The Peaks of Otter rise above Abbott Lake. Johnny Molloy/Johnson City Press
The scenic Peaks of Otter area along the Blue Ridge Parkway, up Virginia way toward Roanoke, makes for a great fall getaway. Here you can visit the historic Johnson Farm and a mountain-rimmed lake built as part of the Blue Ridge Parkway. There is an on-site lodge and campground for overnight visitors, and layers of fascinating history.
An interconnected network of trails make hiking a breeze, and you can get started at the Peaks of Otter Visitor Center. Plus, Peaks of Otter is a really cool name, one of my top 10 all-time Southern Appalachian mountain monikers. Early Scotchmen by the name of Ewing settled in this high vale and named the area after their homeland peaks of Otterburn.
The historic Johnson Farm is situated almost 2,800 feet high on the shoulder of Harkening Hill, looking out on the Peaks of Otter. The bucolic site recalls a time when things moved slower. But a lot has happened here in this mountain-rimmed bowl rising above Bedford, Virginia. Aboriginal Virginians have been coming here for 5,000 years, probably for similar reasons as we do today, to enjoy the cool mountains in summer, as well as hunt, fish, and camp. Signs of their occupation here at the Peaks of Otter have been continuous.
European settlers were entering these mountains around 1700. By the time the United States came to be settlers had trickled in and the area was connected to the lands below by wagon track. Over the decades, the Peaks of Otter rose in prominence as a tourist retreat to escape the sultry Southern summers, enjoy the cool springs and hike to the mountaintops and vistas respectively known as Sharp Top, Flat Top, Buzzards Roost and Needles Eye. A century later, the Peaks of Otter was at the top of the list for recreational development when the Blue Ridge Parkway came to be.
In the meantime, the Johnson family was settling in on Harkening Hill. It had been homesteaded for nearly a century before the Johnsons got ahold of it in 1852. The farm would remain in the Johnson family for 90 years. The house we see today began in typical Appalachian style, starting out as a log cabin, expanded upon and finally covered with siding. The house today replicates its look in the 1930s, including the furniture inside and the barn, implements, and garden of that time.
Interestingly, when the Peaks of Otter area was expanded for recreation by the park service in the 1960s, the Johnson Farm got a second look as an interpretive resource. Despite it being acquired by the National Park Service in 1942, the main house and outbuildings fell into disrepair. When restored in the 1960s, the house was stripped to its most primitive state, with no regard for researching the actual lives that had been lived there. Later, members of the community balked at this representation of the Johnson Farm. It has since been completely restored to its 1930s appearance and presents another side of Appalachian life, not simply the most primitive backwoods folk of the early 1800s, but rather those who had evolved with the times, capturing their life in a particular documentable state and time.
The hike to the Johnson Farm leaves the visitor center and takes the Johnson Farm Trail to reach the Johnson Farm. Hopefully on your visit, the farmhouse will be open and staffed by interpreters, usually on warm season weekends, fall weekends and holidays. Walk inside the house and see the lifestyles of the Johnsons up close through the period furnishing, implements and photos. The barn is stocked with tools used in that time.
You will then descend past the site of the Hotel Mons, before passing under the Blue Ridge Parkway via a tunnel. The hike opens onto the east side of the parkway and the hustle and bustle of the Peaks of Otter Lodge. Circle Abbott Lake, with mountains reflecting off its surface. Stop by the Polly Woods Ordinary, an early way stop for those passing through the Peaks of Otter, before returning to the visitor center and completing the hike.
The Hotel Mons was a highland getaway designed for mountain recreation as well as escaping the hot summers of the lowlands below the Blue Ridge. This tourist destination was preceded by the Otter Peaks Hotel, established in the 1850s and lasted until 1916. But visitation to the Peaks of Otter was perfected by the Hotel Mons, built in 1920, where visitors truly relaxed in style between trips to the mountaintops above. Guests returned year after year to the hotel. They were served vegetables grown at the Johnson Farm. Members of the Johnson clan worked there through the years and were also employed guiding the tourists, running errands for them and even taking in overflow guests. The hotel was once important economic engine of the Peaks of Otter community. Unfortunately, the Great Depression greatly hurt business at the hotel and it was shuttered in 1936. Many local residents left shortly thereafter. Land of the Hotel Mons was bought by the National Park Service. Today, a simple marker in front of a grassy meadow marks the site of this former getaway.
To get to the Peaks of Otter from Johnson City, take I-81 north to exit 167 on I-81, northeast of Roanoke. Take US 11 south for 1.2 miles to the town of Buchanan. Turn left on VA 43 east. Follow it to reach the Blue Ridge Parkway after 4.7 miles. Turn left and follow the BRP northeast 5 miles to the Peaks of Otter Visitor Center, at milepost 85.9, on your left. For more information about the Peaks of Otter, call the Blue Ridge Parkway at 828-298-0398, or visit www.nps.gov/blri.