Hiking the Peaks of Otter

by Bill and Mary Burnham

Peaks of Otter man and dog

One of the three Peaks of Otter, Sharp Top (milepost 83 on the Blue Ridge Parkway) was long revered as the state's highest peak at 3,875 feet. Its stone was used in DC's Washington Monument, which is inscribed: "From Otter's summit, Virginia's loftiest peak. To crown a monument to Virginia's noblest son."

When geologists later measured Mount Rogers in southwest Virginia, they declared that 5,729-foot peak tallest. But mere numbers do little to diminish inspiring views from atop Sharp Top (unrivalled even by Mount Rogers', whose summit is tree-covered).

Stone steps built by the CCC

The first few steps up Sharp Top are deceptive, insomuch as they're level. After that, it's all uphill. In a hillside crease, find respite in the form of a stream and a handful of brow-cooling cold water. Above the tree-line, dark sun-soaked rocks line a set of stairs chiseled by skilled masons during the Great Depression.

The short, but lung-busting climb ends at panoramic views of the surrounding peaks and valleys. Far below, dense forest is interrupted only by the Peaks of Otter Lodge on tranquil Abbott Lake, named for the Parkway's designer.

Sharp Top is a monument in itself, memorializing the sweat and talent of immigrant stoneworkers who fashioned elaborate steps to its peak.

Lake Abbott nestled below

Out-of-work masons were given the task during the Depression. Their beautiful arched bridges, tunnels, retaining walls and paths, all using native stone, can be seen throughout the park.

You can easily do all three Peaks of Otter within a weekend. The trailheads are just steps from the Blue Ridge Parkway, which gives access to more than 100 trails along its 470-mile route through the Appalachains.

Getting there: 220 miles southwest of DC, using I-66 west and I-81 south.

Hiking Virginia guidebook

Stay: The 60 rooms at Peaks of Otter Lodge feature lake and mountain views instead of televisions.

The Peaks of Otter Campground, open through October.

Contact: National Park Service, Blue Ridge Parkway

We wrote the book!

The Burnhams' award-winning hiking guide includes details, mile-by-mile cues, history and maps on 45 hikes in the Old Dominion. Hiking Virginia.