A Recent History in Thumbnail
Depending on which trailhead selected, you might be standing in front of city hall one minute, and riding dazzling trails 15 laps of the second-hand later. City hall is mentioned here ironically, because that's where the ultimate administration for this 13,000 acre bike/horse/hike Shangri-La hole up. Carvin's Cove is a big crescent moon shaped lake that doubles as Roanoke's drinking watertank. It's also perhaps the most amazing 13,000 acre outdoor adventureland that any city in the world holds the deed to.
For as many years as there have been mountain bikes, and for far longer on hoof and foot, folks have enjoyed the trails and fire roads of the watershed, problem-free. Usage of the ancient trails that were built to traverse Brushy Mountain from the deep holler called Bennett Springs has grown. Trail repair, removing dead-fall at least, has been provided by horsemen and cyclists voluntarily and without city sanction.
In 1993, the Virginia Championship Commission, pioneers of Virginia series mountain bike races, first proposed holding a state championship bike race at the cove but were denied, based primarily on the opinion of water works chief Kit Kiser. At one point, Mr. Kiser was heard to say, “If I had my way about it (Carvin’s Cove recreation) I’d shut the whole place down.” At this point, boats—with gas engines no less—fishermen, and picnickers were allowed. Recreational leaders like former Roanoke Times outdoor editor Bill Cochran had witnessed this type of opposition by Mr. Kiser on many occasions before.
In the spring of 1997, the Virginia Championship Commission was awarded a high-level NORBA national calendar race. Now, there was something with some meat on its bones: the highest level sanctioned race in Virginia mountain bike history. The initial proposal was inspired by Mike Matzuk, active cycling supporter and owner of East Coasters. So back to council and Kit Kiser again with a new, improved incentive to say YES. The plan was to select a venue with easy access, support amenities, and amazing trails. Carvin’s Cove was perfect, and what great exposure and potential economic windfall for the city. The ultimate goal of race director, Kyle Inman, was to unleash Roanoke, and its amazing asset, as a mountain bike/outdoor destination of major, and heretofore unknown, proportion.
The Roanoke Times featured the request on the front page, above the fold, beginning a cascading-effect of action motivated around recreational uses of Carvin's Cove (which were largely, technically, illegal). The race was to be dubbed "Carvin' the Cove," and following its ultimate denial, wound up at benfitting Mountain Lake Resort in 1998, called Misty Mountain Hop. The race was an unqualified success, attracting riders from Arizona to Maine.
From that catalyst, a citizens committee formed, and environmental consultant was hired to study the idea. The process was interminable, but by the fall of 2000, city council at last yielded to public desire. Carvin's Cove Natural Reserve was created, and bikes, hikes, and horses were legal for the first time. Roanoke City Council seems now to be OK with the proposition, as they installed user fees (following an inexplicable multi-week 9/11 closure) to help cover a multi-million dollar tax ciphering blunder. We aren't real sure how they're going to collect fees from all those hikers along the Appalachian Trail that enter the watershed/city property along the Tinker Mountain rim.
But the explosive growth in usage, especially by the pedaling crowd, did not wait for the doors to be officially opened in 2000. Immediately following the initial Roanoke Times front page article, and subsequent follow ups, the Cove Rush was on. From 1997-2000, all kinds of changes, mostly good, came to this once semi-secret mecca. Parking issues in Bennett Springs became common, as did conflicts with residents over speeding, disturbing livestock, just being there. Trail traffic, while never classified as dense, was profoundly increased. The slim laurel tunnels that inspired the Gauntlet name were clipped back by fleshy trimmers buzzing through on Stumpjumpers and Cannondales. The once smooth, fast trailbed transformed into the pocked, pounded, brain-rattling experience it remains today. Brakes and hooves in large quantities have just that kind of effect on terra firma.
Now under the reign of Roanoke Parks & Recreation, and largely thanks to the help of great individual talents like Brian Batteiger and Dr. Bill Gordge, progress is being made to enhance and expand the trail experience. Even Rich Edwards, IMBA's great professor of trailsmanship, was hired to calm and ease Mad Cow (the trail, aka Songbird) with his Ditch Bitch trail cutter. A parking lot was built (with great opposition from Roanoke County, but there’s a story for another day). A kiosk was built (although very little information is allowed to be pinned to its plexiglass protected walls). A trail from the new parking lot was bench cut with great effort and excellent result. These are better days indeed.
In summary, there were many who longed for recreation expansion at the watershed, but had been stymied successfully by Kit Kiser and false, yet effective, political barriers for decades. The 1993 race proposal was just one more “no” in a long line of rubber-stamped denials. Kyle Inman’s second race proposal in ’97 kicked the door in, but would have gone nowhere again, without the coalescence of public sentiment provided by the Roanoke Times and reporter Todd Jackson. Outdoor editor Bill Cochran was one of those that had long run headlong into the Kiser Wall on other outdoor activities, and provided the referral to Mr. Jackson. And despite the many other challenges that seemed designed to derail this project, the public won, and the watershed is still safe despite the revolutionary recreationalists.
Here's the Roanoke Times article as it appeared on the front page, July 11, 1997:
media coverage/Roanoke times 7-11-1997.pdf
Here's an article that ran in January of 1998 authorizing a recreation feasibility study for Carvins Cove, and linking that radical outcome directly to the proposed AMBC NORBA mountain bike race.
media coverage/Carvins Cove Green Light Roanoke Times 1-21-98.pdf
Here's park and rec's challenging-to-read-as-it-is-to-ride map o' trails: