|Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia|
|Blue Ridge Parkway runs for 469 miles between the National Parks of Great Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah. Many trails lead off the road (lists are available at the various visitors center along the Parkway): most are just short walks, but there are some good longer hikes.
The well-trodden path to the summit of Sharp Top is easy to follow. It only crosses the bus road once, 0.2 miles from the start. If it wasn’t for this, you could remain blissfully ignorant of any transport running to the top – until, of course, you arrive there yourself.
It is a steady climb, with some steeper sections, through forest. After about 25 minutes of climbing, you get high enough to glimpse the forested slopes below, even more so in late fall and winter when the trees have lost their leaves. 5 minutes later you catch sight the summit up ahead and, to the right, the huge boulders of Buzzards Roost, reached by a spur from just below the summit. The next part of the trail is much easier, with nice level sections to give you a breather and less steep climbing than before.
After 1.3 miles and about 40 minutes, you reach a junction. Save Buzzards Roost, to the right in 600 ft, for later; instead turn left for the summit. There is not far to go now, but the final 0.3 mile to the top is the steepest part of the entire climb. After a series of steps with ugly metal handrails, the trail veers sharply left and downhill for a short time, before bearing right. Pass a mass of boulders and, after some stone steps, a tarmac path switchbacks up and around boulders. Just below the summit, paths used by the bus riders join the trail. A few minutes later you reach the top.
A sign at the summit declares, “Sharp Top, a famous observation point, was once thought to be Virginia’s highest peak. From it came the Virginia stone in the Washington monument which is inscribed ‘From Otter’s summit, Virginia’s loftiest peak, to crown a monument to Virginia’s noblest son’.”
Steps lead right to the top of the rocky summit. It is rather too developed, but there is no denying the panoramic vista at the top, including a birds-eye view of the Parkway snaking over the Blue Ridge Mountains. However, a word of caution: avoid this hike in summer when a bus service runs to the summit. Buses inevitably mean lots of people and, with not a lot of room at the top, it would be simply unbearable. In late October when we hiked, the bus had stopped running, it was a beautiful sunny day, few people on the trail, and we had the summit all to ourselves.
10 minutes after leaving the summit, be sure to take the short spur to Buzzards Roost. It is just a short climb and then it is level all the way to the outcrop. Scramble up to the top of the huge boulders (much more fun than concrete steps and handrails) for another great view, and nothing developed here – we much preferred it to the summit itself.
Back on the main trail, the descent back to the car park should only take another 30 minutes.
Other Peaks of Otter Trails
Sharp Top is just one of three peaks in the area. Trails also lead from the Parkway to the other two summits:
* Flat Top (4,004 ft), reached by a 1,600 ft/488 m climb up Flat Top Trail. This peak has many rock outcrops, including Cross Rock and The Pinnacle. Out and back trail length is 5.7 miles/9.1 km. Trailhead: parking area at milepost 83.5. On the other side of the Parkway, Fallingwater Cascades Trail descends 260 ft/79 m to cascades before looping back to the road, a total of 1.6 miles/2.6 km.
* Harkening Hill (3,364 ft), reached along the Harkening Hill Loop Trail. On the way down, a short spur leads to Balance Rock, just below the summit. At the junction with Johnson Farm Loop Trail, turn left to return to the Parkway via 19th century Johnson Farm, a total of 4.2 miles/6.7 km. Trailhead: behind the visitor center.
|Location: Peaks of Otter on the Blue Ridge Parkway, north-east of Roanoke and west of Lynchburg.
Directions: Milepost 86 of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Accessible year-round from I-81 to the north or US 460 to the south via Route 43.
Trailhead: Next to the camp store, across the road from the visitor center.
Length: 3.2 miles / 5.1 km
Trail Type: Out and back
Elevation Change: 1,400 ft / 427 m
Duration: 2 hours
Trail Condition: Clear path, a bit rocky in places with some steps.
Features: Panoramic views, Blue Ridge Mountains.
Climate: Hiking possible year-round, although snow will cover the path in winter. Spring (wildflowers) and autumn (leaf colors) recommended.
Accommodation: Tent and RV sites at Peaks of Otter campground, open May through October and sometimes in winter. Peaks of Otter Lodge, also at milepost 86, is open year-round. Further lodging in Bedford, 11 miles south-east via Route 43.
Trail Notes: Trail map available from the visitor center. In peak season, a tourist bus takes visitors to the summit of Sharp Top – if you value some solitude, you should avoid this hike in summer.
Popularity: 17% [?]