Reprinted from the Richmond Times-Dispatch while I was outdoor writer.
Peaks of Otter
A few miles northwest of the world’s best little town, you’ll find the world’s best little trails.
Bedford claimed the “best town” distinction years ago, although lately it hasn’t tooted that horn so loudly. With the National D-Day Memorial standing in the shadow of the Peaks of Otter – plus the world’s best little Christmas extravaganza at the Elks National Home – there are bigger banners to wave.
Still, you have to love a town where the radio station’s call letters, WBLT, reflect the town’s motto (and not a sandwich).
I loved Bedford during the six years I lived there – still do. Other than the warmth of the people, nothing hooked me more than the Peaks of Otter. Sharp Top and Flat Top dominate the skyline like regal sisters, their simple lines both elegant and graceful.
Sharp Top, like its name, rises to a dramatic point. Flat Top, while not table-flat, has a kinder, gentler summit. Each offers intrepid outdoor lovers some of the world’s best little hikes.
The popularity of the Peaks, as locals call them, dates to early American Indians, who hunted and trapped in the area. Colonists also appreciated the mountains. They believed Sharp Top was the tallest peak in the state and donated a stone as Virginia’s contribution to the Washington Monument.
Actually, Sharp Top (3,875 feet) is shorter than Flat Top (4,001 feet), and both look up to nearby Apple Orchard Mountain, highest point on the Blue Ridge at 4,224 feet.
Getting to Sharp Top’s peak can be short and sweet or short and sweaty. The National Park Service operates a bus from the parking lot at the trailhead just off the Blue Ridge Parkway. For a pittance (see box), you get ferried to within 1,200 feet of the summit.
Your other option is to give your bootlaces an extra tug and start hiking. The 1.5-mile trail is scenic and beautiful – passing through stands of laurel, hickory, oak and poplar – but some sections are rugged and steep. The hike is listed as strenuous in several guidebooks, and the final 1,900 feet can really test your quadriceps. But I’ve seen young and old alike complete it handily. Just take your time, rest frequently and carry drinking water.
Sharp Top’s peak offers a 360-degree panorama that makes it all worthwhile. Virginia’s Piedmont sprawls to the east, and in all other directions ridges and peaks undulate into the distance. While you’re there, consider hiking the short distance to Buzzard’s Roost. This outcropping of boulders requires careful climbing but provides exhilarating views.
For all of Sharp Top’s accessibility, Flat Top’s trail balances the equation with 4.4 miles of equally strenuous but far more woodsy hiking. For me, it holds precious memories, from trudging along 25 years ago with my older daughter on my shoulders to standing at the pinnacle with my best friend watching the sun come up on New Year’s Day of 2000.
The path can be accessed at two points, from a point near the Peaks of Otter Lodge or from the Blue Ridge Parkway between mileposts 83 and 84. Just across the parkway, you’ll find the Falling Water Cascades Trail, a 1.6-mile loop that, with Flat Top, was designated a continuous National Recreation Trail in 1982. The cascades trail drops 260 feet from the parking area to some serious scenery – and a serious workout getting back.
For those who prefer a walk on the mild side, the Peaks area offers several leisurely options. You can take the one-mile loop through woods and fields around Abbott Lake by the lodge. Another loop, about two miles, takes you to Johnson Farm, where in season you can see demonstrations of how life was lived among the mountain folk a century and a half ago.
Just behind the Peaks of Otter Visitor Center, Elk Run Trail offers an easy stroll of less than a mile with signs describing wildlife and ecology. The Harkening Hill loop has some taxing stretches along its 3.3-mile course but yields not only panoramic views but also a spur to Balance Rock (a big boulder perched on a small rock).
With so many trails, you can’t see or do it all in one day. Consider pitching a tent at the 140-site campground or reserving a room at the Peaks of Otter Lodge.
Be forewarned of crowds when the weather turns cool. The fall foliage is spectacular, drawing visitors from across the country.
It’s not the world’s best-kept little secret.
If you go
Free trail maps are available at the Peaks of Otter Lodge or the Visitor Center.
Tickets for the Sharp Top Bus are sold at the Country Store next to the Visitor Center. One-way rides are $4.50 for adults and $2.50 for children under 12. Round-trip tickets are $5.50 and $3.50, respectively. The bus leaves on the hour from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekends from May 1 to Sept. 30. During October, it runs 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
The Peaks of Otter, located in the Jefferson National Forest, are about nine miles northwest of Bedford on state Route 43, or between mileposts 83 and 86 on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
For details, call the Blue Ridge Parkway office at (828) 298-0398 or the Glenwood/Pedlar Ranger Districts office at (540) 291-2188, or go to www.nps.gov/blri. For a copy of the trail map, go to http://www.nps.gov/blri/planyourvisit/upload/Peaks%20of%20Otter%20Trails.pdf. For those headed to the Smoky Mountains, check out http://smokymountains.com/park.