The Best Things to Do at Carvins Cove Natural Reserve in Roanoke VA

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Carvins Cove Natural Reserve is the fifth largest city park in the entire United States, and the second-largest run by a municipality.

It encompasses more than 12,000 acres, and the 630-acre reservoir within it supplies the city of Roanoke and most of the Roanoke Valley with drinking water.

In addition, Carvins Cove Natural Reserve is Virginia’s largest publicly owned easement. The easement is held by Virginia Outdoors Foundation and Western Virginia Land Trust.  

The Carvins Cove Reserve straddles the boundary of Roanoke and Botetourt Counties, and includes the main ridge line of Brushy Mountain, which rises approximately 1200 feet above the reservoir itself.

Within its boundaries, there are over 60 miles of hiking trails, picnic shelters, a boat landing, and a kayak rental service.

In other words, it’s one of the best places in the Virginia mountains for some recreation and relaxation!

Read on for our guide to the best things to do at Carvins Cove Natural Reserve, including mountain biking, boating, fishing, hiking, and more.

READ MORE: The 10 Best Things to Do in Roanoke VA

Carvins Cove - Tinkers Creek Greenway
Tinkers Creek Greenway


ADDRESS: 9644 Reservoir Road, Roanoke VA 24019

PHONE: 540-362-1757

OFFICE HOURS: 6:30am to 9:30pm (April-Sept), 8:30am to 6:30pm (October-March)

ENTRY FEES: $7.00 per vehicle, $10 per equestrian trailer, $12.00 per boat w/ trailer


CARVINS COVE DIRECTIONS: From Downtown Roanoke, take Williamson Rd SE north to Orange Ave NE. Turn right onto Orange Ave NE.

After about a mile, take a left onto Hollins Road NE and go north for 1.6 miles to State Rte 605, veering right onto it.

State Rte 605 will travel north a little over four miles. Take a left onto Lee Hwy and a quick right onto Reservoir Rd (State Rte 648).

You’ll see the boat landing in about 2.5 miles.

READ MORE: The Best Blue Ridge Mountain Towns in GA & NC

Carvins Cove, Mountain Lake,
Mountain Lake at Carvins Cove Natural Reserve


Native Americans lived in the Roanoke Valley for centuries prior to the European colonization that occurred in the 1740s. Historical info is a bit lacking, but it seems likely that they were Siouan-speaking tribes such as the Monacan and Tutelo.

In 1746, a Welsh settler named William Carvin was given a land grant of 150 acres along Carvin Creek, in the Southern Virginia mountains. Today, some of that land is home to Hollins University and what was known as the Happy Valley Community.

In the late 1920s, the Virginia Company built an 80-foot dam wall at the Falls on Carvins Creek to hold back an estimated 6 billion gallons of water. The impoundment, however, was never filled.

Then, during a drought and the Great Depression in the 1930s, the Virginia Company was sold to Roanoke Water Works for one dollar.

By 1938, the RWW has been condemned, and all of its landholdings were sold to the City of Roanoke.

The city finally decided to finish the project in 1944, and in 1946 water spilled over the top of the dam wall for the first time. The Carvins Cove Treatment Plant was put into action, with the capacity to filter six million gallons of water a day, which soon increased to 16 million.

Diversions of Tinker Creek and Catawba Creek were added to Carvins Cove in the 1960s and ’70s, respectively. In 1994, the plant’s filtering capacity expanded again to 28 million gallons a day.

Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) there was a severe drought in 2002. The Western Virginia Water Authority took over ownership of Carvins Cove up to 1200 feet, and the City of Roanoke retained the rest of the land.

In 2009, the City of Roanoke donated 11,363 acres of Carvins Cove in a two-part conservation easement. In 2012, the WVWA purchased the last remaining privately owned land in the watershed, fully protecting the water source from potential runoff contamination.

Today Carvins Cove is opened for all Roanoke residents and visitors to enjoy, whether we are hiking, biking, boating, fishing, or horseback riding.

READ MORE:10 Great Places to Celebrate Christmas in Virginia



Carvins Cove - Boat Launch at Carvins Cove
Boat Launch at Carvins Cove 

1. Mountain Biking

Carvins Cove has become renowned for its mountain biking paths. There are over 60 miles of multi-use paths within the reserve, garnering it the name of “Disneyland for bikes.”

The reserve’s trails are generally divided into the “uppers,” for more advanced riders, and the “lowers,” which are more accessible for us mere mortals.

Some of the best biking trails include the Upper Loop, a 10-mile track with plenty of elevation change; the Royal Reach-Around Trail, a 15-mile journey that includes jumps; and the Lowers Tour Trail, a 13.6-mile trip perfect for beginning cyclists.

Most of these tracks can be accessed from the parking lots north of the lake as opposed to the area with boat ramps, including Bennett Springs, Hollins Trailhead, and Timberview.

READ MORE:The 15 Best Places To See Christmas Lights in Virginia

Kayaking on Carvins Cove
Kayaking on Carvins Cove

2. Boating/Kayaking

In terms of motorboats, the lake at Carving Cove is only open to small-engine boats. So the water is usually placid enough for pleasant canoeing and kayaking.

