Flat Top: the best of the Peaks
Take the path less traveled
Kevin Myatt | The Roanoke Times
Which is taller? This shot from the Blue Ridge Parkway makes it appear Sharp Top, the pointed mountain in the center, is taller than Flat Top, located to the left, jutting up behind a ridge. Early colonial surveyors believed so, too. But Sharp Top appears taller in this photo only because it is closer; Flat Top is really 126 feet higher at 4,001 feet above sea level.
- Location: At Peaks of Otter Recreation Area, 30 miles northeast of Roanoke on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The trailhead for the hike described is at mile marker 83 on the parkway.
- Length: 2.6 miles from trailhead to summit (5.2 miles roundtrip). Add .2 mile if you do the Cross Rock spur.
- Elevation: Rises from 2,500 feet at the trailhead to the 4,001-foot summit
- Gottasee factor: 3.5 (scenery scale of 0 to 4). A lovely trail full of wonderful views, large rock formations, and flora that changes with each turn of the trail, including huge oak, poplar, hickory and beech trees, mountain laurel, rhododendron, and an assortment of wildflowers. All it lacks is flowing water; doing the Fallingwater Cascades loop across the road -- technically part of the same designated National Recreation Trail as Flat Top -- adds that, too.
- Gottabreathe factor: 2.5 (difficulty scale of 0 to 4). Yes, it climbs 1,500 feet, but most of the distance is a gentle grade in nine switchbacks. However, ratchet the factor up to a 3 if you add the Cross Rock spur. It's only a tenth of a mile down and back, but it will seemingly add a mile because it is very steep and the footing is treacherous.
Flat Top is the Rodney Dangerfield of the Peaks of Otter. Sharp Top gets almost all of the attention. Flat Top just doesn't get the respect it deserves.
Flat Top began being dissed in colonial times. It suffered the indignity of watching its pointy-headed brother get declared the tallest mountain in Virginia. There's even a chunk of the Washington Monument cut from Sharp Top declaring to all the world in our nation's capital that Sharp Top -- or Otter Peak, as it was called --is Old Dominion's highest point. Wrong! Flat Top beats Sharp Top by 126 feet -- Flat tops out at 4,001 feet, little brother Sharp at a mere 3,875 feet. Just a few miles up the parkway, clearly visible from the summits of both the brothers Otter, Apple Orchard Mountain (the one with a dome-capped radar tower on top) beats them both at over 4,200 feet. And Mount Rogers near the North Carolina line pokes up over a mile high to 5,729 feet. So the early surveyors weren't just off, they were way, way off. They should have used a lifeline before giving their final answer.
Today, even with the whole elevation thing cleared up, Sharp Top is still the darling of Otter. On a sunny, warm weekend afternoon, the beaten path up Sharp Top is more like I-81 than a forest footpath, and there's also a road snaking nearly to the summit for a park-run bus service to take non-hikers to the top. Even though it has two routes to the top (really one continuous trail up and over the mountain), Flat Top gets a decidedly more moderate amount of foot traffic on weekends, and it's frequently deserted through the middle of the week, especially in winter.
So much the better, because here's a little secret: Flat Top is actually the sharper hike. It captures more of the wild mountain feel than its more tourist-trodden sibling.
Nobody's certain how the Peaks of Otter got their name. Some say it was named by early Scottish settlers for their homeland's Ben Otter Mountain. Others take the more mundane and obvious suggestion that they were named for otters found in nearby streams. One other possibility is that "Otter" is a derivative of the Cherokee "Ottari" meaning "high places."
The Peaks of Otter are indeed high places, as they jut out far and above their surroundings, some 3,000 feet above the Piedmont to the east and the Shenandoah Valley to the west. Be warned that this elevation difference subjects the Peaks of Otter to much colder, windier and wetter weather than the valleys below, or even the lower ridgelines along the parkway. Spring is usually not sprung until late May on the upper reaches. On one hike up Sharp Top, I encountered winds I would estimate at 60 miles per hour (I couldn't walk against it) up top while it was blowing only about 20 at the trailhead. On another hike, I got swallowed up by a cloud rolling in on Flat Top. But these weather variations are part of what make hiking so interesting. Just be prepared for them.
