Exploring Mill Mountain Park is one of the most popular things to do in Roanoke, beloved by both visitors to and residents of Virginia’s Blue Ridge region.
The 568-acre park is located in the city of Roanoke, which is just off the Blue Ridge Parkway in Southern Virginia. It’s accessible by both road and trail, via the town’s amazing Greenway system.
Mill Mountain Park has multiple scenic overlooks, 10 miles of multi-use hiking trails, a conservation zoo, Discovery Center, wildflower garden, and the famous Roanoke Star (a.k.a. the Mill Mountain Star).
There’s also a picnic area, outdoor classroom, playground, and plenty more to enjoy on a day trip to the park. As a bonus, the Blue Cow Ice Cream Co. is located on the way from Downtown Roanoke, so it’s worth stopping in for a taste of the best ice cream in town!
To get you oriented before you go, read on for some basic information, history, and highlights of things to do at one of the top Roanoke attractions.
READ MORE: The 10 Best Things to Do in Roanoke VA
Mill Mountain Park Info
ADDRESS: 2000 J B Fishburn Pkwy, Roanoke VA 24013
- Roanoke Parks and Recreation’s Discovery Center: April-Thanksgiving, Thursday-Saturday 10:00am -4:00pm, Sunday 12:00pm – 4:00pm; Thanksgiving-March, Thursday-Sunday 12:00pm -4:00pm
- Mill Mountain Zoo: 7 days a week, 10:00am – 5:00pm, gates closing at 4:00pm
- Mill Mountain Park & the Roanoke Star closes at 11:00 pm
- Roanoke Parks and Recreation’s Discovery Center: Free
- Mill Mountain Zoo: Adults $10.00, Children 3-11 $8.00, Children under 2 Free, Seniors 55 and up, $9.25
- Mill Mountain Park & the Roanoke Star: Free
OFFICIAL WEBSITE: Roanoke Parks & Recreation
DIRECTIONS: From Downtown Roanoke, take S Jefferson St. south to Walnut Avenue (0.6 miles), then turn left to cross US-220 and the Roanoke River.
After 0.6 miles on Walnut Avenue, it turns into J P Fishburn Parkway, entering Mill Mountain Park.
Continue on J P Fishburn for 1.5 miles, looking for the Mill Mountain Spur on the righthand side of the road.
Mill Mountain Spur winds up the mountain and culminates (0.7 miles later) at the parking lot for the Roanoke Star, a.k.a. the Mill Mountain Star.
If you’re coming via the Blue Ridge Parkway, just take the Mill Mountain exit at Milepost 120.
History of Mill Mountain Park
Mill Mountain Park has a rich colonial history. Approximately 400 acres of the land that comprises the park was granted to a man named Mark Evans by England’s King George II in the 1740s.
Accounts differ as to whether Mark Evans or his son opened a grist mill at the base of the mountain. Regardless, the mill was there by 1755, powered by Crystal Spring. This explains how Roanoke’s Mill Mountain got its name.
Adding to the folklore, George Washington reportedly stayed at the mill in 1756. He also surveyed the Natural Bridge, about an hour north of Roanoke, where he carved his initials in the limestone wall. The “G.W.” is still there today!
In the early 1890s, the Rockledge Inn and an observatory were built on the mountain’s summit for VIP rail passengers, so they could take advantage of the cooler temperatures at the higher elevation.
Unfortunately, the steep gradient proved too challenging for carriages, so the Roanoke hotel was closed by 1894. But the pull to commercialize Mill Mountain proved too tempting, and the facility was refurbished in the early 1900s.
The Mill Mountain Incline was introduced in 1910, with two sets of rails that allowed railcars to travel straight up the mountain rather than winding their way to the top. The fare was 25¢ a person, which would be $718.43 today!
By the 1920s, motorcars had inspired another way up Mill Mountain. Brother, John and William Henritze bought the mountain to create Prospect Road to the top. The toll was 25¢ a car, or 15¢ for pedestrians.
William Henritze also built a house on the mountain, which he called Rockledge. He died in 1957, but the house still remains there today. Though in private hands, it has been opened to the public many times.
The Roanoke Star was added in 1949, and it was intended to be one of the town’s symbols of Christmas. It also remains today, and now the huge structure is known as the Roanoke Star and/or the Mill Mountain Star.
