October 17, 2008 : Rory Tyer
One of the wonderful things about going to college in Lynchburg is the wilderness. We're within easy driving distance (thirty minutes to an hour) of a great deal of trails, mountains, bouldering spots, and that sort of thing. I've written about the Devil's Marbleyard in this space before, and today I'd like to introduce you, dear Reader, to another great wilderness recreation spot: the Peaks of Otter.
Located at milepost 86 on the Blue Ridge Parkway and almost completely surrounded by the Jefferson National Forest, the Peaks of Otter refers to three adjacent mountains - Sharp Top (3,875 ft), Flat Top (4,004 ft), and Harkening Hill (3,364 ft) - as well as the valley below, where there is a lodge, restaurant, campground, picnic area, and the beautiful Abbott Lake. There are about seven different trails in the area, and some receive more traffic than others depending on the season.
Flat Top is the only one of the three peaks I've climbed. (For nice summaries of Sharp Top and Harkening Hill, see here and here, respectively.) It's only accessible by one trail - Flat Top Trail - so you won't have to worry about any groups in buses or anything like that. The trail begins by winding steadily upwards around the contours of the side of the mountain, gradually doubling back on itself more and more frequently as the elevation increases. The terrain also gets more and more rocky, and this was so distracting to me, because I feel an almost irresistible urge to climb any rock formation that's at least 20 ft. high.
The beauty steadily increases as the trail winds towards the summit, and the rock outcroppings become bigger and bigger, beginning to determine the track of the trail as opposed to simply sitting beside it. Once you've reached a certain point, the trail seems to open out along the top of the mountain; keep going for about ten or fifteen minutes, through more trees and around some of the biggest rock formations yet, and you'll eventually come to a relatively flat place full of scraggly trees. From here there are two options. If you work your way to the left, you'll come to an incredible rock outcropping that thrusts out from the mountain towards the valley. It's very big, such that several people can move around comfortably on a few of the rocks, and you'll find an incredible panoramic view of the valley. (And if you look hard, you'll actually be able to see Liberty's monogram on the side of Candler's Mountain.) Once you've seen this view for a while, go back to flat, scraggly place and work your way to the right; here you'll find more rock outcroppings (that are much more conducive to climbing down and exploring) and another stunning view.
The Peaks of Otter are about a 40 minute drive from Liberty, and Flat Top Trail is about 5.7 miles there and back, so this is something that can be done in an afternoon - although you'll probably want to give it a Saturday to get the full experience and allow for plenty of time for exploring, picnicing, or just yelling off the top of the mountain until your voice is going hoarse. I give it two thumbs up as far as awesomeness goes, and I'll end this by telling you that you should check it out. Here's some pictures from my trip; the first two are from the left outcropping and the third is from the group on the right. Enjoy!