Along the Blue Ridge Parkway: Peaks of Otter Lodge Really Has An Otter

A stay at the Peaks of Otter Lodge along the Blue Ridge Parkway allows you a short walk to historic Polly Woods' Ordinary. Photos by David and Kay Scott.

Editor's note: As our lodging experts, David and Kay Scott, continue on their 2010 odyssey across the National Park System, they get to sample some of the best lodging, food, and camping there is to be had. This dispatch came from the Peaks of Otter Lodge along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Friday's weather was much improved with mostly sunny skies on the drive north on the Blue Ridge Parkway from Rocky Knob Cabins to Peaks of Otter Lodge, a distance of about 90 miles. Before heading north, we stopped for breakfast at Mabry Mill, where Kay went through a combination pancake platter consisting of one sweet potato pancake, one buckwheat pancake, and one corn meal pancake, before waddling back to the car. I demonstrated restraint by consuming two biscuits topped with black cherry preserves.

Our first stop after leaving Mabry Mill was the Rocky Knob Visitor Center, where we asked about the date the cabins at Rocky Knob were constructed. Two very patient National Park Service rangers telephoned several NPS employees and found that the cabins were completed in September 1941. Surprisingly, the buildings were designed to house conscientious objectors who were expected to work on completion of the Blue Ridge Parkway.

On the drive we stopped at milepost 115 to visit Virginia’s Explore Park, described in the NPS brochure as celebrating Virginia’s role in westward expansion. According to the brochure, the park has historic buildings and exhibits, and offers living history demonstrations. Upon arrival we discovered the park closed in 2007 after the state of Virginia withdrew funding for the venture. Remember, this is the state that more recently closed its highway rest areas. A large visitor center remains in operation, but we were the only visitors during the half hour or so that we examined the exhibits and viewed a video about the parkway. The video about the Blue Ridge and its residents was quite good.

We arrived at Peaks of Otter Lodge in the early afternoon. Located at milepost 86 (milepost 0 is at the northern end of the park), this is the northern-most lodge on the parkway. With 63 guest rooms, it is also the largest of the four parkway lodges and the only one that is open year-round. All but three handicap-accessible rooms are spread among three attractive two-story buildings that sit on the grassy hillside of scenic Abbott Lake. Each room has a balcony or patio offering a good view of the lake. Guests often carry patio chairs into the grassy area between the lodge buildings and the lake to read and visit. Rooms rent for $119 during high season from early May through the last of September. Rates are higher on weekends and during October, when the colorful foliage lures visitors, but lower the remainder of the year.

The easy one-mile trail that circles Abbott Lake is perfect for a leisurely morning or after-dinner stroll. Other trails are nearby. A Park Service visitor center is across the road and within easy walking distance of the lodge. The lodge concessionaire also operates a shuttle bus up Sharp Top Mountain. A 1,500-foot walk from the bus stop to the summit offers a commanding view of the Virginia countryside. For the more fit, a 1.5-mile trail leads to the summit.

A short walk from the lodge, Polly Woods’ Ordinary offers a window to the past. The weathered cabin, built in the early 1800s, served as a stop for travelers to this area for nearly 20 years during the mid-1800s. According to information at the lodge, Polly’s menu featured bear steak, wild turkey, biscuits, and buttermilk. You can’t get that kind of food at McDonald's, but, of course, Polly also didn't offer WiFi.

So, how about the otters? Well, an otter returned to Abbott Lake about five years ago, and a year later brought a family. Two otters are still around and often observed by lodge guests. One morning I sat on the patio and watched them swim and dive not far from the shoreline.

After leaving the Blue Ridge Parkway, our plans were to tent, probably at Loft Mountain in Shenandoah National Park. Also, we need to drive into Waynesboro to buy some gasoline and groceries in preparation for visits to the three lodges in Shenandoah. It looks like good weather, at least through tomorrow, so goodbye until we meet again in Shenandoah.

Comments

Where did the peaks of otter name come from?? Seems kind of odd??

Good question we should have addressed. It stems from three mountain peaks that together are referred to as the Peaks of Otter.

Beyond that, though, it's hard to say, for even how the mountains received that name is kinda unknown.

Suffice to say, though, that the name has been around for a while.

Contrary to what it might seem, the Peaks of Otter are probably not named after the cute furry mammals that swim and crack shellfish with rocks on their bellies. :-)

Reading what was presented on the "The Peaks of Otter Story" is certainly a possibility. However, I'm inclined to lean towards the historical options presented by The Peaks of Otter lodge:

"There are three opinions on how the Peaks of Otter got their name. The name may come from the Cherokee Indian word, "ottari," which means "high places." The Peaks may have been named after the Otter River, which has its headwaters in the area. Finally, Scottish settlers may have named the Peaks after Ben Otter, a mountain in their homeland that resembles Sharp Top. The Peaks of Otter include three mountains; Sharp Top has an elevation of 3,865 feet above sea level, Flat Top is slightly taller at 4,001 feet, and Harkening Hill has an elevation of 3,375 feet.

Given that the lodge is operated by an official concessionaire of the Blue Ridge Parkway, I might give extra credit to their take on the perspective.

Regardless, the area is a very nice place to visit. I've created a virtual tour of the Otter Creek Recreation Area and the Peaks of Otter Visitor Center but the photography could be improved a little and was originally shot in 2003. Note the virtual tours require Quicktime. You can actually move from room to room and explore outside both facilities. As you scroll left to right, look for a forward arrow that allows you to move around. It might be worth exploring in planning a trip to the area.

Here are a few other resources that may be of interest:

Hope this helps with everyone's trip planning. Happy Travels!!

David & Kay, I am enjoying your articles. The Blue Ridge Parkway and Shenandoah park are beautiful places. Stay safe.