The long, sonorous call of a train whistle and the hypnotic rhythm of wheels across the seams of the steel rails can capture the attention of a small child and a wise old adult.
One may gaze wide-eyed as the huge cars pass by, while the other may be moved by the power of the engines, the siren call of travel, or the hallmark of a time long ago.
Three hours west of Richmond is a city that owes its early growth to the railroad, specifically the Norfolk & Western (N&W), and still embraces the rails as an important form of transportation. Roanoke’s N&W also played an integral part in the Tobey family history, giving my family plenty of opportunities to visit and explore.
There’s much more to Roanoke than just trains, though. Its location between the Blue Ridge Mountains and Virginia Alleghany Highlands, close to the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Appalachian Trail, provides boundless opportunities for outdoor recreation.In the nearby mountain playgrounds – and in the Roanoke Valley – you’ll find hiking, caving, rock climbing, mountain biking, ATV riding, fishing, tubing, and kayaking.
And the city’s growth and commitment to success means no shortage of cultural opportunities either.
During our most recent Roanoke trip, we made the region’s growing greenway system a priority on the itinerary, trying out one of the five trails and twenty-six miles of paved Pathways. That morning, we headed to UnderDog Bikes, which rents hybrids, cruisers, and kids’ bicycles as well as tandems, trailers, and trailing bike attachments with a pint-sized second seat
For the next hour and a half, we cruised along the Roanoke River in the company of bikers, walkers, and runners of all ages.We paused to watch a train cross a railroad trestle and stopped with another family to gaze at a bird of prey perched high in a tree along the shore. Our outing took us past a skateboard area and exercise course, and past several parks and playgrounds.
Though my kids are past the playground stage, I still find my gaze drawn irresistibly to those structures that provided such creative fun and exercise. And in Roanoke, my gaze drifted frequently. Joe Hanning, with Roanoke Parks and Recreation and the father of a four- and a six-year-old, notes that the city has nearly seventy parks and lots of playgrounds, some quite elaborate.“My wife and I have often joked that this has to be the playground capital of the world,” Hanning says.
Many other trails dot the region, natural treasures within twenty minutes of downtown. The figure-eight Chestnut Ridge loop trail is an easy to moderate hike through stands of mountain laurel and rhododendron. Other nearby options are Roanoke Mountain, off the Blue Ridge Parkway; Explore Park, with nine miles of International Mountain Biking Association sanctioned trails as well as hiking; and Carvins Cove Natural Reserve, with forty miles of multi-use trails, with options for mountain bikers of all ages and skill levels.
Though we didn’t venture out of town on this trip, nearby is one of my favorite hikes—the 3.5-mile trail that climbs to McAfee Knob, elevation 3,179 feet, one of the most-photographed spots on the Appalachian Trail. If your family is ready to tackle this moderate to strenuous hike, you can enjoy a 270-degree panoramic view of the valley and distant mountains.
Still in the mood for outdoor time, we went next to the city’s favorite family playground: Mill Mountain, site of the Roanoke Star and a 500-acre park. The 89-foot-high illuminated star is where Roanoke got its moniker, “The Star City of the South.” The star, visible at night for many miles, sits above a visitor overlook, with a sweeping view of the city and surrounding valley. The park contains paved walking paths that lead to more than ten miles of single-track trails, an outdoor-themed playground, a wildflower garden, Discovery Center, and zoo.
The Discovery Center highlights local fora and fauna. We became engrossed in watching the glass-enclosed beehive, seeing these busy little insects at work.
Moving from local to exotic, we headed to the Mill Mountain Zoo, a collection of 175 animals, including lynx, chinchilla, Burmese python, hedgehogs, tarantula, red wolves, and wolverines, with seven endangered species, like the red panda (whom you might recall from a recent escape attempt at the National Zoo in DC) and snow leopard. The zoo’s small size lends a homey feel to the experience, abetted by the miniature model G-16 train that carries visitors around the zoo and through an animal-themed tunnel. To help expend young visitors’ energy, the zoo includes, of course, a playground.
After leaving Mill Mountain, we returned to the heart of Roanoke, where the remainder of our itinerary was waiting for us within a few walkable blocks – shopping, museums, dining, and the 130-year-old Hotel Roanoke.
