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Best Hiking in Virginia: The Peaks of Otter
The Peaks of Otter
Once thought by Thomas Jefferson to be the highest peaks in American, the Peaks of Otter has garnered a lot of attention over the last several hundred years. Of course, they are not even the highest peaks in the state of Virginia, but that doesn’t mean that a weekend traveler shouldn’t take a pause to journey to their peaks, all of which can be reached in under 2 hours, to take in some of the prettiest views from the Blue Ridge Parkway. Located off of mile post 86 on the Blue Ridge, and with the trails starting directly behind the Peaks of Otter Lodge, these three peaks make the perfect hike when you’re looking to pack in a lot of payoff for very little time.
There are three peaks that compose the Peaks of Otter, Harkening Hill, Flat Top and Sharp Top. The first, is a loop hike that takes the hiker through a large circular area with semi open views of the other two peaks. For the best views of both Sharp Top and Flat top it is best to hike this trail in late fall and winter when the leaves will give way to better views of the area. It is a gradual hike with a few short switch backs that will take you up the side of the mountain, and is of moderate difficulty. Neither hiking boots nor trekking poles are required for this hike. The completion of this trail will lead you to the Johnson Farm, a fully interactive and fully functioning farm set to the early 1900’s, and is worth a stop before returning to the Parkway and parking area.
Flat top is the tallest of all three peaks, but due to the surrounding views of the area from its little brother Sharp Top, many have thought otherwise. It is the truest hike out of all three peaks and can be accessed from two locations. The first is at the Peaks of Otter from the parking area from Sharp Top. Simply cross the road and go around the manmade lake to find the trail head. It is an out and back hike; though it can be done as a straight shot up one side and down the other to take in all the outcroppings and views. You may wish to leave a car at the end or other trail head which is located just two miles farther up the Blue Ridge Parkway. The key to fully enjoying this hike is take in all the views on the way to the peak. There are several good stopping points along the way, including views from the Pinnacle and Cross rock both of which have short spur trails off of the main path. Depending on the time of the year, views from the peak of Flat top can be somewhat limited due to foliage. You may need to explore the flattened summit for a bit to find just the right views of the area, which include the local reservoir for the Bedford area and the surrounding Allegheny Mountains.
Sharp Top is the third hike, second in elevation at 3,862 feet, but offering some of the best views in the state of Virginia and off of the Blue Ridge parkway. It’s approximately a mile and half to the peak and is a stone stepping trail that has been well laid out and kept up. This trail too should require no equipment or use of trekking poles, but caution should be used during the late fall and winter months as most of the hike is on rocks and stone steps, and the possibility for ice buildup is significant.
The National park service has done a great job of positing signs and benches along the way that note the elevation gain that occurs quickly over the 1.5 miles to the summit. The warning of it being strenuous is not a joke, and those who are not in the best of shape my find it necessary to take a slower pace and use the resting places along the way to their advantage. For such a short hike, many will still need to allot three hours for the out and back completion of this trail due to the aggressive elevation change and the temptation to linger at the top. From there you will greeted by a well-kept shelter for taking a lunch or stepping out of the rain on a dreary day. Just past this point you will find the large stones that present the best views in the area and a great place to take in the beauty of the area.
Hikers visiting the area should be aware that the Peaks of Otter is a tourist destination, and while you can find a significant amount of solitude during the off season and winter months, Fall and early spring can bring you a lot of company on the trails and particularly at the top of Sharp Tope where the Peaks of Otter Lodge runs shuttles that will drop visitors off near the top. If you’re looking for solitude, you can find a lot of it here, but may not have as much luck on a full colored fall weekend.
Difficulty: Each hike offers its own level of difficulty, with Harkening hill being the easiest, Flat Top offering a large amount of elevation change but spread over a longer distance and Sharp Top as the most strenuous with the elevation change all coming in the first mile of the hike. Each hike is short enough that you will only need enough water for a few hours, and no other gear would be considered essential on this trail. Do give caution to the fact that Sharp Top can become quite treacherous during the winter months, particularly after a hard rain or snow.
Directions: The Peaks of Otter hikes and Lodge are located at Mile Post 86 off of the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Other Hikes in the Area: With the Peaks of Otter being located directly off of the Blue Ridge Parkway near Bedford, there are many opportunities for other hikes in the area, or even a quick stop back by the D-Day Memorial in the Bedford or to the Peaks of Otter Winery. Many will also be interested in the old wreckage of a WWII bomber that crashed on the side of Sharp Top Mountain during a training mission in the area. The wreckage has been left in place, though time has moved some of it down the mountain. There is no trail to this area, and it is difficult to get too. Directions to the location out of respect for both those that lost their lives and to the safety of hikers, is not included in the summary of the area.