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Roanoke’s greenway system will surprise you

Roanoke’s greenway system will surprise you

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No car is no problem with the Roanoke Valley's greenways system, over 500 miles of paved and natural trails that stretch throughout the region and encourage fitness and environmental consciousness.

The Roanoke River Greenway, the longest trail and spine of the system, runs east to west throughout the valley for around 15 miles. Other smaller greenways branch off from it, adding to the expanse of pathways for walking, running, bicycling, horseback riding and even scooting around on e-bikes.

“Each little piece is like its own little gem of a thing,” said Liz Belcher, coordinator for the Roanoke Valley Greenway Commission. “Different sections have different little pearls along the way.”

Promoting environmental consciousness, health and fitness initiatives, education and connectivity to nature, the greenways system runs through parks, residential areas and even the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Belcher emphasized the park-like atmosphere of the majority of the trail, saying it makes the greenways stand out from other bike lanes and paths along the highway.

“I don’t know anywhere else in the state where you can be in the urban area and ride out to wooded natural lands,” she said.

The system's unique trails create a varied experience for greenway users with each new route.

Trail-goers looking to add even more exercise to their walk can access fitness initiatives placed sporadically throughout the system. A portion of Lick Run Greenway in Washington Park is lined with a row of non-weighted exercise machines, including a leg press, pull-up bar and cardio walker. Signs along Roanoke River Greenway in Vic Thomas Park instruct walkers on stretches and other low-intensity exercises.

If you prefer working out your brain instead of your body, there's educational resources along the way, too. The greenways system hits many historic and cultural sites, not to mention different natural environments.

Washington Park along Lick Run Trail, formerly a landfill, includes signage about city efforts to undo the harmful environmental effects of more than a decade of decomposition at the site, as well as the incorporation of riparian buffers. Riparian buffers are vegetative areas parallel to a stream or river to prevent pollution, and are abundant along the greenways, said Belcher.

Water is one of the most alluring parts of the greenways system for Shenice Crowder, who was walking the Roanoke River Greenway with Sherron Wilson on a recent July morning.

“There’s energy in the water,” she said. “It’s a soothing place to be.”

Crowder said she lives in the area and walks the greenway almost every morning. But while Crowder sticks to her favorite path along the Roanoke River, Wilson said she likes to switch it up and explore different greenways.

“We come out here to exercise but also to connect,” Wilson said.

Connection, said Belcher, is another important part of the system. When the statewide shutdown began in March, the greenways became so popular that the city of Roanoke closed them, too — though greenways in Salem and Vinton remained open.

The Garden City, Lick Run and Tinker Creek greenways reopened on May 15, and the Roanoke River Greenway reopened four days later. Back up and running, the greenways can now also be traversed by e-bikes after a unanimous vote from the Roanoke City Council in June.

E-bikes, which have electric motors and travel up to 20 to 28 mph, are the only motorized vehicles allowed on the trails. But most trail-goers seem to have been sticking to manual bikes or their own two feet.

Belcher said the greenway commission worked hard to incorporate destinations — such as Carvins Cove Natural Reserve, where trail-goers can hike, bike, fish and boat, and Mill Mountain Park with its scenic overlooks — into the system.

As vast and comprehensive as the greenways system is, Belcher said the commission still has big plans for the future. Since efforts for the system began in 1993, the goal has been to completely connect each area touched by the greenways.

Although it's possible to travel from Roanoke to Salem without a car on the greenways, there are many gaps in the existing routes, Belcher said.

In 2018, data by the greenway commission listed 135 miles of biking trails, 79 miles of Appalachian Trail paths and hundreds more miles in walking routes throughout the valley, totaling 550 total miles. Belcher said more has been added in the past two years.

“And we’ve got plenty more to build,” she said.

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