BEDFORD, Va.: Thomas Jefferson was convinced that Sharp Top was the tallest mountain in the United States.
The peak, flanked by Flat Top, rises sharply at the edge of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains and stands out above the flat Piedmont.
In fact, Jefferson and two friends in 1815 used chains and trigonometry to estimate the height of the mountain.
But Jefferson was wrong. The imposing conical peak capped with rounded boulders isn’t even the tallest mountain in Virginia. That’s Mount Rogers.
But Flat Top and Sharp Top are better known as the Peaks of Otter, one of the most popular and picturesque stops along America’s most-visited national park, the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Jefferson was right on one thing: That route through the Blue Ridge was and still is “one of the most interesting lines of country in this state,” he wrote.
The 469-mile curvy and low-speed highway — it gets more than 16 million visitors a year — runs through western Virginia and North Carolina.
The scenic highway connects Shenandoah National Park in the north and Great Smoky Mountains National Park to the south. A total of 217 miles of the federal parkway run through western Virginia, mostly on a ridge-top route, with numerous scenic overlooks with hazy blue vistas, some with trailheads.
Nearby Roanoke makes a great base for exploring outdoor western Virginia.
The roadway runs through the Peaks of Otter with its lodge, lake, visitor center, campground, a historic family farm, seven first-rate hiking trails and three hike-only mountain tops.
Peaks of Otter is really a small mountain valley flanked by three peaks: 3,875-foot Sharp Top, 4,001-foot Flat Top and 3,372-foot Harkening Hill. It covers about 4,200 acres and is nine miles northwest of Bedford.
The first settlers came to the area from Scotland before 1750. The valley was settled in 1766.
The name Peaks of Otter may come from a Cherokee word for high places, from the nearby headwaters of the Otter River or from memories of a Scottish mountain. No one really knows, but both stories are told in the park.
The Johnson Farm is 1.1 miles from the visitor center. It was rehabilitated by the park service in 1974 and is part of what some call the best living history stop along the Blue Ridge Parkway.
The white house with a tin roof and clapboard siding captures the lifestyle of the mountaineers in the Southern Appalachians, just before parkway construction began in 1935 and changed their lives.
The farm, with a costumed interpreter, is patterned after what it was like in the 1920s. The furnishings were chosen based on information provided by the family and community residents.
In 1852, John T. Johnson and his wife, Mary Elizabeth, purchased 102.5 acres with a log cabin in Bedford and Botetourt counties. They started farming and raising 13 children.
The farm on Harkening Hill remained in the Johnson family for three generations and nearly 90 years. The family sold the property to the National Park Service in 1941.
The Johnsons and their neighbors were subsistence farmers, largely self-reliant. The family raised cabbages, potatoes and tomatoes; had apple, pear and peach orchards; raised sheep, ate wild game, got their corn ground at a local mill and produced feed for their animals.
They made quilts, shucked corn, made apple butter, butchered hogs, chopped wood and cut oats. In their own distillery, they made brandy from apples that sold for $1.50 a gallon.
The farm provided nearly everything. The Johnsons only had to purchase coffee, sugar and flour.
John Johnson captured and turned in Confederate deserters during the Civil War.
His son, Jason Lee, purchased the farm in 1884, when his parents built a new home nearby.
Jason Lee, born with a clubfoot, and his wife, Jennie, raised nine children on the farm. He was a farmer, cobbler and carpenter. He added the dining room, kitchen, storage areas and porches to the family house.
Life at Peaks of Otter included church dances, sleigh rides, candy apples and fireworks at Christmas, and climbing the peaks to chase wild goats.
In 1921, Jason sold the farm to Mack Bryant, the husband of daughter Callie. She grew and sold flowers to the nearby tourist hotel. She cooked Sunday dinners for up to 25 people from the church.
Bryant was a veterinarian. The couple’s children guided hotel guests and sang and played music at the hotel.
In the 1930s, about 29 families lived and farmed at Peaks of Otter. A church and school stood near the current lodge.
The Peaks of Otter became a tourist destination in the early 1830s when Polly Wood established an ordinary (lodging for travelers) in the family’s log cabin at the foot of the Peaks of Otter. Her restored log cabin stands on the northeast corner of 24-acre Abbott Lake, not far from the 63-room lodge and restaurant that were built in 1964.
The Otter Peaks Hotel opened in 1857 and operated for nearly 50 years. Rebuilt after an 1870 fire, it could handle about 40 guests. The Hotel Mons was built in 1920 and operated until 1935, when it was demolished by the federal government.
There are some interesting hiking options available at Peaks of Otter.
You can hike to the top of Sharp Top, a short but steep hike of 1.5 miles. It’s the most popular trail at Peaks of Otter and can get crowded. Via switchbacks, you will climb 1,340 feet and descend 1,340 feet on your return trip. The trail begins opposite the Peaks of Otter Visitor Center near milepost 86. (Mileage on the parkway is measured from north to south.)
In season, the National Park Service also offers bus transportation to within a quarter mile of the top of Sharp Top at 3,875 feet. You can take the bus one way or round trip.
The summit is a jumble of house-sized boulders. The vistas with 360-degree views are spectacular. You have views of the Piedmont, the Blue Ridge, the Shenandoah Valley and the Allegheny Mountains.
Virginia shipped a stone from Sharp Top to be imbedded in the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C., when it was being built in 1852.
The Harkening Hill Trail is 3.3 long and begins near the visitor center that is open from spring to fall. It climbs through a woodland to a ridge with long-distance vistas.
A spur trail near the summit will take hikers to Balance Rock, where a house-sized boulder is balanced on a small rock.
The Flat Top Trail and the Fallingwater Cascades Trail combine to create a footpath to a cascading waterfall. It is a National Recreational Trail. You can also access the white-blazed 2,181-mile Appalachian National Scenic Trail.
The Flat Top Trail runs 4.4 miles from near the picnic area to the parkway. You climb or descend 1,600 feet. The Fallingwater Cascades is a separate 1.6-mile loop, dropping 260 feet from the parkway (mile marker 83.1) to the waterfalls on Fallingwater Creek.
The falls are a series of steep rocky slides. Getting good views isn’t easy because of the vegetation. The trail includes huge rocky outcroppings and thick rhododendrons and hemlocks.
You can access both trails off the parkway and turn them into separate hikes.
Not far away is Apple Orchard Falls, an 80-foot falls. It is a 1.4-mile hike from the parkway at mile marker 78.4.
Peaks of Otter also provides a 144-unit campground.
Park service information is available at 828-274-4779, www.nps.gov/blri. You can reach the visitor center at 540-586-4357.
The lodge is managed by Virginia-based Crestline Hotels & Resorts Inc. It is open year-round. Winter access is provided via state Route 43 that is plowed. Contact Peaks of Otter Lodge at 800-542-5927, www.peaksofotter.com.
You can contact the Blue Ridge Parkway Association at www.blueridgeparkway.org.
Bob Downing can be reached at 330-996-3745 or email@example.com.