This list of the best hikes at Peaks of Otter includes everything from an easy stroll on a paved path to steep trails up to the mountaintops, all within minutes of the visitor’s center.
Peaks of Otter is a beautiful area along the Blue Ridge Parkway near Bedford, VA. People have been coming to Peaks of Otter to get away from the hustle and bustle, relax, and enjoy the beautiful views for more than a hundred years. And while this is a great spot for relaxing, it’s also an amazing area for hiking.
This is one of the best places along the Virginia section of the Blue Ridge Parkway for hiking. There are beautiful waterfalls, gorgeous mountain overlooks, and not nearly as many people as you’d probably expect.
I’m lucky enough to live less than an hour from Peaks of Otter. After hiking each trail in the area multiple times over the years, I’m sharing my list of the must-do hikes at Peaks of Otter. We’ve done all of these hikes with our three young boys and if you are new to hiking or have kids all of these hikes are a great place to start.
Every hike on this list is only minutes from the Peaks of Otter visitor center, which is what makes this an awesome home base for a weekend in the mountains.
If you do decide to make a weekend out of it, there are many options for lodging including the lodge and campground at Peaks of Otter or staying in the nearby small town of Bedford. There is also a nice restaurant at the Peaks of Otter lodge if you are ready for a good meal after a day of hiking.
Peaks of Otter sits directly on the Blue Ridge Parkway and all of these hikes are accessed from the Parkway, so make sure to check for road closures prior to going, especially in winter.
This hikes in this list are arranged from easiest to most strenuous.
Abbot Lake is a small lake right in the center of Peaks of Otter and there is an easy paved path that skirts its shores. When you drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway, you can’t help but want to explore this beautiful spot.
The trail passes by the Peaks of Otter Lodge as well as a cabin from the 1830s where passing travelers could rent a room.
It’s not a hike per se, but it is a nice spot to stroll and if you need to stretch your legs, its one of the best spots on the entire Parkway. In the fall the wind whips across the lake but the beautiful leaves make this one of the best times to visit the area.
Abbot Lake Trail
Length: Almost 1 mile loop Difficulty: Easy Elevation Gain: 32 ft
Great For: Relaxing stroll, young children
Location: Mile Post 86 at the Peaks of Otter Lodge
Best Time to Visit: Fall is best but spring and summer are also beautiful
How we rate it: 2.5/5, the low rating is only because this isn’t really a hike, it’s more of a nature trail (yes that’s different in my mind). Still, it’s nice to walk around and it’s very pretty.
Fallingwater Cascades can be accessed from either Flat Top trail head or at a nearby parking lot specifically for Fallingwater. We usually park at Flat Top but there isn’t much of a difference. The trail is an easy 1.4 mile loop trail that leads to a beautiful cascading waterfall.
This hike is a great choice if you want to stretch your legs, but don’t want the intense climbing that comes with reaching a mountain summit. We’ve taken our kids here several times and even our three year old didn’t have any issues with the hike.
Fallingwater Cascades Hike
Length: 1.4 miles loop Difficulty: Easy Elevation Gain: 430
Great for: Families, young kids, pets, waterfall lovers.
Location: Blue Ridge Parkway Mile Post 83.5
Best time to visit: Spring, Summer, or Fall.
How we rate it: 3/5, this is an easy hike with a nice small waterfall. There usually aren’t many people on the trail so it’s great if you are looking for solitude.
Johnson Family Farm
The hike to Johnson Family Farm leads you past the site of a long-gone hotel where people used to vacation over 100 years ago to an old farmhouse named for the family that lived there.
The home and outbuildings have been restored and often in spring and summer, you can find people there working the gardens who are happy to chat about the property and the history of the people that once owned the farm. This is a great place to stop for awhile and have a picnic. (The windows are boarded up in the photo above because it hadn’t opened for the season yet. This isn’t how it normally looks.)
This hike can be combined with a loop to Harkening Hill, one of the three ‘peaks’ that make up Peaks of Otter. (Flat top and Sharp top are the other two.)
Harkening Hill doesn’t have an amazing view like the other two peaks and we usually skip it. If you decide to add on the spur trail, your trip will be just over 4 miles and a bit more strenuous.
Johnson Family Farm Hike
Length: 2.6 mile loop Difficulty: Easy Elevation Gain: 300 ft
Great for: Families, pets, especially great for something a little different.
Location: Blue Ridge Parkway Mile Post 86 across the street from the lodge and restaurant.
Best time to visit: Any time of year is good but it’s most beautiful in spring and fall.
How we rate it: 3.5/5, this is an interesting hike. The trail itself isn’t a standout, but the historic farmhouse in the middle of the woods is worth a visit.
