Sharp Top: a real mountain, with three seasons on one hike
Kevin Myatt | The Roanoke Times
Sharp Top on a sunny, early fall day.
- Location: Peaks of Otter Recreation Area, Blue Ridge Parkway, mile marker 86.
- Length: 1.5 miles one-way (3 miles round-trip)
- Elevation: 2,535 at trailhead to 3,875 at summit
- Gottasee factor (scenery, scale 0 to 4): of 3.5.
- Gottabreathe factor (difficulty, scale 0 to 4): of 3: A rather steep ascent, but not that long. Many folks of all ages and fitness levels hike this trail almost each day in the warm seasons. Hikers in shape should have little trouble and those in not such good shape will get a needed workout. There's also a shuttle bus for those who would prefer to ride up and hike only downhill.
- Beware: The exposed summit of Sharp Top is often subject to much higher winds than the surrounding lower terrain, as well as colder temperatures, clouds and mist. Hypothermia is a danger for anyone not properly prepared for these conditions, especially in the colder months.
- Of interest: Sharp Top was long thought to be Virginia's tallest mountain, when in fact, it is not even the tallest of the Peaks of Otter. Nearby Flat Top rises to 4,001 feet. Mount Rogers near the North Carolina border is the state's tallest mountain at 5,729.
- Description: It begins at the large parking lot across from the Peaks of Otter visitor center. It winds back and forth up the mountain side, crossing a road less than a quarter-mile from the parking lot (this is the road for the shuttle that takes people to the top during peak tourist season) and continuing through a mostly deciduous forest, revealing greater and higher views along the way. After a little more than a mile, the trail splits at the ridgeline, with the right fork leading to the Buzzards Roost (a rock formation with a stunning vista). The left fork continues another quarter-mile, climbing steeply through and around bluffs and huge rocks, to finally reach the very sharp top of Sharp Top, which provides a 360-degree view over the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Piedmont to the east (Bedford and even Lynchburg are visible on clear days) and the Shenandoah Valley to the west, with the Allegheny Mountains and West Virginia far to the west.
Sharp Top -- all to myself!
That rare feat alone on such a beautiful day was worth dragging my groggy eyes out of bed at an early hour after a late night of work, which had followed another day I got myself up early to go on a hike after a late night of work. And although it was a little hazy to make out all the sights visible on a crystal clear day, I was mesmerized by the puffs of steamy clouds that formed between my perch and nearby Flat Top, and those rising blobs of fog near the lower ridges on the Blue Ridge Parkway
It's easy to understand the fascination with Sharp Top experienced by colonial settlers and modern tourists alike. Western Virginia is chock full of raised humps of earth and rock labeled "mountains," but more than any other, Sharp Top matches that image we associate with the word "mountain." Most of our mountains are long ridges that stretch on for miles with no easily discernible or precisely defined summit. Sharp Top is a roughly cone shaped massif that tapers upward to a singular point, just the way we drew mountains with our crayons in first grade. It's so perfectly shaped, I guess we can excuse our Founding Fathers for thinking this was the tallest mountain in Virginia.
My hike up Sharp Top on Oct. 23 was a journey through seasons. At the trailhead elevation at the Blue Ridge Parkway, it was very much October, with lots of trees in flaming orange and red. Moving up a little higher, it turned November with limited color, lots of brown, and more dead leaves carpeting the ground. Up top, it was December, with nearly all the leaves gone and what was left mainly turned a crispy brown. There were also some more of our good friends, the snowbirds, a.k.a. slate-colored juncoes, flitting around the rocks and cracks at 3,875 feet.
The temperature started in the 40s and warmed to the 50s. The mountain shaded the trail from most of the sunrays on the climb up, so it stayed a bit nippy on that side. But the uphill hiking quickly warmed my engine. I had forgotten how rocky the trip up is, and it seemed a little steeper than I had remembered. Still, my dog Cindy and I managed to hike without stopping from the trailhead all the way up a 1.3-mile climb to the spot up top where the trail splits. In the interest of time on a day when I had to be at work earlier than usual, we passed up a trek out to Buzzard's Roost to the right and headed straight for the summit. There were also more stone steps and railing than I remember on this last .2-mile stretch of trail.
When we did stop for a water break up top, another old flying friend called out to us. I heard the nasal "yank-yank" sound, then turned around to find a white-breasted nuthatch going headfirst down a tree. This was a bird I was totally unfamiliar with until moving to that Ozarks cabin for nearly 2 years before coming to Virginia. At first, I didn't know what this whimsical little birdie was, with its white and black striped head. I dubbed it a "puffin-headed sparrow" until I got a bird book that gave me a correct answer.
I met no one on the way up or on the summit, but started meeting families and little groups intermittently on the way back down. The parking lot had increased from just three cars to about 20 in the two hours (9:15-11:15) of our hike, and the shuttle bus made its first trip up just as I made it back to the trailhead. It sounds like it probably got much more traffic the day before, considering that the nearby Peaks of Otter restaurant served 586 people for breakfast Sunday morning! (Roanoke Times, Oct. 23, page B4.)
But this hike was a sensational success in my quest for solitude. With no 50-mile-an-hour winds and sub-freezing wind chill buffeting me as happened last time I was up here by myself (with my dog) in January, I was able to sit a spell and take it all in as my dog plopped down for a deserved rest and snack.
Far below, amid the golden leaves that speckled the valley, it was another season. And somewhere even farther away in the back of my mind was my other life.