Bike along a downtown river, hike to a waterfall, and go skiing — all year long! — in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
By Robin Sutton-Anders on Our State Magazine
Bike Thunder Ridge
Each May, hundreds of cyclists from across the United States descend on Lynchburg, Virginia, for the Storming of Thunder Ridge event. But Roger Sorensen, who has traveled from Washington, D.C., to participate in the 100-mile segment for three years in a row, doesn’t consider it a race. “For me, it’s a fun, challenging bike ride,” he says. The best part? “The landscape. I do push my limits on the bicycle at times, but I love seeing all the spring growth along the rolling hills in this part of the Blue Ridge Mountains.”
Cyclists can follow that 100-mile course that includes an ascent to Apple Orchard Mountain, the highest peak along Virginia’s Blue Ridge Parkway. Or they can choose the 27- and 45-mile segments through rolling hills and meandering back roads. There’s even a 49-mile mountain-only loop.
But Lynchburg’s natural treasures aren’t just for cyclists. Whether you’re exploring on two wheels, two feet, or by kayak on the James River, there are plenty of ways to get outdoors.
Glide down the James River
Just across the James River from downtown Lynchburg, the folks at James River Adventures have a mission: “We want to share this natural resource with as many people as possible,” says Rob Campbell, a community conservationist with the James River Association. “Our mantra is: if people can enjoy spending time in this environment, they’ll want to protect it.”
Whether you’re looking for a short kayak break during lunch, a longer guided paddle to relax on the river, or a one-of-a-kind experience on their historic batteau boat, James River Adventures’ staff will ensure an enjoyable experience, connecting with the sights and sounds of the river. “From the shores of downtown all the way down to the Joshua Falls Takeout Point is about a 9-mile paddle,” Campbell says. “We consider this the ‘Middle James.’ After you pass through town, you’ll see the iconic, bucolic river-bottom views with lots of wildlife and the mountains in the background.”
“A lot of people pack a lunch and make a day of our longer guided paddles,” Campbell says. “As the water drops down, there are some nice, sandy beaches, and there are great places to rest, gather your thoughts, and enjoy the beautiful views.”
Booking is easy through the James River Adventures website and must be done at least 24 hours in advance – be sure to secure your river adventure today!
If you have your own boat and supplies, check out the map for boat put-in and take-out locations. Need fishing gear? Be sure to stop by Tale Tellers in Downtown Lynchburg.
Find your snow legs at Liberty Mountain Snowflex Centre
Year-round, you can feel the adrenaline surge of zipping downhill at the Liberty Mountain Snowflex Centre. Guests of all skill levels can take advantage of the park’s skiing, snowboarding, and tubing experiences from its perch on Candlers Mountain Road.
After check-in, head over to the beginner slope to get the feel for “snowflex,” the artificial turf-like snow surface — or schedule a quick lesson with one of the instructors. Once you get the hang of it, there’ll be no stopping you. Unless, of course, you’re ready for hot chocolate and a pastry, served at the lodge.
Bike 40 miles of urban trails
What is now a wonderland of paved and earthen trails was once an old railway system that ran alongside Lynchburg’s Blackwater Creek. Rent a bike from Bike’s Unlimited downtown and start pedaling. “Most of the trail follows the creek into the city center, but it spurs off in different directions with different creek-side trails,” Campbell says. “Even though you’re in the middle of the city, you’ll never know it because there are virtually no buildings intruding on your view. You’re in this lush green space.”
The RiverWalk trail runs through Lynchburg’s historic downtown and then over a bridge to Percival Island, used by the railroad 80 years ago as a refueling spot. After cycling across the island, you’ll continue on over the next bridge into Amherst County for the trail’s last two miles.
For a complete list of trails incorporated in the James River Heritage Trail System, check the Lynchburg Parks and Rec’s “Our Trails” page. “All of the trails are graded and most are paved, so they’re very forgiving — great for novices and people with a lot of experience,” Campbell says.
