World’s Largest Star on Mill Mountain, Roanoke

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Roanoke calls itself the “Star City of the South”, so it’s only appropriate that a giant star shines over the city, every night.  The star is perched atop Mill Mountain, a big hill that stands right at the edge of Roanoke’s downtown.

Location

The Roanoke Star is located just off the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Turn on Mill Mountain Parkway and go about 3 miles.  There are plenty of signs to lead the way, and access to the star is free.

My Visit

Roanoke’s star was constructed in 1949, and was originally intended to be lit only around the holidays.  Everyone liked it so much, the city kept it lit year-round.  The star can be lit white, or red, white, and blue.  After the September 11th attacks, it remained red, white, and blue for years, until the shooting at Virginia Tech in 2007.  Then, for a month, it was switched to all-white.

The Roanoke Star (or Mill Mountain Star) is 88 1/2 feet tall, and weighs 10,000 pounds.  Its 2,000 feet of neon tubing consumes 17,500 watts, when fully lit.  If you’re in town, look for it before midnight, when the star goes dark.

There could be some controversy over the “largest star” claim.  El Paso, Texas has a much larger illuminated star.  The difference?  El Paso’s star is a string of lights laid out on the side of a mountain, while Roanoke’s star is a free-standing, billboard-like structure.  El Paso’s version definitely forms a star shape, but Roanoke’s is an actual, solid object, that also happens to light up. 

As you stand at the base of the star, you’ll get a great view of downtown Roanoke, 1,045 feet below.

There’s also a small zoo nearby, if you have the time and interest.

Drive back to the Blue Ridge Parkway, and head north.  Just a few hundred feet after you’re back on the parkway, watch for a road that turns to the right.  This road will take you up Roan Mountain, for some more great views.

This is one of the best views I could find from the top of Roan Mountain.  On the way up, I passed by another view that looked northwest, overlooking Mill Mountain and Roanoke.  I figured, if the view was good halfway up the mountain, it would be great at the top!  But, there wasn’t a good view looking back towards the city at the top of the hill, and the road is one-way, so I couldn’t go back without making the entire loop again.

From Mill Mountain (Roanoke) to Peaks of Otter

Between two of the Blue Ridge Parkway’s most visited spots — Peaks of Otter and Roanoke’s Mill Mountain Star — there are numerous other places to stop, hike, and take a picture or two.  I found time to visit several of them, on my way up the Parkway.

Roanoke River Trail

Five miles north of the turnoff to Mill Mountain, there’s a trailhead for the Roanoke River Trail.  I decided to hike it, but I wasn’t impressed.  The trail is short — it only required a few minutes of hiking in each direction — but it didn’t pay off.  The best view (and really, the only view) at the end of the trail is pictured above.  Trees obscure a good view of Roanoke River, and the end of the trail is at least 50 feet above the water, so there’s no way to reach the riverbank.

Then, after the disappointment of the viewpoint, you must turn around and climb uphill, following the same path.  I would skip this stop if I was you.

Read Mountain Overlook

My next stop northbound was the Read Mountain Overlook.  Again, this stop wasn’t very exciting.

The Quarry Overlook

The Quarry Overlook does, indeed, live up to its name.  There, in the middle of the picture, you can see a rock quarry operation, along with some dramatic mountains in the background.

The Great Valley Overlook

I stopped again at the Great Valley Overlook.  It was around this time that I started to realize I was in for some crazy weather.  Dark Clouds were building on the west side of the road, and preparing to move across the Blue Ridge.

The “Great Valley” is the gap between the Allegheny Mountains and the Blue Ridge.  You can spot it on a map as the corridor through which Interstate 81 travels.  The Great Valley runs from New York to Alabama.  Settlers first arrived in this part of the Great Valley around 1730-1750.

Iron Mine Hollow Viewpoint

The Iron Mine Hollow Viewpoint provided a view of the valley, and those dark clouds, which were growing more ominous.

View of Montvale Overlook

Just a couple of minutes later, I stopped again at the View of Montvale Overlook.  On a sunny day, you’d get a nice view of the town of Montvale on the east side of the Blue Ridge, along with US 460 and the N&W railroad.

At this point, the black clouds were spilling over the ridge with fury.  Just minutes earlier, the view to the east had been clear and blue, but it was changing fast.

Bobletts Gap

At Bobletts Gap, I gave up.  I pulled into the parking area, and allowed the storm to hit.  It was furious, with a strange wind sweeping across the road.  It is an unforgettable experience to be on the top of a mountain ridge as a storm crosses.

After a few minutes of waiting, I realized that the weather wasn’t going to clear up quickly.  So, I continued my drive up the Blue Ridge Parkway, in the middle of the pouring rain.

I had planned on making an extended stop at Peaks of Otter.  There’s a great trail that takes hikers up to the rocky pinnacle of Sharp Top, one of the three “peaks”.  So iconic is the view, that you’ll probably see pictures of it on postcards and guidebooks throughout your trip.  But on this day, I couldn’t see the road in front of me, let alone the surrounding mountains.

I stopped at the visitor’s center and gift shop at the end of the side road that leads up to the Peaks of Otter trailhead, and waited for a while.  I wasn’t alone — at least 50 motorcycle riders had parked their bikes, and crowded underneath the front porch of the gift shop.

I spent at least 20 minutes trying to decide if a hike in the rain (which would yield no good views) was worth the time and effort.  As I carefully inspected every item in the gift shop, it stopped raining, but the sky showed no signs of clearing.  Eventually I admitted to myself that the Peaks of Otter wouldn’t be crossed off my “to do” list on this trip.

Note: This trip was first published in 2008.

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