virginia hikes: Roanoke Star & Mill Mountain, April 10 2020

The Roanoke Star sitting atop of Mill Mountain is the largest free-standing illuminated man-made star (wikipedia). It is where the city of Roanoke, VA gets its nickname, Star City. On the way into the city or atop prominent peaks in the area like McAfee Knob and Fort Lewis Mountain, the star can be seen above the city (though you’ll need to know where to look and maybe squint).

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Roanoke and its star from Fort Lewis Mountain.

In the middle of COVID-19, the trails on Mill Mountain was as local as it got.

information

  • name: Mill Mountain loop & the Roanoke Star (gps track – alltrails wikiloc)
  • type: loop
  • distance:  6.0 miles
  • elevation change: 981 ft
  • time:  2:04 hours
  • location: Mill Mountain Park, Roanoke, VA (google map directions)

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The loop we hiked is a combination of several trails in the Mill Mountain Park trail system maintained by Roanoke Parks and Recreation. We started at the closest access for us, though I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it since it is in a neighborhood without much parking availability. The most accessible access points with more parking are on Riverland Ave SE (google map directions), Fishburn Parkway (google map directions), or at the Roanoke Star or the Mill Mountain Discovery Center (google map directions).

Mill-Mountain-Trail-Map-April-2017

report

On a Friday evening during COVID-19 pandemic, we decided to hike our local mountain just to get out of the house. We headed over to the south end of the Big Sunny trailhead, which starts in the forest overlooking the local neighborhood.

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A quarter mile into our hike, we turned right onto the Riser Trail. The uphill, which started on the Big Sunny Trail, continues on the Riser trail at a 7.5% grade over the 0.7 miles of the hike.

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At the top of the Riser Trail, which junctions with the Ridgeline Trail, we turned right on the Ridgeline Trail to start on our loop. However if you want a shorter loop, you can continue straight on the Monument Trail or taking the Monument Trail to the Sidewinder Trail. The trail crests at the 0.8 mile mark of our hike,

before starting a third mile downhill at -13.6% grade decline. The bottom of the decline ends at a junction, only marked by a cairn. We turned left off the Ridgeline Trail and crossing Mill Mountain Parkway and starting on the orange blazed Wood Thrush Trail.

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The Wood Thrush Trail continues the next couple of miles curving around a couple of ravines in the woods. The trail passes several junction including the Virginia Pine Trail on the right, Sidewinder on the left, and finally the Star Trail on the left where the loop leaves the Wood Thrush Trail and the recommended starting point of this hike on Riverland Ave SE (google map directions). Overall the trail declines for 1.2 miles crossing a stream near the bottom before starting uphills again. This was the busiest stretch on the hike on this day as we pass a few trail runners and multiple mountain bikers.

Shortly after turning on the yellow blazed Star Trail, the trail crosses the J.P. Fishburn Parkway around the 3.1 mile mark of the hike. It is flat for a quarter mile before the elevation picks up at a 10.6% grade over the next 0.9 miles passing a junction with the Monument Trail.

At the top of the uphill, we turned right onto the dirt trail to continue to the Roanoke Star.

The Roanoke Star overlook is usually a busy spot for tourists driving the Blue Ridge Parkway or hangout spot of the locals. However, the parking lot located here and the local greenway leading up to the viewpoint were temporarily closed due to COVID-19 leaving only the trails.

The overlook here shows downtown Star City with McAfee Knob, Tinker Cliff, Tinker Mountain, and Read Mountain covering the skyline in the background. The city maintains a camera on the star (City of Roanoke).

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After a brief brake at the lookout, we continued on the concrete walkway pass the parking lot and bathroom and playground.

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The Redbud and Cherry Blossom flowers here were in full bloom on this spring day.

A second viewpoint, Mill Mountain Overlook, provides for another view of the Star City.

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We passed the parking lot to the beginning of the paved Mill Mountain Greenway. We start down the Greenway for a few steps before turning left onto the Understory Trail.

Shortly after, powerlines give us one last open look.

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From here, the last mile of the hike declines at a -7.1% grade. To return to our starting trailhead, we turned right at the Ridgeline Trail junction from the Understory Trail,

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a right at the Riser Trail to end our loop, and finally a left on the Big Sunny Trail to return to our trailhead.

ratings (1-5; see detailed breakdown)

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  • views: 1. While the Roanoke Star viewpoint provides for a nice cityscape view of the Star City, it is usually a busy spot since it is accessible by car and the paved greenway. Otherwise, the trail is in the woods for the majority of the hike without much of other views of interest.
  • difficulty: 1. Neither the elevation gain or the grade are very high for the hike.
  • technical: 1. The trail well marked and nicely graded. The trails are shared mostly with mountain bikes, so right of way needs to be observed.

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