Apple Orchard Falls
If you do go chasing waterfalls, then this is a hike you want to do. The easy to follow trail weaves through the forest taking you to a stunning 200 foot waterfall. Once there, you can enjoy the view from a wooden platform at the base of the waterfall.
The trailhead can be found at Sunset Fields at mile post 78.4. There is an alternate option to hike along the Cornelius Creek trail that stretches the length to near 9 miles but you get the best parts starting and finishing at the Parkway. Our kids love this hike because there is a small waterfall before you get to the main cascade where they can get in the water and play.
This is my favorite hike on the list because the waterfall changes so much depending on how much rain we’ve had and I like the peaceful moments sitting and watching the water crash against the rocks.
If you can take this hike midweek I would. It’s not terribly crowded on the weekend, but there’s a good chance you’ll have the waterfall all to yourself during the week.
Check out the detailed guide to Apple Orchard Falls.
Apple Orchard Falls Hike
Length: 2.5 miles out and back roundtrip Difficulty: Moderate Elevation gain: 1000ft
Great for: Families, pets, young kids.
Location: Blue Ridge Parkway Mile Post 78.4
Best time to visit: Spring, Summer, Fall.
How we rate it: 5/5, this is an awesome hike! It’s flexible in difficulty, it has a nice trail and interesting points along the way, and the two waterfalls are great! Do this hike.
This is by far the most popular hike in the area. When people talk about hiking at Peaks of Otter, this is the hike they are usually talking about.
This short but intense hike winds through the forest to the pinnacle of Sharp Top Mountain where the view opens up to a gorgeous 360 degree view of the surrounding mountains as well as Abbot Lake.
It’s beautiful in all seasons but in the fall when the leaves change, the entire area lights up with color. If you are visiting Peaks of Otter in the fall and only have time for one hike, this is the one you don’t want to miss.
Interestingly, it was once believed Sharp Top was the highest peak in Virginia. It’s not, that’s Mount Rogers. Also, nearby Flat Top is taller as well but the inaccuracy is understandable given how amazing the view from the top is.
During the hike up, you will ascend over 1200 feet in a little more than a mile and a half, but the view is definitely worth the effort.
If you aren’t up for the full hike, there is a shuttle you can take most of the way up or down and avoid the climb. You will still have to hike about a quarter of a mile if you take the shuttle but this is much more doable for those with limited mobility.
Get all the details in the Sharp Top Hiking Guide.
Sharp Top Hike
Length: 3.3 miles round trip Difficulty: Strenuous Elevation Gain: 1250ft
Great for: families with older children, viewing the mountains, photography
Best time to visit: Fall in late October to early November for fall foliage. It’s also beautiful in spring and summer and is a gorgeous spot to view sunrise.
Location: Blue Ridge Parkway Mile 86
How we rate it: 4/5 The views are great but the climb is intense.
The trailhead for this hike is just under one mile from it’s more popular neighbor Sharp Top. Clocking in at a little more than 5 miles round trip, hiking Flat Top will likely be much more secluded than a trip to Sharp Top.
This is the most difficult hike on this list and will take most of a day to do. One thing to know about this hike is that the trail is quite rocky so choose your foot wear accordingly. I wore tennis shoes and carried a child in a carrier on my back the first time I went up Flat Top and my feet hurt quite a bit by the end of the hike.
The overlook at the top isn’t quite as impressive as Sharp Top’s, but the overall experience is still great, especially if you are looking for something a bit longer.
Flat Top Hike
Length: 5.3 miles round trip Difficulty: Strenuous Elevation Gain: 1760 ft
Great for: day hiking, overlook photos, challenging yourself
Best time to visit: Spring or Fall
Location: Blue Ridge Parkway Mile 83.5
How we rate it: 3/5, Overall Flat Top is a good hike with a great overlook, but the overlook is not 360 degrees like Sharp Top so it suffers a bit because of it’s proximity to a hike with a better payoff.
Read More – The 15 Best Hikes Near Roanoke, VA
Our Favorite Hike in Peaks of Otter
Hiking any of these six hikes will give you a fantastic look at the beauty of the area, well beyond what you can see just driving through on the Blue Ridge Parkway. And because there is a wide range of options for how challenging you want your adventures to be, you can easily choose the hike that is the best fit for you.
Each of these hikes offers something different and is worth experiencing, but if I had to choose a favorite, it would be a tie between Apple Orchard Falls and Sharp Top.
I love the views (and photos) from Sharp Top, but the overall experience at Apple Orchard Falls is more enjoyable because the climb isn’t as hard and it sees a fraction of the traffic that Sharp Top does.
If you have flexibility in when you can visit, mid to late October will be when the leaves are most vibrant and that brief period is when this area is at its most beautiful.