For those with their own equipment to use, it only costs a few dollars for an access pass to put them in the water for a paddle.

Otherwise, the Marina rents 14-foot rowboats, as well as single and tandem kayaks. Rentals must be paid for in cash or personal checks, as no debit or credit cards are accepted. Rates include:

  • Single Kayak: One hour for $10; Two hours for $15; Four hours for $25
  • Double Kayak: $15, $20, $30
  • Row Boats and Jon Boats: $5 per hour or $25 per day

Stand-up paddle boarding is also permitted in Carvins Cove, but you’ll have to bring your own.

Be sure to check the restrictions before arriving at the dock. In order to keep the water clean and avoid invasive species, the Western Virginia Water Authority has several requirements for personal vessels.  

READ MORE: The 10 Best Things to Do in Luray VA (Gateway to Shenandoah)

Fishing at Carvins Cove
Fishing at Carvins Cove

3. Fishing

Fishing is very popular at Carvins Cove, where it is allowed from the shore, several piers, rented boats, and personal boats. Note that fishing is not allowed from kayaks here.

Anyone over the age of 16 must have a valid Virginia fishing license. In order to protect the quality of the drinking water, only non-aquatic bait may be used.

The reservoir is home to largemouth bass, hybrid bass (which are stocked yearly), and bluegill, as well as smaller populations of channel catfish, yellow perch, black crappie, and smallmouth bass.

All fish are regulated with the state’s limitations, with the exception of largemouth and smallmouth bass, which must be a minimum of 14 inches.

READ MORE: Exploring the Blue Ridge Music Center Near Galax VA (Blue Ridge Parkway MP 213)

Picinic Shelter at Carvins Cove
Picinic Shelter at Carvins Cove

4. Picnicking

Carvins Cove is a fantastic spot for a picnic, whether it’s finding a convenient spot along the shoreline or setting up in the shelter near the boat landing.

Visiting the nature reserve does require a $7.00 parking fee per vehicle, so that’s worth keeping in mind (and a good incentive to carpool, if at all possible).

The ADA-accessible shelter located at the boat dock has six picnic tables and is available for reservations for small events or weddings, with up to 50 guests.

The reservation fee includes entry for all of the guests. But because parking is limited, guests are “strongly encouraged” to carpool.

READ MORE:The 10 Best Christmas Tree Farms in Virginia

Hiking in Carvins Cove Roanoke VA
Hiking at Carvins Cove in Roanoke VA, photo via Canva

5. Hiking

The extensive network of Carvins Cove trails and service roads are available for hiking.

As with most of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, the terrain here is moderate to steeply sloped, with an elevation gain of about 1,000 feet from the reservoir to the ridge.

The Carvins Cove Reservoir Trail is 4.3 miles and rated easy. The Four Gorge Trail is a moderate hike of 6.8 miles. For a longer trek, the Brushy Mountain Ridge Loop is just under 10 miles.

Dogs are welcome at the reserve, but must remain on a leash.

Note that wild animals, including black bears and snakes, do inhabit the area. So be aware of proper safety precautions. 

The $7.00 vehicle fee also applies to hikers. So, to reiterate, carpooling is strongly advised.

READ MORE:The 10 Most Festive Christmas Towns in Virginia to Visit

Happy Valley Trailhead
The Happy Valley Trailhead

6. Horseback Riding

The Carvins Cove Natural Reserve has more than 40 miles of trails that are open for horseback riding.

The State of Virginia requires that all horses must have a health certificate and a negative Coggins test, something a local vet should be able to do (more info available at 540-434-3897).

While on-site, riders are asked not to let their horses drink pond water, not to tie them off to trees, and not to leave any trash behind.

Riders should stay on the marked trails in order to avoid damaging the ecosystem, and use rocky areas for crossing the various creeks and streams.

Camping at Carvins Cove is an option on designated trails. Organized rides of 25 or more horses require special permits, which are available at the Ranger’s office. —by Jonathon Engels; all photos by Emma Gallagher unless otherwise noted

Leave No Trace logo

We encourage anyone who loves the Blue Ridge region to learn about the Leave No Trace principles of responsible environmental stewardship. 

Stay on marked trails, take only pictures, pack out your trash, and be considerate of others who share the trails and parks you explore. 

Remember that waterfalls and rocky summits can be dangerous. Never try to climb waterfalls or get close to a ledge to get a selfie.

When you're exploring the wilderness, it's better to be safe than to be a statistic!

After visiting North Carolina for the first time, Senior Writer Jonathon Engels and wife Emma spent 2 years exploring Western NC in search of a homestead property. They first lived in Brevard, where Jonathon taught writing at Blue Ridge Community College and extensively explored the Blue Ridge Parkway and Pisgah National Forest. For the last several years they have lived just off the BRP near Elkin, Southwest Virginia, and the NC High Country. The couple also volunteers with the Surry Old Time Fiddlers Convention, the Elkin Valley Trail Association, and Reeves Downtown School of Music.