One of the first tourist centers in the Blue Ridge Parkway was The Peaks of Otter dating back to the mid nineteenth century. Today it includes camping, a hotel, restaurant and Visitors Center with a number of interesting trails to hike.
One, the Johnson Farm Trail takes you past a restored mid-1800s farm. The Johnson Family homestead includes the farmhouse, a barn, a spring house, antique farm equipment, a garden and orchard. While the grounds are always open for those hiking the trail, if you go during operating hours, park volunteers are on hand to answer questions and give tours of the farmhouse. Ask at the Visitor Center about current hours.
There are a number of hiking trails at Peaks of Otter but The Johnson Farm Trail is a favorite because of the farm and because it connects to the Harkening Trail which passes Balance Rock. If you stop at the Peaks of Otter Visitor Center (MP 85.9) a .3-mile connector trail leads to the start of the Johnson Farm Loop Trail. But starting there adds an extra .6-mile, round trip, to that hike. To save that half mile park at the lower lot of the Peaks of Otter Lodge, which is just a half mile north of the Visitor Center. From there look for a paved path that leads through a tunnel under the Blue Ridge Parkway. You will find the start of this trail on the other side. You can also access the Abbott Lake Loop Trail from this parking lot but instead of crossing under the Parkway, keep walking along the paved path for this easy, 1-mile hike that circles the lake.
Because The Johnson Farm Trail is a loop, you can hike either a clockwise or counterclockwise direction, but if you want to have less steep uphill climbing, hike in the counterclockwise direction, which is the way the trail sign is pointing. The farm is a reasonably moderate .75 mile hike up the trail, which is near the halfway point on this hike. If you continue on past the farm on the loop trail there is a fork off to the right that is the Harkening Hill Trail that will will take you to Balance Rock which is about a mile one way. Taking the entire Harkening Loop Trail back to your start will be an additional 3.6 miles.
Shortly after starting the Johnson Farm Trail counterclockwise, the trail forks and you need stay on the left fork. Soon after that you will find yourself crossing an expanse of meadow and passing the site of the old Hotel Mons which dates back to the mid-1800s.
In 1857, a father and son named Benjamin and Leyburn Wilkes purchased the land, including the mountains around the Peaks of Otter area. They had been running a small boarding house since 1849 and believed that tourism was the future. The same year they purchased the land, they began construction on the first true hotel in the area, the Otter Peaks Hotel. Up until then, any lodging for tourists was done in private homes or small boarding houses. The most popular was run by Polly Wood, widow of Jeremiah Wood who was a grandson of the original settler of Peaks of Otter, Thomas Wood. The inn was known as Polly Wood’s Ordinary, and it still stands today on the shore of Abbott Lake near the Peaks of Otter Picnic Area. Polly Wood’s ordinary closed in the early 1850s not being able to compete with the new hotel.
Peaks of Otter Hiking Trails
Sharp Top Trail (1.5 miles to the summit) Strenuous 3 hours
Originates at the Nature Center across the Parkway from the Visitor Center. This is a steep route and you should be in good health. There is no drinking water on the trail, so take water with you. The summit offers an impressive 360-degree view of the Peaks of Otter area, the Piedmont to the east, and the Shenandoah Valley with the Allegheny mountains to the west. Add an extra half-hour to take spur trail to Buzzard’s Roost, large rock formations offering good views of the area. Note: There is concession-operated bus service (one-way or round trip) to within 0.25 mile of the top seasonally.
Elk Run Loop (0.8 mile) Moderate to strenuous 1 hour
Begins behind the visitor center. It is a moderately strenuous trail and is self-guiding with written displays describing the forest environment.
Harkening Hill Loop Trail (3.3 miles)Moderate 5+ hours
Begins behind the visitor center and across from the amphitheater. This woodland trail climbs to a ridge with good views. A spur trail near the summit leads to Balance Rock, an immense boulder balanced on a small rock. Connects to Johnson Farm Loop Trail.
Johnson Farm Trails (1.8+ miles)Moderate 2+ hours
A loop trail, approximately two miles long, which follows a section of the Harkening Hill loop trail. Beginning at the north end of the visitor center parking area, the trail leads 1.1 miles to the Johnson Farm, originally built in the 1850s.
Flat Top & Fallingwater Cascades Trails (6.5 mile) Moderate to strenuous
Was designated a continuous National Recreation Trail in April 1982. Flat Top rises to an elevation of 4,004 feet with many scattered rock outcrops. On this trail, hikers climb and descend 1,600 feet from the Parkway trail heads. Fallingwater Cascades Trail is a loop trail which takes hikers along cascades on Fallingwater Creek with its huge rock outcrops with rhododendron and hemlock forest. This trail descends 260 feet from the Fallingwater Trail Parking Area and experiencing this mountain cascade is well worth the effort.
Abbott Lake Trail (1 mile) Easy under 1 hour
The least difficult of Peaks of Otter trails, is a one-mile loop around Abbott Lake. The trail through a woodland forest and open field, offering close-up views of the lake. Trail is ADA Accessible.