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A peak, a painting, a Blue Ridge autumn in Roanoke

Virginia’s Roanoke Valley looks like a movie set from the Blue Ridge Parkway in the fall.
Virginia’s Roanoke Valley looks like a movie set from the Blue Ridge Parkway in the fall. (ROANOKE VALLEY CVB)

‘Best. Hike. Ever. Don’t. Fall. Off!”

That was our reaction to summiting the fabled McAfee Knob, where Virginia’s Roanoke Valley spread beneath us like a crazy quilt of scarlet and vermilion. Admittedly, our knees were knocking just a bit as we edged toward the rocky ledge that’s even hairier than it looks in pictures. If you’ve seen the movie “A Walk in the Woods” (released in September) or the ads and posters for it, you’ve seen McAfee. This hooked summit — which resembles a shrunken-head version of the departed Old Man of the Mountain — is one of the iconic spots along the Appalachian Trail. McAfee is the most-photographed spot along the trail, they say, and it plays a big role in “A Walk in the Woods,” which is based on writer Bill Bryson’s book of the same name. In the film, Bryson, played by Robert Redford, attempts to hike the 2,200-mile AT with longtime pal Steven Katz (an unexpectedly delightful Nick Nolte).

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So, did Redford and Nolte actually hike to McFee’s 3,197-foot summit? The civilian who was closest to the action, Andrew Downs, regional director of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy of Central and Southwest Virginia, is circumspect on the subject, saying only that “the talent and film crew drove up the fire road, and then hiked about a mile to the site.” Downs says that working with the production people was a great experience, and “it was clear that their team had a great respect for the trail.”

Hiking McAfee Knob earns you bragging rights in Roanoke. It’s a gentle but definitely upward climb that takes you past a couple of AT huts and through leafy woodlands, with no glory views until the end — which makes that “big reveal” at the summit all the more dramatic. It took us about four hours to make the round trip, including plenty of time at the 270-degree summit for selfies. We recommend getting an early start. This hike is popular, and getting more so by the minute. We started at 7 a.m. on a Friday and had the trail — and that spectacular promontory — all to ourselves. Heading down, we saw hikers — and plenty of them.

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Seeing “A Walk in the Woods” inspired us to make the trip to Roanoke, but the views from McAfee were just part of what makes this area so compelling. This former railroad town has been undergoing a renaissance, with the openings of new museums and hotels, craft breweries, and a wave of millennials and retirees moving downtown, into stylish condos in refurbished old buildings. And what’s not to like about a city whose symbol is a giant star (a Christmas decoration that never came down) and whose landmarks include a vintage Dr Pepper sign? Old meets new in a charming way in Roanoke, you’ll discover. Another reason to put Roanoke on your radar: Amtrak has plans to extend service to the city in early 2017, so Bostonians will be able to get there by rail rather than on an 11-hour drive or connecting flights.

Roanoke is becoming known as an outdoor recreation destination, with outfitters offering kayak, canoe, and float trips on the river.
Roanoke is becoming known as an outdoor recreation destination, with outfitters offering kayak, canoe, and float trips on the river.(Roanoke Valley CVB)

The great outdoors

Given that Roanoke is ringed by the Blue Ridge Mountains, we expected good hiking. What we didn’t expect was the vivid beauty of the fall foliage here. We in New England think we’ve got the market cornered when it comes to autumn splendor, but a drive along the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway, a national scenic byway, reveals mountainsides saturated in a palette of lipstick hues. The trees are a different mix here — black gum, sassafras, sourwood, tulip tree, and dogwood — with foliage typically peaking in mid-to-late October, appearing first in the mountains and then lighting up low-slung valleys with fiery hues. Is it any wonder that nearby Virginia Tech’s colors are maroon and gold?

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A scenic drive on the parkway is considered one of the country’s premier fall foliage tours, but you’ll want to step out of the car and connect with one of the hiking trails along the way. (The best source for hiking trails and weather updates is www.blueridgeparkway.org.) The Appalachian Trail crosses back and forth over the parkway, but there are more easygoing options too. For families or first-time visitors, Mill Mountain is a must. Located within the City of Roanoke, this mountaintop has views of the valley dappled with colorful leaves, as well as a nature center, a zoo, and an up-close view of the 100-foot-tall Roanoke Star.

Rather bike than hike to scenic overlooks? Roanoke is developing a reputation as an outdoors town, and it earns its cred with spots like Carvins Cove Natural Reserve. At nearly 13,000 acres, Carvins Cove is the second-largest municipal park in the country. It’s a mecca for mountain biking, with more than 60 miles of (mostly single-track) trail, including some fiendish twists and turns that climb from cove to ridges. On the mellower side, the Roanoke River Greenway offers nine miles of flat hard surface. Newly expanded, the Greenway meanders through town and into villages like Grandin (a nice place to grab a bite, or a coconut-chocolate chip ice cream cone at Pop’s Ice Cream & Soda Bar), and take in local hot spots like Black Dog Salvage, made famous on the DIY Network’s “Salvage Dawgs.” Bike rentals are available at Roanoke Mountain Adventures (www.roanokemountainadventures.com ).

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Black Dog Salvage is an unlikely tourist attraction.
Black Dog Salvage is an unlikely tourist attraction.(Diane Blair for The Boston Globe)

. . . and where to fuel up

An outdoorsy day deserves some good eats, and Roanoke delivers. A good way to get a feel for dining options (served with a dollop of local lore) is on a Discover Roanoke Food Tour (www.roanokefoodtours.com). On the three-hour tour, you’ll sample everything from shrimp-and-grits (perfectly paired with a local brew) to smoothies, at seven different stops. On your own, don’t miss breakfast at The Roanoker, deemed one of the five best breakfasts in Virginia by Southern Living magazine. NBC’s “Today” show gave a shout-out to the biscuits. Pop’s Ice Cream & Soda Bar won raves from Esquire magazine for its Swiss melt, calling it one of the best grilled cheese sandwiches in the country. (Pop’s makes it with Swiss cheese, artichoke hearts, Dijon mustard, and horseradish.) For dinner, you won’t go wrong with The River & Rail, considered one of America’s best Southern fine dining restaurants thanks to James Beard Award semi-finalist chef Aaron Deal. We also loved the farm-to-table fare at award-winning Local Roots in Grandin Village.

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For our next visit, we’re thinking Dragon’s Tooth, another section of the Appalachian Trail. Redford and Nolte, you’re welcome to join us.

For information, visit www.visitroanokeva.com.


Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at bairwright@gmail.com.