Mill Mountain Park was finally developed for public use in the 1960s and ‘70s. In addition to the star, it includes the Mill Mountain Zoo, Mill Mountain Trails, Mill Mountain Discovery Center, and Mill Mountain Wildflower Garden.
5 Things to Do at Mill Mountain Park
1. See The Roanoke Star Up Close
The star in Roanoke VA is widely recognized throughout the region, and it is visible from many miles away. In fact, the Mill Mountain Star is the largest free-standing, human-constructed, illuminated star in the world!
The nearly 90-foot-tall landmark looms large more than 1,000 feet above the city. It’s constructed of over 2,000 feet of neon tubing, which requires some 17,500 watts to light up.
The Roanoke Star weighs 10,000 pounds, is held in place by a steel structure that weighs 60,000 pounds, and sits atop a 500,000-pound concrete base.
Generally, the star shines red, white, and blue on special occasions, with some of the original red tubing still intact and working. It is illuminated every night until midnight.
Gazing out from the star’s observation platform, there are incredible views of the Roanoke Valley and the twinkling lights of the mountain town. It’s a great place for photos, both of the star and the city.
Looking up at the star from Downtown Roanoke provides some great photo opportunities as well.
2. Mill Mountain Zoo
The Mill Mountain Zoo was founded in 1952 as a non-profit operated by the Blue Ridge Zoological Society.
The purpose of the zoo is to create an appreciation of wildlife and fund the preservation of habitat through education and exhibits.
Great horned owls, red foxes, raccoons, red wolves, and cougars are just a few of the native wildlife species that can now be seen at the Mill Mountain Zoo.
This zoo is the only not-for-profit wildlife attraction on the Blue Ridge Parkway (though the one on Grandfather Mountain in NC does use its proceeds to fund conservation).
3. Mill Mountain Hiking Trails
There are more than 10 miles of multi-use trails in Mill Mountain Park. They’re open to hikers, mountain bikers, and horseback riders.
Trailheads can be found near two of the park’s main attractions, the Roanoke Star and the Discovery Center. They’re also accessible via a parking lot off of Riverland Road, as well as numerous streets in Roanoke neighborhoods.
The most popular of the park’s hiking trails is probably the Mill Mountain Star Trail. This 1.7-mile trek takes hikers from the Roanoke River to the Roanoke Star, gaining over 800 feet of elevation along the way.
For longer walks, visitors often combine the short trails to make longer loops. Together, the Monument Trail, Big Sunny Trail, and Mill Mountain Star Trail make for a challenging 5-mile hike.
The Chestnut Ridge Trail, which is not in Mill Mountain Park, links Mill Mountain Parkway and the Blue Ridge Parkway for a great 5-mile hike as well.
Other prominent greenways in Mill Mountain Park include the Ridgeline Trail (1.26 miles), Woodthrush Trail (1.9 miles), and Monument Trail (1.55 miles). For an easy walk, try the Watchtower Trail or Crystal Spring Trail.
4. Mill Mountain Discovery Center
The Mill Mountain Discovery Center is primarily used for nature education, and there are several features there to help with the mission.
In addition to offering ADA-accessible restrooms and tables, the Discovery Center has several live animal exhibits— including a corn snake, black snake, and box turtle— as well as various interactive exhibits.
There’s also an amazing wildflower garden at the center, which we’ll discuss in the next section.
Altogether, this makes a great stop for families with young children, or even for curious adults who enjoy such facilities. And of course anyone who likes wildflowers will love the garden.
The Discovery Center is also available for birthday parties, weddings, dinner parties, and other private events.
5. Mill Mountain Wildflower Garden
Wildflower gardens are widely considered one of the best ways to help save the declining population of bees. So it’s nice to know that the folks on Mill Mountain have been doing it for decades!
The Mill Mountain Garden Club of Roanoke began way back in 1927, when 21 women vowed to spread their love of gardening, protect native plants and animals, and promote municipal planting.
In 1936, the club became part of the Garden Club of Virginia, and in 1957 it became part of the Garden Club of America.
The 2.5-acre wildflower garden that sits atop Mill Mountain was meticulously planned, and has been meticulously maintained by the club since 1971.
Since its inception, the garden has received multiple awards, including The Founders Fund Award and Common Wealth Award. Today, it remains a peaceful highlight for visitors to Mill Mountain Park. –by Jonathon Engels; all photos by Emma Gallagher unless otherwise noted