Mountain Bike the Liberty Mountain Trail System
The Liberty Mountain Trail System consists of over 50 miles of single and double track trails and logging roads spanning approximately 5,000 acres. The mountain rises to over 1,360 feet offering cross country and gravity-fed trails for both hiking and mountain biking. The trail system is open to the public during daylight hours.
Pitch a tent at James River State Park
About a 45-mile drive from Lynchburg, James River State Park feels a world away. Whether you prefer primitive tent camping with a patch of grass to call your own or a cozy five-bedroom cabin, James River State Park is an idyllic setting to spend the night or weekend.
Located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the park features 15 miles of scenic nature trails that crisscross in and around forests, shorelines, and grasslands. In three freshwater ponds, visitors can fish for smallmouth bass, catfish, pan fish, and river gar. Horses are welcome, and the James River is perfect for canoeing, kayaking, and tubing. There’s even a canoe livery, which makes it possible to boat eight miles of the river. Visit their website before you arrive to reserve a cabin or campsite.
Rise Up Indoor Climbing Gym
Founded by Dan and Leslie Hague, two of the most accomplished climbing theorists and instructors in America, Rise Up has more than 6,000 square feet of climbable surface, with 20 lead and top-rope climbing stations and more than 1,000 square feet of top-out bouldering. Test your skills on a variety of courses from beginner to advanced, and experience the thrill of reaching the top after maneuvering your way up strategically placed handholds. If you’re really up for a challenge, try bouldering, an experience that has you climb a low-to-the-ground rock face without the use of ropes.
Fish LYH and get Expert Tips from Tale Tellers Fly Shop
Lynchburg has a variety of angling opportunities, within an hour’s drive, you can find brook, rainbow and brown trout, smallmouth and largemouth bass, striper, the occasional walleye, musky, chain pickerel, carp, gar, the ever-present sunfish, and catfish. Closest to home, in the backyard of Downtown Lynchburg, is the James River. Here you’ll find our “warm-water” species. There are several ways to fish the James. When the water is low you are able to fish the bank and wade into the river with ease. When the water is up and in a safe flow you can float a kayak or take a larger boat up and fish spots that aren’t accessed as easily. Watch the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources website to find when they stock and show up early, as these are quite popular locations for our locals. If you want to learn more about fishing around Lynchburg, stop in TaleTellers in Downtown Lynchburg and set up a guided tour, take a fly tying workshop, get some pointers or just pick up some gear, we’ll be happy to help to get you started with your fishing exploration!
Hike along America’s most-visited National Parkway
Campbell recommends a few different hikes for exploring along the Blue Ridge Parkway, which runs through North Carolina and almost all of Virginia. “It just depends on how high you want to get started,” he says. At the first access point in a town called Snowden, where the James River crosses through the Blue Ridge Mountains, “you’re starting on one of the lowest points of the Appalachian Trail.”
There’s bad news and good news about starting in Snowden: “Whether you walk north or south, you’re walking up,” Campbell says. “But when you go back, you’re walking down!”
Campbell also likes the Apple Orchard Falls Trail, which starts at milepost 78.4. On this strenuous 1.2-mile hike, you’ll pass by Sunset Field Overlook with views of Apple Orchard Falls.
A number of trails branch off from the Blue Ridge Parkway and Peaks of Otter as part of the Appalachian Trail. Park and experience the invigoration of hiking through lush forests, hopping across gurgling streams and reaching the peak of a mountain like Sharp Top or McAfee Knob. When you’re finished, return to the main metropolitan area of Lynchburg for a well-deserved lunch.
“Almost any place you go, you’ll have it all to yourself,” says Campbell, who’s lived in Lynchburg his entire life. “Lynchburg isn’t one of those places where you go see a beautiful scene and there are 500 tourists sharing it with you,” he says. “It’s one of those places where you can experience something special and beautiful, and you can carve out your own adventure.”
Robin Sutton Anders is a Greensboro, N.C.-based writer and the managing editor of Verdant Word Communications.