It’s not easy to get to Paint Bank, Virginia. In fact, you pretty much have to be headed there if you want to be there, but it’s worth a purposeful trip if you enjoy good food, and a beautiful, flat ride through the mountains during which you will travel in two states.
Our group of intermediate male and female riders also known as the Greater Roanoke Pedal, Paddle, Moscow Mule and Potential Through-Hiker Benevolent Association, was looking for a ride that would chalk up some serious training miles for a late summer century ride, a good place to eat, and some new scenery. Paint Bank fit the bill nicely.
The unincorporated community, named for the red clay used by Native Americans to create red paint is located in Craig County, Va. on Route 311 about 45 minutes from Roanoke. We drove up early on a Sunday morning and parked at the Paint Bank General Store and Swinging Bridge Restaurant. It’s a perfect place to start and end the out-and-back course and we could already smell the barbecue in the smokehouse that would be our reward for a hard ride. The restaurant really does have a swinging foot bridge inside — but more on that later.
The town is situated in the mountains, and it’s hard to believe there are 60 miles of “easy” riding here. But once you leave the store/restaurant, it’s one left turn and you stay on that road until you are ready to turn around. The first 12 miles are barely up hill at about a 1-percent grade. The scenery is rural and agricultural. We passed several herds of buffalo, and naturally stopped to take a picture.
There’s no sign, but somewhere just after three miles we crossed into West Virginia. The road goes by various names even though the route never changes. Here it is known as Route 600 or Waiteville Road. I did notice that the style of the highway signs changed but otherwise there was no indication we had crossed state lines.
Shortly, we passed through the community of Waiteville — little more than a cluster of houses, barns and out buildings, and we began to climb. This is not a scary ascent, as it plateaus several times and leads you to believe you are at the top long before you actually are. All told the climb is about 4 miles. You know you are at the top, when you see a beautiful sign depicting a local waterfall and welcoming you back into Virginia and Giles County.
From the sign to the turnaround it is a glorious 13-mile gentle downhill run to the stop sign that marks the traditional turnaround. It was easy to pedal along comfortably at 25-27 mph. We could have gone much faster had that been the intent. Judging by the segments on Strava others have had that intent and more.
It was easy to miss the character of our surroundings on the way down. We had been flying along, enjoying the downhill and the minimal traffic. When it gets like that you think about the freedom that comes fromriding your bike. You enjoy the simple fact that the combination of your muscles and the machine are propelling you through a beautiful unknown landscape. It is bicycling for the pure joy of the exercise. You are going fast and it feels effortless.
Of course a journey of any kind must take you somewhere. We reached the turnaround point in a curious little community made up of blue collar homes hard against the highway.
We pulled over to re-fuel on energy bars and gels when we noticed an odd little sitting area carved out of the woods. A fire pit had been fashioned from pre-fab rocks from a big box store. Around the pit were a number of aged chairs and benches. Seated in one of the chair was a stuffed imitation of a man with a welding helmet for a head. In another environment, the little area with the welding man might have been construed as cute or clever. But in this place, on this day, it was just plain creepy.
Since it was an out-and-back course, we had to climb the 13 miles we had just descended. Going more slowly on the way back, there was time to take in the surroundings. We rode beside Big Stony Creek and enjoyed bold rapids and small waterfalls. I wondered how the fishing might be in some of the deep holes that had survived the late summer drought. But we also rode past homes with multiple dogs chained to iron posts and old sedans and pick-ups parked in the yards. We noticed some satellite dishes but wondered if there was any internet here – or if there ever would be. It’s that rural.
The climbing was not difficult as we rode steadily along at 13-15 miles per hour without much effort. We passed a rusty bridge made completely of pipes. It was the beginning of a driveway, crossing from the highway over the creek and on to someone’s property. The bridge floor, and what passed for railings were all made of rusty pipes about two inches in diameter. To ease what must have been a bumpy ride over the creek, rubber mats had been attached at vehicle width. It looked like an over sized arts and crafts project gone awry. Yet, in context with the human side of the landscape we were traversing, it seemed right at home. (It was later suggested it may have been designed to prevent cattle from crossing — which would make sense.)
As we climbed closer to the top there was less architecture and more flora and fauna. The higher we climbed, the more we found ourselves surrounded by ferns, mountain laurel and other signs of the elevation. We rode over a freshly shed snake skin that was unmistakably left behind by a rattler.
From here the road tilted down, and the descent was steeper for the same four miles we had climbed on the way out. The road twists just enough to make it interesting, but there is no reason to brake or even stop pedaling unless you want to. Once the steepness runs out, it still a 12 mile slightly downhill ride back through West Virginia, into Virginia, past the buffalo and then to lunch.
The Swinging Bridge Restaurant is worth the drive, even if you aren’t going for a bike ride. The menu offers several selections featuring buffalo meat, as well as pork and chicken selections from the smokehouse located on the property. The onion strings are a house specialty and they are amazing. Breakfast options are outstanding, but be sure you order before 11 am, when they switch to the lunch menu. Before or after you eat, give yourself some time to walk around the country store which is a bit on the kitschy side — but well done.
And yes, there is a swinging bridge suspended above the dining area. No trip to Paint Bank is complete until you have walked across it.
By the way — if you are seeking a serious climb, park at the restaurant and ride Route 311 south toward Roanoke. You will almost instantly be on the six mile climb to the top of Potts Mountain — something our group had done earlier in the year to complete the Blue Ridge Bicycle Club Spring Peaks Challenge. Either way a drive to Paint Bank makes a great day trip.