We start our hike at the trailhead, located on the right side headed north at mile marker 83 on the Blue Ridge Parkway. There's another route up from the Peaks of Otter lodge that I may describe another time, but this is my choice because it's away from most of the crowds that stop at the main Peaks of Otter area that includes a visitor center, the lodge, a restaurant, a store, a campground, and the Sharp Top trailhead. Call me antisocial or a loner, but I don't like to have many people around when I hike.
The trail takes off from a signboard announcing the 2.6 miles to the summit, angling up through a grove of fairly large trees. The trail follows a narrow ridgeline -- a hogback ridge, we would call it back in Arkansas -- with views down through the trees on both sides. For quite a distance through here, you will see the parkway below and, at times to the left above the trail, the looming bulk of Flat Top, taunting you with how much farther you have to go. After achieving this ridgeline, the trail is fairly level, even slipping downhill a little at times.
As Flat Top's summit becomes hidden behind the steep incline rising to the left, you can catch a glimpse to the right of Harkening Hill (another good hike I'll describe later), including a clearing on the hill. Seeing where this clearing is will give you a good idea of how high you've climbed as the trail ascends Flat Top. About a half-mile from the trailhead, the trail makes the first of nine sharp switchbacks in front of bench, bending hard left.
As the trail splits a boulder field, you can look down to see the part of the trail you were just on a few feet below, and much farther down, the parkway. You work your way through many boulders in here, and as the trail bends gradually right so that the parkway is no longer in view, you will notice many large hardwood trees, some standing, some fallen. Eventually, the trail bends even more sharply right to make its second switchback, and you can again see Flat Top up and to the left.
Bluffs, rocks and mountain laurel frame the scene as you continue working gradually uphill. Harkening Hill appears again, its clearing seeming to drop lower and lower. There are many good views to the right here as the trail angles up, clinging to the mountainside. In a a field of large boulders, the trail makes it third switchback, turning left through large rocks sprinkled among big trees.
Working back to the north side of the mountain, Apple Orchard Mountain and its signature radar tower can be seen to the left. After a hard turn right -- switchback No. 4 -- the trail works gradually left back to the southwest side of the mountain, and you will note that you are now roughly even with or maybe slightly higher than that clearing on Harkening Hill. You can see the results of the climb more than you will feel it because it is so gradual. Flat Top's summit is visible straight ahead now as you walk through a boulder field. Way down below the clearing on Harkening Hill, you can see the old Johnson home site, a popular Peaks of Otter attraction.
A hairpin left, now a little more than a mile from the trailhead, makes switchback No. 5. The boulders keep getting larger the higher up you get, and the distance between switchbacks also gets shorter, as turn No. 6 bends hard to the right just a few hundred yards farther along. Not too much farther is the seventh switchback on some rock steps. Just past this left twist, a gorgeous view opens up between and over trees to the left.
The boulders become more and more impressive -- stacks of them, rounded ones, some as large as small buildings. The views are equally impressive, to the left through here as again the trail visits the north side of the mountain. After a slight curve right, the trail levels out (some minor ups and downs) for a while as it follows the mountainside. Finally angling uphill again, some rhododendron-studded bluffs appear up and to the right. Before you know it, you're making a right switchback (No. 8) up to the bluff line, and the trail ascends at the steepest angle it has since the trailhead. Then, it bends left for the final switchback to a wooden bench, levels off a little, then rises slightly and to the right, reaching a lovely viewpoint on the left and then the Cross Rock trail spur. More or less, you're on top now, although there's still a little more climbing to do to achieve 4,000 feet.
The Cross Rock trail spur, marked by a sign, is a 1/10-mile, very steep drop (and then climb back to the trail) visiting an intriguing balanced rock formation. When I hiked it, the trail was eroded, had deadfall across it, and was slippery with leaves, mud and wet gravel. Mostly though, it's just steep. It took me 13 minutes to do this two-tenths of a mile -- on flat ground, I can walk a mile in 15. So consider it optional and only do it if you feel you're up to it or just want some extra challenge.
