Peaks of Otter is one of the most popular stops on Virginia’s Blue Ridge Parkway for good reason; it’s a beautiful spot filled with peaceful mountain views, iconic hiking trails, and hundreds of years of history. This visitor’s guide includes everything you need to know for a great visit including the best hiking trails, things to do, and places to stay nearby.
At mile post 86 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, three mountains surround a stretch of forest we call the Peaks of Otter.
On my first visit, years ago, I thought Abbott Lake was pretty and Sharp Top Mountain was cool. The hike to the top was steep but the view was impressive.
And that was all.
I didn’t go to the visitor center and learn about the history or take the trail to Johnson Family Farm.
I didn’t consider what the place may have meant to the people that visited before me, what attracted them to these mountains.
Beginning in the 1700s, those that visited wrote to friends and family, describing the great beauty and towering mountains standing sentinel over a rugged and rough wilderness. Even the likes of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson made visits – Jefferson musing that Sharp Top Mountain could be the tallest mountain in all of America.
It’s a silly thought today, but to the immigrants and early Americans that came to this place, these mountains were towering giants amongst an endless range of mountains.
Once I changed my perspective on what Peaks of Otter was, I was able to experience it in a new way. This beautiful place I love to visit is the same place people have travelled for hundreds of years, consuming the cool mountain air and quiet beauty.
In this Visitor’s Guide, I’m sharing the best ways to experience Peaks of Otter today including many of the same views and hikes people have been enjoying here for hundreds of years along with a few more modern things to do and places to stay.
What to do at Peaks of Otter
Whether you’re looking for adventure or just trying to get away from it all, Peaks of Otter has so many options for visitors. There are many trails to explore, much history to discover, and hours of relaxation waiting for visitors.
There are many options for hiking at Peaks of Otter, ranging from peaceful nature walks to strenuous mountain trails.
Sharp Top is the most popular hike and possibly the most difficult, although I found Flat Top to be tougher. I’ll share a brief overview of the area hikes here, but we also have a full Peaks of Otter hiking guide with much more detail.
Sharp Top, Flat Top, and Harkening Hill
Sharp Top, Flat Top, and Harkening Hill are the three main mountain peaks that make up the Peaks of Otter and you can hike to each of them.
Sharp Top has strong merits for being the most popular trail in the area. Even though the climb can be difficult if you are not used to hiking, the view from the top is spectacular.
Flat Top is the highest of the three peaks and has a beautiful view as well, but not a panoramic one like Sharp Top.
Harkening Hill is disappointing if you mainly hike for the final payoff. The trail to Harkening Hill is heavily forested and beautiful, but lacking anything resembling a sweeping view.
All three hikes are enjoyable for their own reasons. Sharp Top is the most beautiful from the top and the other two hikes are better for solitude.
Check out our Sharp Top Hiking Guide for all the details on this hike as well as the Sharp Top Shuttle.
Johnson Family Farm and Elk Run
Both of these hikes are fairly easy and easy to overlook.
The trail to Johnson Family Farm takes you from the visitor center to the Johnson family’s old homestead.
Along the path you’ll pass the site of Hotel Mons. The hotel was a tourist destination for people visiting Peaks of Otter in the 1800s and early 1900s. Sadly, it burned and is no longer there.
At the site of the farm, the farmhouse and a couple outbuildings still stand. Volunteers are periodically there working a garden and happy to tell stories about the area and family.
It’s a calming area to explore or rest for awhile. You can access Harkening Hill from the Johnson Family Farm trail so it’s worth considering if you are up for a longer trip.
Elk Run is a short trail through the woods that crosses the latticework of streams flowing down the mountain. Interpretive signs dot the path offering insight into the ecosystem and the community that used to live at Peaks of Otter.
It’s a very short hike but exceptionally pleasant. Likely, the babbling waters will be your only companion on the walk.
First, Abbott Lake is a man made lake from the 1960s, but don’t hold that against it. The paved path around Abbot Lake or ‘Peaks of Otter Lake’, as most people call it, isn’t a hike per se but it is a very pleasant walk.
Sharp Top’s reflection cuts across the water. The image impresses how angular and beautiful the mountain is.
Polly Woods Ordinary, a lodging house from the 1830s, is tucked away just beyond the dam and is a relic from the original tourism period at Peaks of Otter.
Fallingwater Cascades and Apple Orchard Falls
Fallingwater is a short, fairly easy, hike to a thin pretty waterfall through dense forest. The trailhead can be accessed a short 2.5 mile drive from Peaks of Otter Lodge.
Apple Orchard Falls trailhead is 7 miles from Peaks of Otter Lodge along the Blue Ridge Parkway at the Sunset Fields overlook. This is a fairly strenuous hike to a beautiful 200 ft waterfall. The trail descends from the parking lot to the falls and the climb back up to the parking lot is fairly steep, but it’s a beautiful hike and worth the effort.
If you pay particular attention on the drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway toward Apple Orchard Falls, you’ll note that the trees along the ridgeline are stunted and twisted by the winds. This makes them look similar to apple trees which is how the mountain and the waterfall got their names.
Check out our Apple Orchard Falls Hiking Guide for all the details on this hike.
We have done all of these hikes and would rank Apple Orchard Falls and Sharp Top as our favorites. Or if you aren’t up for a strenuous climb, Johnson Family Farm is also great and is much less difficult.
If you are limited on time and can only choose one hike, do Sharp Top if you are able to. It’s steep but beautiful.
Other Things to Do
While known for the hiking, that’s not the only activity available at Peaks of Otter. For those wishing to just relax and be, there is ample room for that too.
