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A Dreary Weekend at Peaks of Otter

posted Oct 13, 2014, 12:40 PM by Justin P   [ updated Nov 10, 2014, 9:22 AM ]
This past weekend, we headed out to Peaks of Otter on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia for a camping trip. Our plan was to enjoy some early fall foliage from the peaks, which provide fantastic views in nice weather. Unfortunately, as the weekend drew near, the weather forecast was not looking agreeable. But, we weren't going to let a little rain spoil our weekend. We left Chapel Hill around 730 and made it to Peaks of Otter around 1030. It was cloudy and drizzling along the way, but we were starting to see more fall color as we headed north and got higher in elevation. By the time we reached the park, the rain had stopped, but the clouds had moved in and the whole area was blanketed in fog. We checked in at the campsite and set up our tents, then headed to parking area for Sharp Top Trail. Driving even this short distance was a bit scary as it was so foggy, we could barely see six feet in front of the car. But we made it to the parking lot and started our hike up to the summit of Sharp Top Mountain. The Sharp Top Trail is only 1.5 miles long, but gains roughly 1500 feet over its course, so its a very steep trail. And while the dreary weather didn’t provide good views of fall color, at least it was cool for the strenuous climb and we weren't sweating profusely.

Near the top, we made a quick detour to Buzzard’s Roost and climbed out onto the rocks here. The outcrop was covered in fog and we couldn't see anything, even the nearby summit of Sharp Top, but it was a fun scramble to get out on the rocks.

Then, we continued on up to the summit of Sharp Top. There is a shelter at the top, but it wasn’t raining, so we didn’t really need it. Instead, we headed to the very top and ate lunch up here. There were some markers in the boulders that indicated what mountains could be seen in the distance and how far away they were. With the weather today, however, we couldn't see 34 feet in front of us, let alone 34 miles.

After lunch, we started making our way down. Although the hike down was certainly easier than going up, the wet stone stairs were treacherous and we made our way slowly. Back at the bottom, we headed back to camp and then hiked towards Flat Top. We got on the Lake Trail, though we couldn’t see the lake even though it was only a few feet away and then passed Polly Woods’ Ordinary. This small 19th century building was an Inn that provided “ordinary” amenities to weary travelers.

Then we continued down the road past the picnic area and picked up the Flat Top Trail. It’s 1.8 miles to the summit and gains another 1500 feet of elevation along the way - another very strenuous trail. There was a section of the trail early on that ran through an area with decent visibility and we could actually see some changing leaves, but as we got higher, everything got more and more cloudy. At the summit, we could see almost nothing. I found a pretty red maple leaf that had fallen and got a picture of it on a rock - about the best fall foliage picture I could get up here. 

The trail continues on and ends at the parkway, but we just hiked to the summit and turned back. We made our way back down the mountain and returned to camp. For dinner, we headed over to the Peaks of Otter Lodge and ate at the restaurant. By the time we returned, a couple folks who had eaten at camp had built a nice roaring campfire. The sun had set by now and it was quite chilly, so the fire’s warmth felt good. After socializing for a while around the campfire, we headed to bed early.  Sunday morning, we woke up early and started breaking camp.  It had rained heavily overnight, but was dry when we woke up around 7.  Unfortunately, it started raining again before we finished breaking camp and everything got thoroughly drenched.  From camp, we headed north on the Blue Ridge Parkway a couple miles and stopped at the Flat Top Parking Area at the edge of Peaks of Otter Recreation Area, which is at the other end of the trail we had hiked the day before.  It was still raining, though lightly and it seemed that some of the clouds had cleared out.  Across the parkway, we got on the Fallingwater Cascades Trail that makes a loop, following Fallingwater Creek for a ways.  A sign at the trailhead indicated a bridge over the creek was washed out, so we hiked the trail counterclockwise so we would be able to see the waterfall if the creek was impassable.  In just under a mile, we crossed Fallingwater Creek above the waterfall on a bridge and headed down to the base.  There were some nice patches of fall color visible here, though the color had not yet peaked in this area and visibility was still poor.

Fallingwater Cascades was a rather nice waterfall, better than I had expected.  A bunch of fallen logs cluttered the base, but it was still quite scenic, especially with the first signs of fall showing.  I think that had it not been a rainy weekend, the waterfall would have been a lot less impressive.  Even with all the rain, the waterfall did not have a particularly high flow.

After some pictures, we continued on the trail following the creek downstream to the washed-out crossing.  I couldn't help but laugh as this was one of the easiest creek crossings I've done.  After crossing,  we headed back up to finish off the loop and head back to the parking area.  From here, we headed just a few miles north on the Blue Ridge Parkway and parked at Sunset Fields Overlook at mile post 78.4.  From here, we got on Apple Orchard Falls Trail (#17) and started the hike down to the waterfall.  In about a quarter-mile, the trail crossed the Appalachian Trail and in another half-mile or so, it crosses Cornelius Creek Trail.  Shortly after the second intersection, the trail crosses the creek and there was a small scenic cascade over some rocks.  This was not the waterfall, however; it was pretty much the top of Apple Orchard Falls, though we couldn’t see anything from here.  We had to hike around and go down a number of wooden stairs and platforms to a nice viewing deck build by the Forest Service.  The waterfall is quite big, but not terribly impressive as the water flow was low, even with all the rain this weekend.  We were kind of surprised given all that rain.

Down here, however, the foliage was beautiful - the best we had seen all weekend.  Many of the trees had changed and despite the dreary weather, the trees were bursting with bright oranges and reds.  Through the colorful trees, mist and clouds were hovering around the surrounding peaks and it was quite beautiful.

After a bit, we started making our way back up.  Strangely, it seemed easier than going down and soon we were back at the parking area.  From here, we stopped in Bedford to get a late lunch at El Cazador and then made our way home, actually arriving home at a decent hour for once.