Popular since the days of Thomas Jefferson, the Peaks of Otter offer spectacular views of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. Amid the three peaks that make up the Peaks of Otter lies the Peaks of Otter Lodge, the only year-round accommodation on the Blue Ridge Parkway. This is the perfect base from which to explore the best Peaks of Otter hiking trails Virginia.
Location and Geography
Peaks of Otter hiking trails Virginia is located on milepost 86 on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia. It consists of three mountain peaks centered on man-made Abbott Lake in the small valley between them. On the banks of the lake lies the Peaks of Otter Lodge, the setting of which is truly spectacular (and exceptionally photogenic). All peaks and the lake are protected by the National Park Service—they are part of the Blue Ridge Parkway, which is a unit in the extensive NPS system.
Native Americans are known to have used the peaks as navigational and resting points. European pioneers first began settling in the area in the mid-18th century. By the mid-19th century, this had become a popular resort destination with a large resort hotel, a school, a church and homes for twenty families.
The striking geography of the Peaks of Otter is the main reason for their early (and continued) popularity. Important historical people, including Thomas Jefferson and Robert E. Lee, have visited and/or written about the Peaks of Otter, establishing and signifying their importance in the Blue Ridge landscape.
Sharp Top Mountain, for example, was first thought to be the tallest mountain in Virginia. Nowadays, we know that other mountains are higher. Yet, the mountain’s significance is proven by the fact that stones from its peaks were sent to Washington, D.C. and incorporated in the Washington Monument.
Peaks of Otter Lodge – Recommended Accommodation on Virginia’s Blue Ridge Parkway
The Peaks of Otter Lodge is the only year-round accommodation on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia. Although there are several campgrounds and other accommodations along the Parkway, they’re only open seasonally. From late-fall to spring, you have to stay at the Peaks of Otter Lodge if you don’t want to leave the Parkway.
There are worse places to stay, though. This is an extraordinarily located lodge, set on the shore of Abbott Lake, surrounded by the three Peaks. The lodge also includes a restaurant overlooking the lake, a café/sandwich bar, a lounge and a gift shop.
A short walk from the lodge, you’ll find the Nature Center and a visitor center, as well as several Peaks of Otter hiking trails Virginia.
Best Peaks of Otter Hiking Trails Virginia
There are six hiking trails at Peaks of Otter, ranging from leisurely strolls around the lake to challenging mountain climbs. They’re all great, but, assuming that your time is limited, the following are the three best Peaks of Otter hiking trails Virginia. They can all be done in one day.
Sharp Top Trail
This is one of the best hikes in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. Not so much because of the mountain’s sense of adventure—there hardly is any—but mostly because of its remarkable summit. Sharp Top Mountain has a sharp summit, indeed.
The trail is no longer than 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometers) and leads from the trailhead across the street from the visitor center to the summit. This is an out-and-back hike. The first 1.3 miles (2.1 kilometers) are moderate on a well-kept trail while the last 0.2 miles (300 meters) are very strenuous and on stone stairways.
If you don’t want to hike, you can take the Sharp Top Shuttle (almost) to the summit. You’ll only have to walk the last short and steep section. Keep in mind, though, that the shuttle service’s operation times vary throughout the year. It’s also not free. Check the Peaks of Otter website for more information. Hiking is, of course, the recommended thing to do.
The Sharp Top Trail is one of my favorite hikes in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Offering spectacular 360-degree views, the summit is one of the best ones I’ve ever been on. Count on 45-60 minutes to hike up and on 30-45 minutes to hike back down (that is, if you’re used to hiking; if not, allow for more time).
Abbott Lake Trail
This is the easiest of the Peaks of Otter hiking trails Virginia. One mile (1.6 kilometers) long, it loops around Abbott Lake at the Peaks of Otter Lodge and offers fine views of the three Peaks, most notably Sharp Top Mountain.
Consisting of boardwalks, pavement and gravel, this scenic trail is a must-do for everyone. Even if you’re not planning on doing some serious hiking when driving the Blue Ridge Parkway, this short hike is worth getting out of your car for. It’s a superb leg-stretcher, particularly beautiful in the morning or late in the afternoon.
Fallingwater Cascades Trail
The trailhead of the Fallingwater Cascades Trail lies about halfway between milepost 83 and 84. You’ll need to drive there from the Lodge, in other words.
This is a great woodland hike that passes by the Fallingwater Cascades, an especially scenic spot in the fall season. The trail is no longer than 1.6 miles (2.6 kilometers), but does dip 260 feet (80 meters) into the woods. Be prepared to ascend the same elevation on the way back. Overall, this trail combines woods characterized by rhododendrons, hemlock and broad-leaf trees with a picturesque series of waterfalls. Set aside 60-90 minutes for this pretty hike.
By doing these three Peaks of Otter hiking trails, you’ll get a comprehensive taste of what the area is all about. There’s a mountain ascent, a lakeshore stroll and a hike to a waterfall. If you’re hungry for more, consider doing the Johnson Farm Trail past a restored 1850’s mountain farm or the challenging Flat Top Trail to the highest of the three Peaks of Otter.