If you do the Cross Rock spur, remember to turn left at the sign back on the main trail; if not, just ignore the sign and keep going forward on the main trail, which ascends through some large boulders to reach a level ridgeline. The trail bends left through some rocks, then right, then climbs to an exposed ridgeline. This area is called the Pinnacle, and from this rocky spine, there are vistas on both sides.
As you will quickly learn, Flat Top is not at all flat on top. The mountaintop part of the trail keeps bobbing up and down to various rocky points and ridgelines, studded with rhododendron, mountain laurel and stunted trees.
You wind up through some bluffs on an "S" curve, one of the steepest parts of the trail, but not really that bad. Then it levels, then climbs a little, then down a tad, then level, then curves upward to a short spur trail to the left that reaches a flat rock outcropping with good views of the Piedmont toward Bedford and Lynchburg.
After another little climb, you achieve the summit! The sign marks it at 4,001 feet, but really, the high point is up on the rocky mound in the middle. There are many outcroppings that provide good views here. A good place to stay and absorb for a while.
When you just absolutely have to go back, just follow the trail the way you came on (straight ahead will take you to the Peaks of Otter lodge). Remember that most trail injuries occur going downhill rather than uphill, so don't get in too big of a hurry. The views are even better going down, too, because you're facing them instead of having them at your back.Fallingwater Cascades
Location: Begins at two trailheads (Flat Top and Fallingwater Cascades) less than a mile apart on the Blue Ridge Parkway at mile 83.
Length: 1.6-mile loop
Elevation: From around 2500 feet at either trailhead downward to about 2200 feet and then back up to 2500.
Gottasee factor (Scenery, scale 0 to 4): 3.5 -- A classic Appalachian stream plunging through a mountain cleavage, bouncing along several rock faces. Also some beautiful bluffs, interesting views and a wonderful walk in a mixed forest.Gottabreathe factor (Difficulty, scale 0 to 4): 2 -- Moderate descent and climb to and from the stream, with a steep descent or climb (depending on which way you go) along the cascades. But it's not that far and there's lots of good resting places.
The federal government considers Flat Top and Fallingwater Cascades one trail in its National Recreation Trail designation. I frequently take exception with the government, as I do in this case for the following reason: You have to pass your car after doing one trail to get to the other. That makes it two trails -- unless you start at Peaks of Otter lodge, cross Flat Top, do the Fallingwater Cascades loop, and return over Flat Top to the lodge. Regular people are not going to do that 11-plus mile trudge; but, you know, it does sound like an intriguing challenge for a free day.
The Fallingwater Cascades loop starts across the Blue Ridge Parkway from the Flat Top trailhead on a short spur that reaches the loop within sight of the road. There's also a trailhead, aptly named the Fallingwater Cascades trailhead, a little farther north on the parkway. It has a sign that shows the elevation as 2,557 feet there.
Either way, you have two options: turn right and go counterclockwise, or turn left and go clockwise. Either way, you're going to go 300 feet down and then back up. There's just no getting out of it: A pretty good climb awaits you coming out.
Going either direction, the loop descends through rocks, boulders, bluffs, and trees aplenty along a hillside to Fallingwater Creek, and then climbs back through very similar scenes either lower or higher on the same hillside. The trail is wide, with pea gravel along much of its surface, and its landscaped beautifully with rocks and timbers. It's well constructed and well cared for.
The loop crosses two wooden bridges over the cascading creek -- one above the main section of falls, the other below them. It crosses the creek, then follows the other side up/down beside the cascades that plunge a few hundred feet over boulders and bluffs. It's one of those places that rejuvenates you through all senses: It not only looks wonderful, but sounds, feels and smells that way, too. It's a good place to sit a spell instead of just walking past.
Both directions are equally difficult, but I prefer going counterclockwise (turning right on the loop) for strictly scenic reasons: Descending beside the cascades means you're looking down the creek valley, and the views are in front of you instead of at your back. There's one spot high up where Flat Top looms enormously above and Sharp Top pokes up a tad over Flat Top's flank straight ahead. These views are probably better in leaf-off than when the green comes back. But I can't wait to see this area as spring really gets going and then summer sets in. I might want to go back and stick my feet in the water then.