At more than 12,000 acres it is easy to see why Carvins Cove Natural Reserve is the nation’s second largest municipal park. And with over 11,200 of those acres protected by the state’s largest recorded conservation easement, it truly is a Blue Ridge wonderland.
Spending the day exploring the Cove, either solo or with family, is an absolute delight. And while you won’t find Mickey blazing down any mountain bike trails, we’re betting you’ll find some magical moments during your day at the park.
Pack a Picnic
The best way to start any day of adventure is with a full and satisfied tummy, so pick something delicious to bring with you! This is cheaper than anything you’ll find at the Magic Kingdom, and you can support local. Get some fresh-made bread from a nearby bakery, some fruit (we recommend watermelon!) from the farmers’ market, or order something on-the-go and pack it in the cooler! Since Carvins Cove Natural Reserve is a family-friendly zone, alcohol is prohibited – so no hoppy brews this trip. However, the kombucha scene is buzzing, and Roanoke has some amazing, locally brewed ‘buch that makes the perfect picnic packer.
The Cove has a picnic area, complete with tables and restrooms and stunning views of the lake. Packing reusable plates, cups, and cutlery is an easy way to help keep the Cove (and our planet) beautiful. Access to the picnic area is available for $3 per person, per day.
The 600+ acre lake is teeming with a variety of fish species, including Yellow Perch, Black Crappie, Smallmouth Bass, hybrid Striped Bass, and Channel Catfish. Sportfish favorites include Largemouth Bass and Bluegill. Most of the Largemouth Bass are around 10 to 16 inches. Bluegills, while abundant, are smaller at about two to five inches.
With boat rentals, fishing at Carvins Cove is easily accessible, but you can also trailer in your own. There’s a concrete boat launch that is open from 6:30am until 9:30pm from April 1 until September 30. Keep in mind—if you’re bringing in a motor boat, it has to be 10 horsepower or less. Bait and bait containers are prohibited, as to maintain the integrity of the Cove. And as you likely already know, a fishing license is required for anyone 16 years of age or older. Boat fees vary, depending on the type you’re hauling in or if you’re renting. Click here for a complete list of user fees.
Explore with a Water Craft
“It’s a Small World” and the log luge are popular Disney boat attractions, but you can’t really explore on your own. Kayaking or canoeing are an amazing ways to see the beauty of the lake and surrounding area. With over 600 acres of calm waters, paddling can be a full day’s adventure in and of itself. Enjoy the abundant wildlife, including the possibility of seeing our nation’s most majestic avian, the Bald Eagle. Now common to the area, these enormous birds often build nests nearby, where they’ll occasionally swoop down to grab a feast of their own out of the lake. Binoculars are highly recommended.
You can bring your own kayak or canoe or rent one on site. Rentals include life jackets and paddles. Pricing for rentals range from $7 – $15 per day.
Another popular water exploration option is a Stand-Up Paddle Board. While there aren’t any SUP rentals, you can bring your own. However, use of a SUP on the Cove is dependent on being SUP Certified and having registered with the Roanoke Parks and Recreation. View the full list of requirements before heading out.
Hike and Bike
With over 60 miles of beautiful trail systems, it’s no wonder this hidden gem is one of the East Coast’s most reputable mountain biking destinations. Trails vary in difficulty from easy to extreme, with a terrain that is moderately to steeply sloped. From reservoir to highest surrounding mountain peak, the elevation gain exceeds 1,000 feet.
The reserve is primarily forested and is home to many rare and unusual species of flora and fauna. You’ll find an abundance of diverse wildlife habitats, including natural forest communities, streams, and seasonal wetlands. Hiking is a great way to take in all the sights and sounds and truly enjoy the beauty of the area. You can even bring your pups along on the trails! Just be sure to keep them on-leash and out of the water. Keep some poo bags handy, as waste must be removed from all areas.
Hikers, bikers, and canine companions are to remain on designated trails and service roads. This helps to protect and preserve the Cove’s robust natural ecosystem. Download the Trail Map.
Bring the Horses
Another fun way to explore the Cove is on horseback. You’ll have to trailer in your own herd, as there aren’t any equine on site. Be aware that hikers and bikers are permitted on the same trail systems, but both are asked to yield to horses passing through. Day passes are required for all equestrians, unless annual passes are obtained. All waste, including hay and manure, must be removed from trails, parking lots, and all other areas within the reserve.
As is Virginia state law, all equine are required to have proof of negative Coggins.
Carvins Cove is home to an abundance of wildlife, but unlike Disney, these ones probably don’t talk (bummer, we know). From a variety of insects to colorful birds, this hidden gem is a bustling ecosystem for some of Virginia’s most beautiful creatures. Lizards, turtles, snakes, foxes, deer, and even black bear are just some of the wildlife that call this area home. Spending the day observing native species can be a real treat. Bringing a journal, binoculars, and a camera can be a great way to document your findings or to cherish the adventure.
They say Disney World is the “Happiest Place on Earth,” and that may be true. However, we have a pretty awesome (not to mention closer and more affordable) option for recreation right here in the Valley. Pack up the family, grab some snacks, and feel free to wear your mouse ears if you have them; we’ll see you at the Cove!
Things to Know before You Go
- All park fees, including rentals, must be paid with cash or check; credit card payment is not available. Passes can be obtained at the Marina Office. Day passes are available for $3 per person, or you can get an annual pass for $25 per person. Fees on rentals vary and can be viewed here.
- Camping and swimming are strictly prohibited.
- Carvins Cove has a three (3) week out-of-water policy for all watercraft. In an effort to avoid the introduction of Zebra Mussel into the Cove, all boats, kayaks, and stand-up paddle boards must have been out of other bodies of water for at least three (3) weeks prior to launching. The Zebra Mussel is an exotic nuisance that wreaks havoc on natural resources and water supplies, and all efforts must be made to prohibit its entry into the water system.
- Park Hours: Carvins Cove Natural Reserve is open from 6:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. every day of the week. However, the parking lot closes precisely at dark and is locked until reopening the following morning.