Explore Park is just a couple miles off the Blue Ridge Parkway and is an amazing place to spend a few hours to a few days.
In the past few years, the park has undergone huge changes that have revitalized this beautiful destination. We want to show you how much there is to do so you can plan your best visit.
Explore Park can be reached by taking a short spur road on the Blue Ridge Parkway at milepost 115. It’s also be accessible from Roanoke, VA using back roads.
A very, very brief history of Explore Park
There is so much to do in the park, but it wasn’t always that way. Explore Park formed in 1994 with the hopes that it would pull visitors from the Blue Ridge Parkway to the Roanoke area. In the early years there was much more focus on the historical culture of the surrounding areas.
Eventually lack of funding led to concern as to what Explore Park would be with some proposals including a theme park.
The theme park project never came to fruition and Explore Park operationally closed for several years. Fortunately in 2013 Roanoke County began a 99 year lease of Explore Park.
Since then there have been tons of improvements and Explore Park has become a destination that draws thousands of visitors. Now the focus has shifted away from history, primarily, to outdoor recreation and it seems like there is something new every year.
Location: Blue Ridge Parkway milepost 115
When to Visit: All seasons
Activities: Hiking, Biking, Fishing, Kayaking, Camping, Outdoor Adventure, Disc Golf, and Dinosaurs
Before you begin your activities, you may want to stop by the visitor center to check on any events you may not be aware of.
The visitor center also has a lot of information about the history of the area as well as local plants and wildlife. There is a also a small gift shop that sells local handmade items.
We’ve broken down the activities by section. Feel free to skip around or over as much as you like.
Hiking at Explore Park
There are 19 different trails at Explore Park with a combined total distance of 14 miles. Many of these are short loops off of larger trails. You may want to hike all of them or just a few.
Thick forest surrounds most of Explore Park and no matter which trail you choose, you’ll have a great time.
Of all the trails in the trail system, the most popular is definitely the Riverside Trail. The trail winds around the Riverside Village, passing alongside several log cabins and other historic buildings including a one-room schoolhouse and a blacksmith shop. It’s worth noting that these structures have been moved to this site to reproduce what a village may have looked like in the mid to late 1700s.
The Riverside Trail has several other trails branching off of it. We usually begin our hiking trips in Explore Park along the Riverside Trail and then head to the pond trail or down to the Riverwalk.
Gristmill Way is another branching trail that takes you to a historic mill. The walk to the mill is only a few hundred feet and you would be missing out if you skipped it.
You will want to park at Journey’s End (link to parking lot) if seeing the historic buildings or walking along the river sounds appealing to you.
Mountain bikers and hikers share the trails at Explore Park. You are more likely to see hikers on most of the trails. The trails are not terribly difficult for mountain biking and even if you are a beginner, you shouldn’t let lack of experience turn you off from biking at Explore Park.
You can bike along any of the trails in Explore Park but the Blue Ridge Bike Center was built with mountain bikers in mind. To reach the section for bikers you’ll head down Rutrough Rd (pronounced Roo – trough). There is a small parking lot (link to parking location) along the road before you reach Rutrough Point.
You can use the bike access trail to reach the rest of the trails and from there, it is pretty easy to combine the Back Creek Trail and the Dry Pine Trail for a 5 mile excursion without too much elevation change.
Kayaking and Tubing
The Roanoke River runs just outside the bounds of Explore Park. The river has become more and more of a favorite spot for kayaking and tubing over the last decade.
There are no outfitters that operate out of Explore Park currently, so you’ll need your own equipment or to rent from an outfitter off site and drive to Rutrough Point to launch.
The closest outfitter is Roanoke Mountain Adventures. You’ll need to transport any equipment yourself. If that sounds like more than you want to do, you can book a trip with Roanoke Mountain Adventures or head to the town of Buchanan and check out Twin River Outfitters, our favorite outfitter in the area. Trips with Twin River are on the James River instead of the Roanoke River but it’s a less urban adventure.
Most of the fishing done around Explore Park is at Rutrough Point. If you decide to fish it is important you make sure you follow all fishing regulations. You can find those on the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources website.
There are a number of fish present in the Roanoke River. Some of the most common are small mouth bass, large mouth bass, trout, and catfish.
Roanoke has a few outdoor shops you can visit if you forgot a piece of equipment. There is an Orvis shop in downtown Roanoke that will be your closest location for a quick trip or you can head to Sportsman’s Warehouse. Sportsman’s Warehouse has a larger selection of equipment if you are looking for something specific.
For people wanting to try something a little more adventurous, Explore Park has Treetop Quest. Treetop Quest is a ropes obstacle course that traverses the lower tree canopy through a section of the forest surrounding Explore Park.
