Halfway along the road from Shenandoah to the Smokys, Peaks of Otter offers lakeside serenity against the backdrop of the Blue Ridge mountains.
There’s only one hotel along the Blue Ridge Parkway, the scenic road through the Appalachians that connects the national parks of Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains, but it’s a good one. Peaks of Otter Lodge, surrounded by its namesake peaks at the base of a man-made lake, has been drawing tourists since its founding in 1834.
On our way down for a long weekend we spent a night an hour north in Roanoke, Virginia, a former rail hub at the base of the mountains which has revitalized its downtown and remade itself into a tourist destination. Its industrial past can still be seen, and the town is clearly proud of it. Where a different city’s cultural institutions might direct your attention to its downtown skyline or waterfront, the Taubman Museum of Art’s second floor balcony presents you with sweeping views of the train yard, still active today as a major freight hub for Norfolk Southern.
The next day we drove an hour and a half south, onto the Parkway, stopping every five minutes or so at every overlook we came across. Trees releasing isoprene into the atmosphere give the Blue Ridge Mountains their namesake bluish tint, especially when seen from a distance.
The Peaks of Otter Lodge consists of two buildings, each with two stories of “cabins,” with balconies and floor to ceiling windows facing the lake, and the lodge itself, complete with a bar and restaurant. Red adirondack chairs and cornhole games litter the expansive lawn, and a circular path takes you around the lake to work off some of the calories of your all-you-can eat buffets of biscuits and gravy and other southern delicacies.
The three main “peaks” of Otter are Sharp Top, Flat Top, and Harkening Hill, and were thought by Thomas Jefferson in his day “to be of a greater height, measured from their base, than any others in our country” (he was wrong).
All offer hikes to the summit, but the most challenging one seemed like Sharp Top, perhaps because it loomed the most ominously over us as we ate our breakfast at the Lodge, daring us to climb it. We did it on an overcast morning in about three hours, and were rewarded at the summit with circular views of all-white haze, like a video game map that hadn’t fully rendered.
There are other, less intense hikes as well, such as the Falling Cascades hike, located five minutes from the Lodge by car, or ten minutes if you stop along the way like we did to save a wayward turtle from being run over.