Scenic trail's end provides rich rewards

Virginia: A hike into the spectacular Blue Ridge Mountains ends with a hot bath and a hearty meal at the Peaks of Otter Lodge.

March 19, 2000|By Sarah Clayton | By Sarah Clayton,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It was a cold day for a hike into the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The raw wind scraped our cheeks, and the snowy peaks above glistened like icebergs. But winter had kept us indoors too long, and we were determined to get out.

Even better, day's end -- 11 uphill miles away -- promised a warm bath, a hot fire and a hearty meal at the Peaks of Otter Lodge.

It was a stunning, but challenging, walk. After parking our car just outside Arcadia, Va., where the Appalachian Trail crosses Route 614, we headed up the steep, winding trail, quickly leaving the hemlock-lined valley below.

By the time we reached Cove Mountain, we knew, thanks to the sun and the exertion, that we weren't going to die of exposure, that reaching the Peaks of Otter was possible.

The views were magnificent. Off to the west was the Shenandoah Valley and the endless, hazy blue ridges of the Allegheny Mountains. To the east was a tumble of snowy mountain peaks that had us convinced we had left civilization far behind.

We ate a picnic lunch amid this splendor, then continued on, the first patches of snow crunching beneath our feet and the first views of Sharp Top coming into sight ahead.

Two peaks, Sharp Top at 3,875 feet and Flat Top at 4,004 feet, were called the Peaks of Otter as early at 1787, though the origin of the name is uncertain.

Some believe the term comes from the Cherokee word "ottari," meaning "high place." Others believe the Scots who originally settled the area chose the name in memory of Ben Otter Mountain in their homeland. Still others say the peaks are named for the Otter River, whose headwaters are nearby.

What is known is that there has been a hostelry at the peaks for 160 years, except from 1937 until the early '60s, when the federal government bought land for the Blue Ridge Parkway and tore down the existing lodge.

The current lodge, whose rustic charm fits with the natural beauty surrounding it, opened in 1964. The Virginia Peaks of Otter Company privately owns and manages the lodge as an authorized concession of the National Park System. There are 60 regular double rooms and three suites.

Polly's Ordinary, the first hostelry at the spot, is preserved on the grounds. Polly Wood opened her small chestnut-log cabin to the public in 1830 after her husband died, leaving her with nine children to raise. It was more of a wayside stop than a lodge, a place to grab a bite to eat, buy feed for your horses and spend the night -- if you brought your own bedding.

Wood ran a thriving business on the old Liberty Turnpike (now Route 43) between Buchanan on the western side of the mountains and Bedford on the east for nearly 20 years until she died of pleurisy in 1854.

Benjamin Wilkes bought the place, expanded the building and improved the turnpike. One Henry Morgan noted in 1860, when the hostelry had expanded to accommodate 30 people, that "Better accommodations, more prompt and ready service, and amid more delightful scenery could not be desired. ... The air is cool and salubrious and, in the hottest season, an exhilarating breeze sweeps through the mountain pass." I'm not sure how salubrious the air was for us as we broke out of the Appalachian Trail at Bearwallow Gap and began the last phase of our hike to the lodge, five miles along the Blue Ridge Parkway, mostly up.

We had already walked through the snow for several miles, our tracks mingling with those of fox, grouse, rabbit, raccoon and bobcat. Now, the shady curves of the parkway were sheets of slippery ice. We trudged on, our light packs getting heavier.

And then, around a corner, there it was, the lodge, with its promise of warmth and food and soft beds. Our feet seemed to sprout wings.

Yes, they had a room, said the receptionist, who marked us "walk-ins." The pun was not lost on us.

Not only did they have a room, but they had it at an inexpensive winter rate (in effect until April 20), which included breakfast and dinner.

Seafood in the mountains

The Peaks of Otter Lodge and I go back a long way. One of my first dates in high school, back in 1967, was to the famous Friday night seafood buffet there.

Living in the Virginia mountains, I wasn't used to seeing much seafood and was impressed to find a whole table of it, including fried frogs legs -- though how they rated as seafood I never figured out. But there was macaroni and cheese, too, so I decided that "seafood" was being loosely translated.

It was all delicious, and it still is today. And at $17.45 it's still a bargain. Frogs legs and macaroni and cheese are still on the menu. Don't expect gourmet. Nothing at the Peaks is gourmet, but it's good, honest fare at good, honest prices, and more personable waitresses would be hard to find.

Dining at the Peaks of Otter is a delightful experience. The big dining room with its rough-timber crossbeams has a rustic, homey feel. Along one side of the dining room is a bank of windows overlooking 23-acre Abbott Lake, and beyond, the distinctive granite peak of Sharp Top.

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