The visitor center has a great deal of historical information on the area including copies of original letters and ledgers from people visiting and living at Peaks of Otter.
The photographs and art take vague people and ideas and make them real. If you’re interested in history, you could spend a few hours reading through everything on display.
Just relaxing by the lake is sufficiently enjoyable, but if you need to spoil a good time dangling bits of string into water you can do so. There are small mouth bass and blue gill in the lake. You can only use artificial bait and bass must be released per the Virginia Department of Wildlife.
So normally I wouldn’t mention having a picnic as a ‘thing to do’ at a park.
The picnic area a Peaks of Otter is different though. Little Stony Creek flows from Abbott Lake down the sloping terrain creating a series of short cascades that tiptoe toward being called a waterfall.
Picnic tables and bridges line the creek and a series of trails link them all together. It isn’t a hike and it isn’t a waterfall and it isn’t a traditional picnic area. But it’s a beautiful surprise.
Where to Stay
There are several options for lodging near Peaks of Otter. Your budget and how close you want to be to the Peaks can help determine which option is best.
Peaks of Otter Lodge
Peaks of Otter Lodge was built in the 1960s and serves guests from May through October. It rests in the shadow of beautiful tree covered mountains along the shore of Abbott Lake.
From the lodge you can gaze up at the three mountains that make up the Peaks of Otter: Sharp Top, Flat Top, and Harkening Hill.
The main building you see from the Blue Ridge Parkway isn’t actually the lodge. It’s the restaurant and gift shop.
Inside you’ll find a bar and lounge, a full restaurant, and a gift shop where you can find standard NPS fare but also books by local writers about the area.
The restaurant has an excellent menu and, having eaten here, I can say the food is quite good. Breakfast and lunch prices are fairly typical of most restaurants in the area and dinner is only slightly more expensive.
Rooms for the lodge are available from May through October and depending on the day of the week can be as low $120/night in May or nearly $300/night in October.
Unlike many hotels you can bring your dog for a stay at the lodge. You will need to follow a specific check in process.
A stay at the lodge gets you the most complete, comfortable experience. If you plan on hiking, you can reach the trailheads for all three mountain peaks without ever getting in your car.
Peaks of Otter Campground
The Peaks of Otter campground at the base of Sharp Top Mountain has 88 tent sites and 51 nonelectric RV sites. The campground has several flush toilets and potable water. Even during peak season there is typically availability at the campground.
The campground is open from late May until the end of October and campsites, tent or RV, are $20/night.
One great thing about the Peaks of Otter area is how temperate the weather is. Camping is a great and inexpensive way to spend a few days around Peaks of Otter.
The word ‘ordinary’ had only one definition to me before I visited the Peaks of Otter. I learned here that the word ordinary used to refer to a place that met the ‘ordinary’ needs of travelers – lodging and food.
Graham Ordinary is a late 1700s log cabin with two suites to choose from as well as two RV sites. Tents are also welcome, and the camp sites have electric hook up available.
In addition to the lodging, there is also an on-site meadery open on Fridays and Saturdays.
Pricing for rooms ranges from $100 – $120/night or $40/night for a camp site.
Graham Ordinary is only a five minute drive from Peaks of Otter. This is an excellent option for people wanting to experience something more authentic.
Town of Bedford
The town of Bedford, VA is less than twenty minutes away and has a lot of lodging options including several bed and breakfasts and plenty of affordable hotels. Bedford is a beautiful town with a history that stretches to the founding of the United States.
In you have time to venture a bit further away during your time at Peaks of Otter, there are several things in the surrounding area that are well worth a visit.
The town of Bedford and the town of Buchanan are both less than 20 minutes from Peaks of Otter and each is filled with plenty of history and small town charm.
In addition to being a great place to find lodging, the Town of Bedford is also a great place to experience more history and relax.
Downtown Bedford is a joy to walk around and there are many antique shops and restaurants tucked away in historic buildings to enjoy.
If you are interested in history, the National D-Day Memorial is also in Bedford. The United States built the memorial in Bedford because the town suffered the highest per capita loss on D-Day.
If learning about D-Day is something that interests you, there is also a tribute center dedicated to the men that served in WWII from the Town of Bedford.
The town of Buchanan is a small community north of Peaks of Otter, resting along the James River.
There are about half a dozen restaurants as well as a few antique shops.
If you are going to stop by the town, we recommend considering a kayak or canoe trip on the James River with Twin River Outfitters.
The business is owned by identical twin brothers and they offer a variety of trips along the upper James River. They provide kayak and canoe rentals and also shuttle services, so you don’t have to worry about logistics. There is even an option for a multiday glamping trip.
How to Spend One Day at Peaks of Otter
There’s enough to do around Peaks of Otter to spend several days here. But if you only have one day in the area, here’s how we would suggest you use it.
A full day at Peaks of Otter includes history, hiking, eating, and relaxing.
Start your day at the Visitor Center, not the restaurant. Check out the exhibits on history and the local flora and fauna. Budget at least half an hour to read through everything and feel free to ask the park ranger any questions.
Next, head up the trail to Sharp Top or Johnson Family Farm. Sharp Top is our favorite for the view and if you aren’t feeling the steep hike, you can take the shuttle most of the way. Or head to Johnson Family Farm. It’s a great easy hike that makes up for the lack of dramatic view with connection to history.
After your hike head to the Peaks of Otter Restaurant and grab something to eat. Check the hours of operation before your visit to time your hike so you can get something to eat. Come hungry because meals are large and tasty.
Finally, spend some time around Abbott Lake after you eat and stop by Polly Woods Ordinary. The walk around the lake is calming and beautiful no matter the season. Find a place to stop for awhile and take in this stunning place.