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Peaks of Otter [MP 83.1 – 86.2]

Konrad PhotographyIn 1834 the first inn opened, and by the turn of the century the Peaks of Otter was a popular tourist destination.

With stunning views, natural beauty, and the Jefferson National Forest surrounding it, it’s no wonder the Peaks of Otter area has attracted people to the region over at least 8,000 years. American Indians passed through the area while hunting and European settlers began to call the region home in the mid-1700s. Famous naturalists and such notable historic figures as Thomas Jefferson and Robert E. Lee wrote about or visited the Peaks of Otter during their lives. In the 1750s, Thomas Jefferson’s father, Peter Jefferson, completed work on a map of Virginia that included the Peaks of Otter. A copy of that map is on display at the Peaks of Otter Lodge. Thomas Jefferson once wrote that “the mountains of the Blue Ridge, and of these the Peaks of Otter, are thought to be of a greater height, measured from their base, than any others in our country, and perhaps in North America.” Of course this later turned out not to be the case, but not before Virginia had sent stones from the peaks to be part of the Washington Monument.

The community of Peaks of Otter, whose vestiges remain to be explored today, had its beginning in 1766 when Thomas Wood arrived from Pennsylvania. The wife of one of Wood’s descendants, Polly Wood, would open her home as the area’s first lodging for travelers in 1834. The cabin lodging was referred to as an “ordinary”. By the late 1800s, Peaks of Otter would be home to some 20 families, a school, a church, and a resort hotel. In the mid 1900s, the location was selected for special attention as the National Park Service (NPS) developed recreation and service areas along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Abbott Lake was constructed and the Peaks of Otter Lodge opened in 1964.

destinations-peaks-of-otter-highwayLocated between Mileposts (MP) 83.1 and 86.2, the Peaks of Otter offers exemplary hiking on any of the six trails surrounding the Lodge, views, picnicking, fishing and lodging along the Blue Ridge Parkway. The trails to the summit of Flat Top or Sharp Top offer spectacular hikes with panoramic vistas as well as vivid sunsets and sunrises (should you be up early and hankering for exercise). Also available through the NPS are educational programs, wildlife exhibits, self guided wildflower walks, a campground and a restaurant / lodge. The Blue Ridge Parkway shuttle bus will carry you close to the summit of Sharp Top when it is running.

The 24-acre Abbott Lake is one of the biggest attractions the Peaks of Otter Park has to offer. The lake is well-stocked with small mouth bass and bluegill. A crystal-clear mountain stream also winds through the campground and picnic area. This is a man-made lake, designed to reflect Sharp Top mountain. No swimming or boating is allowed. The lake would not have been possible today as the location was originally a Smithsonian archeological dig. Archeological work uncovered that Native Americans used to hunt elk thousands of years ago in the boggy meadow that is now the site of the lake. The land was first cleared by European settlers in 1766 and by the 1830s an “ordinary” was constructed that offered lodging and dining to those traveling across the Blue Ridge.

At the base of the mountain from Peaks of Otter, the Johnson’s Orchards truly provide an amazing view of the natural beauty of the area. When you look out across the farm and see the cabins and fields, you may feel you’ve stepped into the past. While you’re here, don’t just bird, take the opportunity to sample the local produce, jams and jellies, and wines at the Peaks of Otter Winery shop. This could be a site where you stay for awhile and feel a need to revisit time and again.

destinations-peaks-of-otter-johnson-farmThe Johnson’s Orchards is a working farm that has been in the same family since 1918. While large tracts of the farm are dedicated to orchards, grape vines, cattle, horses, goats, llamas, sheep, guineas, ducks, pheasants, peacocks and a host of other farm animals, over 50 acres have been planted in wild meadows and riparian buffer trees. The ancestral farm known as The Johnson Farm has been restored as part of an interpretive project along the Blue Ridge Parkway at the top of the mountain from the current farm – costumed interpreters work the farm and offer discussions and programs daily during the operating season.

This area has abundant bird and wildlife viewing opportunities. Visitors have encountered deer so tame they could approach within 20 feet of them. Trails away from the commercial parts of the farm take you to three ponds on the property that provide unique opportunities in this mountain community to see kingfisher, northern shovelers and a host of other water-related birds. The nearby forested areas bring a variety of woodland species into the farm such as eastern towhees, yellow-throated warblers and wood thrushes. The large expanse of fields and meadows provide opportunities to see meadowlark, field sparrows, killdeer, song sparrows, several species of swallows. Eastern bluebirds abound here and if you watch carefully, you are likely to see red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks here. During fall migration any numbers of raptor species are likely to be gliding past on their migration south. During winter months watch the fields for a northern harrier hunting the pastures and meadows. During spring and summer months, listen for spring peepers, green frogs, and pickerel frogs singing from the ponds and wet areas. Any time of year you are likely to see white-tailed deer on the farm and while bears are not an everyday occurrence, it is always a possibility. [1]

With a nod to the name of the area, no river otters are known to have inhabited this area. How the Peaks of Otter got its picturesque name has long been a matter of research and learned controversy. One thing appears definitely established: neither the area nor the similarly named Big and Little Otter creeks that arise in the foothills were named for this species. The most generally accepted explanation is this:

Two brothers, Charles and Robert Ewing, came to the colonies from Scotland and settled at the foot of the Blue Ridge about 1700. They are believed to have named the hills and streams in their new home for others fondly remembered in their native land. There are scores of “Otter” place names in Scotland and England. Charles Ewing and members of his family are buried at the southwestern foot of Sharp Top and his will was probated in the office of the Bedford County Clerk in 1761.

Another Scotsman, Andrew Donald, and his son Benjamin are believed to have brought more “Otter” names from Scotland, and Benjamin built his home, “Otterburn” standing to this day, near Little Otter River. Hence the many “Otter” names in Bedford County; for The Peaks, the streams, the stately homes, the churches, the crossroads hamlets. [2]

There is access to the Appalachian Trail at Bearwallow Gap, five miles south of the Peaks of Otter on State Road 43. Access is also available at the Cornelius Creek Shelter, five miles north of the Peaks at Milepost 80.5.


  • Bring water and optionally, snacks for hiking.
  • The Peaks of Otter is a favorite destination in the fall to view migrating birds, especially hawks in the Fall.
Excerpted from TripAdvisor reviews:

I have hiked three of the trails around the peaks and enjoyed them a great deal. They are scenic and a great way to get some exercise. Not to mention the views from the mountains are awesome. Now if wildlife is what you are looking for you will find the deer in the area are so tame you can get within twenty feet or so of them. On a couple occasions I have asked the park staff questions, they have always been helpful and friendly. I would highly recommend this for anyone wanting to spend time outdoors.” — user luckster2010

The Peaks of Otter is a nice and relaxing place to visit with a rustic lodge/restaurant/gift shop. Take a stroll around the Lake after a meal or just relax on the patio outside your Lodge room. You can take a bus ride up to Sharp Top Mountain or make the climb yourself! Lots of wild life in the area and just a relaxing place to visit! ” — user Judylb64

We hiked the peaks of otter and loved every moment of it. Hiking around the lake, creeks, hills, mountains and all was incredible! If you are on blue ridge parkway take the time to appreciate this area and hike its fun trails! Make sure you have proper shoes those, flooding is a common thing in this area and a few times my boyfriend and I had to find ways around the trails since they were under water.” — user tir17

Points of Interest
Interpretive and Educational
  • During the summer months – interpreters, complete with period costume, re-live the rustic and beautiful mountain life from long ago.

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