If you’ve never done an obstacle course through trees, you are in for a treat. Obstacles require you to navigate across tightropes or over objects suspended between trees and finally to ride zip lines from point to point.
There are several options to choose from when deciding which course you want to take. There are also courses with children in mind.
Children as young as 4 years old can play on the trampoline, but they won’t be able to participate in most of the courses until they are 7.
There is a top line to prevent falls and there isn’t any chance you will accidentally unclip and fall. What makes this so much fun is the thrill of gliding through the forest and the little spikes of adrenaline while you dangle from a harness.
Prices are dependent on age and there is a $5 discount for each ticket if purchased online prior to arrival. That can really add up if you have multiple people in your group. Check the Treetop Quest site for up to date pricing and to book your trip.
The T-Rex Trail is a short trail in Explore Park with life size animatronic dinosaurs that kids will absolutely love! The trail is a bit less than half a mile and along the trail there are brief videos that engage the kids in a bit of sleuthing to solve a mystery.
It’s open seasonally between May and August and has recently finished it’s second year.
If your kids are too young to care about the mystery storyline, don’t worry, the dinosaurs are the real reason to come. The dinosaurs are enormous and leave you feeling like a snack for these huge creatures. Walking the trail takes about half an hour to an hour, depending on how long you linger.
The path is suitable for strollers if your kids aren’t up to walking the entire trail. Visiting is fun and you don’t need to have kids to love dinosaurs.
You can book your visit at the T-Rex Trail site. Prebooking your visit saves $1 per ticket.
Disc Golf at Mayflower Hills Park
Disc golfers can try the nationally ranked 18 – hole course. The course is outside of Explore Park at nearby Mayflower Hills Park on Rutrough Rd. While most of the activities in Explore Park are free there is a $3 fee for playing the disc golf course.
Aside from the disc golf course at Mayflower Hills Park you can find a few disc golf cages scattered throughout the park. The cages throughout Explore Park were installed prior to course at Mayflower Hills Park.
Brough Tavern is an historic home dating back to the turn of the 19th century. The home was moved from it’s original location in Botetourt County to Explore Park in 1998.
A couple different companies have operated restaurants out of Brough Tavern since the relocation but it sat dormant for much of the time since 1998.
Now, the tavern is open Friday evenings, Saturday, and Sunday and is operated by Twin Creeks Brewing and is a must visit if you are coming to Explore Park. Even if you don’t drink alcohol you can grab a great meal.
The food is pub style serving appetizers, burgers, and sandwiches. There is some indoor seating as well as outdoor seating. The outdoor seating is awesome because you are surrounded by the lush forests at Explore Park.
Camping and Glamping in Explore Park
There are several camping options at Explore Park. Whether you are a camping veteran or just outdoor sleeping curious, there is something for you at Explore Park.
Primitive Sites ($25/night or $50/night for double tent site) – These are for tent or hammock campers that have their own gear. There are single tent and double tent sites. Single tent site are placed on the ground, while double tent sites have wooden platforms for setting up your tent.
Raised Platform Sites ($65/night) – These sites have an elevated wooden structure with a roof. You can still bring your tent to set up on the ground. This is an ideal option for someone with a hammock that doesn’t want full exposure.
RV sites ($30/night two night minimum on Friday and Saturday) – People that do RV camping can enjoy one of RV sites at Explore Park. All sites have power hook ups, but there are no sewer or water hook ups. There is a water spigot near the sites, though.
Yurts ($100 on season or $75 off season two night minimum on Friday and Saturday) – Glampers are in luck! There are few yurts available for rent that can host six people. Yurts are supplied with air conditioning, a refrigerator, and a coffee maker. You can even bring your pets to a couple of the sites.
Cabin Pods ($80/night on season $60/night off season or $90/night on season $65/night off season for premium cabins two night minimum on Friday and Saturday) – The final option is to rent a pod cabin. These are very much tiny houses. They are heated and cooled with a refrigerator, a microwave, and a coffeemaker. This is the best option for anyone who really isn’t into camping at all but still wants to stay in Explore Park.
Illuminights at Explore Park
From November through December Explore Park hosts Illuminights. More than half a million lights are stretched along a near half mile path that visitors can walk and be transported to a Christmas light extravaganza.
Illuminights draws people from all over the region and has become an annual holiday tradition for many.
There is so much to do at Explore Park that it would take a few visits to experience everything. We love visiting, especially since it’s so close to home and it seems every time we stop by there is a new awesome adventure.
It’s easy to find something to do at Explore Park and even though it is a popular destination you can easily get away from crowds on one of the many trails.