a photo like I did! It was bitter cold when I returned here late one night in October (I had just spent three hours at Beamer’s 25 in downtown Roanoke).
The Mill Mountain Overlook is definitely a place to visit for a panoramic view, watching planes take off and land at the airport, counting the stars, and hanging out with friends and family. With the bright Roanoke Star beaming behind you it will be a comfortable place to spend some time. I know I will return. I already have my next five photos planned.