At our next stop, I could imagine Granddaddy Tobey walking beside me, citing Roanoke railroad history and recalling the names of his coworkers. My grandfather moved to Roanoke from the rail yards of Norfolk to advance in his career with N&W.At the Virginia Museum of Transportation, the spirit of the engineers, conductors, mechanics, and all those who kept the trains moving, like my granddad, is always at your elbow.
This is a perfect museum for anyone of any age who likes cars and trucks and trains and things that go. The highlight for my family is the trains, from the extensive O-gauge model train to the towering locomotives and railcars, plus an exhibit on African-American Heritage on the N&W, old storefronts and ticket office, and a locomotive cab.
In addition to trains, the museum has antique cars and Matchbox cars, an old local bus, an Overnite Mack truck, Burma-Shave roadside signs, which first appeared on America’s roadways in the late twenties, and Yes, a transportation-themed playground.
We walked from the museum back to Roanoke’s Market Square along the Railwalk, stopping to read the interpretive signs and check out the exhibits. The walk parallels the train tracks that still run through the center of the city. Across those tracks is the grand old N&W office building where my granddad worked.
At the other end of the Railwalk is the O.Winston Link Museum. A professional photographer, Link took over 2,400 photographs in the late fifties documenting the end of the steam locomotive era. His snapshots of history capture the people, towns, depots, and trains of the times in black and white. Link’s artistry is especially apparent in the vivid night shots he achieved on 4×5
film with only a Graphic View camera.
Before our final stop of the day, we took a few minutes to wander around the Roanoke City Market. Lined with quaint shops and restaurants, the blocks are home to one of Virginia’s oldest farmers’ markets.While you’re here, be sure to stop by Chocolatepaper, sister store to Richmond’s clever gift shop, Mongrel. You and the kids will love this creative shop – stocked with this, that, and plenty of chocolate – even though it doesn’t have a playground.
Just off the market area is Center in the Square, which recently received a $30 million makeover. Here the family is immediately taken with three large aquariums – a 6,000-gallon salt water aquarium with live coral reef and two 500-gallon moon jellyfish aquariums – a seahorse estuary, and a technology playground, which I’ll admit, fascinated me almost as much as it did my kids.
My children and I have spent many hours engrossed in the interactive science exhibits like the ones here at the Science Museum of Western Virginia. Visitors can explore the Healthy Bodies gallery to learn what lies beneath your skin, how thirty pounds of extra weight feels to your heart, and how medications interact with your body; How It Works to operate fiber optic controls of the Butter-FLY CAM; Under the Hood to learn about auto advancements; Open Lab to experience two dozen hands-on science experiments; and the Healthy Earth gallery.
The museum also has exhibits for preschoolers: Crawl Thru Digestion, Little Big Mouth, and a fossil dig. And if you’re a member of the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond, your family can get free admission to general exhibit areas.
Other worthwhile stops at Center in the Square are the Harrison Museum of African American Culture, History Museum of Western Virginia, and the rooftop butterfly garden, koi pond, and green technology and gardens displays.
Besides having Tobey ties, the city of Roanoke, with its natural opportunities for recreation, typifies much of what my family and I enjoy in a vacation. The trains that wind through the city and its culture are a bonus.
Roanoke Dining: Kid-Friendly and Parent-Pleasing
These five local businesses have food and beverages to please the parents while still having kid-friendly atmosphere and food choices. All except The Roanoker are within walking distance of Market Square.
Mill Mountain Coffee and Tea: Fuel up for your day on baked goods and fresh-roasted coffee.
The Legendary Texas Tavern: The tiny short-order restaurant has been serving hot dogs, burgers, “chile,” (yes, that’s how they spell it!) And other such diner food since 1930.
Beamer’s 25: A special hit with Virginia Tech fans, the coach’s restaurant specializes in burgers, brats, and dogs, with other entrées, plus salads and sandwiches, served with 25 craft beers on tap.
Blue 5: The Southern-inspired cuisine includes a selection of worthy vegetarian items on the menu, and the tap list features forty-six very well chosen craft beers. Guests can also enjoy live music four nights a week.
The Roanoker Restaurant: If this Southern city inspires you to enjoy some down-home cooking, head to the restaurant that’s been whipping up meals for locals since 1941. Be sure to try the biscuits, which made a national appearance on the Today Show as one of “the South’s most mouth-watering roadside eats.”