by Gene Marrano
Contrary to what some might believe, Virginia’s Explore Park is not closed. Visitors to the former living history attraction, located off a spur to the Blue Ridge Parkway in Eastern Roanoke County, can hike, bike or run the miles of trails there. They can also fish, launch boats and learn more at the visitor’s center during its regular hours.
Of course, the themed historical village did close several years ago after Roanoke County pulled the plug on any additional funding for the state-owned facility it had overseen, managed and funded for five years.
What you can also do these days at Explore Park, until it closes for the season again on November 4, is go back in time by taking a covered wagon ride, straight out of the Old West. “Spiritriders” is the brainchild of former Wyoming resident Mikel Carmon, who was lured to southwest Virginia last year, in part by the potential she saw for Explore Park. Carmon has also enlisted the help of friend Susan Hall, who calls herself an “Outrider,” in getting Spiritriders off the ground.
“I just fell in love [with Explore Park] and that was the beginning,” said Carmon of her big move here. She believes public-private partnerships with Explore Park, which is now overseen by the state’s Virginia Recreational Foundation Authority, makes perfect sense. “It is just this untapped, beautiful, historical, educational, pristine place.” 1100 acres with two miles of the Roanoke River running through it – “absolutely beautiful.”
New boat ramps, campgrounds and additional mountain bike trails means Explore Park is “reinventing itself,” said Carmon, who started the Spiritriders covered wagon rides in 2001 after she had driven covered wagon teams along the historic Bozeman Trail in Wyoming and Montana. Her horses lost 200 pounds each along the way because the wagon-master wouldn’t stop for much rest; Carmon vowed to “treat animals right” once she began her own venture.
Spiritriders brings a bit of the Old West to the Roanoke Valley. “I love going down the trails in covered wagons with mules and horses,” said Carmon. Hall will be doing some historical narration during the trail rides around Explore Park and will even sing at times. She will be introduced as a mystery character, with riders eventually discovering who she really is, historically speaking.
Hall will also help harness the mules, which weigh 1500 lbs. each: “I hitch the team to the wagon and ride with the visitors – sometimes along the river, sometimes through the 19th century village, answering questions. Historical education is really important.” On Fridays and Sundays she also plays the guitar and sings.
Hall, a Roanoke resident who has lived in seven states, has visited Explore Park many times and brought out of town visitors there when the historical village was open, but this is the first time she’s been involved with some facet of its operation. “It’s been a favorite spot of mine. I’m just thrilled and honored to work there every weekend for the season.”
The people that know Explore Park is open again for business, albeit on a more limited scale, “are thrilled,” said Hall, “but a lot of people don’t even know it’s there.” Spiritriders covered wagon rides hopes to help put it back on the map.
“I love simplicity,” said Carmon, who wants to give people a short break from this very complex world. She also wants to help “keep history alive,” even after the demise of the living history park.
Call 597-4931 for information and to make required reservations. Prices began at $26 for rides; four-hour programs on Saturday nights include a catered meal from Wildwood Smokehouse and music for $55. See explorepark.org as well for more details.