Peaks of Otter Recreation Area is an extremely popular destination along the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia. Sharp Top Mountain and Flat Top Mountain guard the central Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia like sentinels rising from the valleys around Roanoke and Lynchburg. Sharp Top Mountain was proclaimed to be the tallest mountain in the U.S. by Thomas Jefferson, and although this is far from the truth the mountain is wildly popular for tourists. A reasonably short summit trail combined with the alternative of a paved road + bus service close to the peak makes this one of the most crowded hikes in the region.
If you want good views, a waterfall, and more solitude, head to the northern section of the park to hike the Fallingwater – Flat Top National Recreation Trail. You’ll instantly avoid the crowds surrounding Abbott Lake by parking at the Flat Top Mountain Overlook, and have the option of doing separate hikes to Fallingwater Cascades or Flat Top Mountain. Better yet, combine both for a great half-day hike with a waterfall and a rocky mountain summit.
Peaks of Otter Recreation Area is accessible all winter long due to VA-43 concurrently following the Blue Ridge Parkway for 5 miles south of Abbott Lake. However, this hike starts north of the highway convergence and access is typically closed all winter. For winter hiking you can start at the southern trail head for Flat Top Mountain east of Abbott Lake near the picnic area. Starting here will add 3.2 miles to the hike making it 10.9 miles, and a lot of tough elevation gain on the initial climb from the picnic area.
Mile 0.9 – Reach the base of Fallingwater Cascades. Fallingwater Creek plummets nearly 100 feet over 2 sliding drops. The lower drop is approximately 40 feet over a wide rock face. From this angle the upper portion of the falls is obstructed from view.
Mile 1.2 – Rock hop over Fallingwater Creek. The bridge over the creek was washed out in 2012. Unless the water level is very high it is unlikely you will get wet. From here the trail climbs steeply out of the gorge.
Mile 1.7 – Cross back over the Blue Ridge Parkway and begin the Flat Top Trail. The trail parallels the parkway for the next 0.8-mi.
Mile 2.5 – Begins a series of seven long switchbacks as you climb the northern slopes of Flat Top Mountain. The forest varies from hardwoods to dense mountain laurel.
Mile 4.0 – Directly below the summit of The Pinnacle turn left on a steep descending spur trail to Cross Rock. At the start of the trail on the left is a series of rock outcrops with views north.
Mile 4.3 – Returning to the Flat Top Trail continue left beyond The Pinnacle along a narrow, exposed ridge towards the summit of Flat Top Mountain. As you approach the summit there will be large boulders lining the trail with small caves.
Mile 7.7 – Hike ends at the Flat Top Mountain Overlook.
Fallingwater Cascades/Flat Top Mountain Hike Comments
Date of Hike: Sunday, December 2, 2018
Did a variation of the hike described here: started at the Peak of Otter Lodge, walked about 0.5 mi to the trailhead that is closed during winter (about 0.5 mi from Abbott Lake trail, past the picnic area). Went up, over, and back down Flat Top, to Falling Water Cascades, the reversed course back to starting point. Took about 4 hrs total, no stopping (half hiking half trail run) Foggy/windy/rainy day, but still beautiful. Amazing to see so much greenery at the top - dripping wet everything, mossy rocks with water trickling down, gnarly twisted branches on trees and bushes from the wind that regularly rakes the top. Definitely a hump up Flat Top, lots of leaves everywhere and wet rocks made from a little bit slippery footing. Falling water cascades - beautiful and serene. Nary a soul in sight except for 3 others near the parking area. Would love to do this again in summer--maybe even go for a dip in/near the cascades.
Date of Hike: Sunday, September 18, 2016
My wife and I love to hike in the mountains. We relocated to the Lynchburg area recently and we were really excited about all of the great hikes and elevation at the peaks of otter. We lived in SWVA where you have Mt rogers and White Top to hike. Along with the AT.
This day we hiked to the top of Flat Top. It was a great trail without many steep areas to ascend. There was a lot of rocks closer you got to the top. Other than that, the hike was great. The switchback style of this trail makes it much longer than just doing a steep ascent which is okay but time consuming. When you get to the top, you have to find your spot to get out on the rocks. The views are fabulous. On this particular day, there was only one other hiker up there. Which was perfect. We only needed one person to take our picture with the back drop of Sharp Top. We loved the hike. It was a beautiful day and the sun was hot. Take plenty of water and some snacks. You'll get hungry.
We probably won't do the hike again until we have hiked everything else in the area.
Date of Hike: Saturday, August 15, 2015
Arrived around 11:30 on Saturday and proceeded to go clockwise to lower end of the falls from Flat Top Mountain Overlook parking lot with children ages 8-18. Nice cool hike in shade of trees. Return up wood stairs was steep, but short. Proceeded back to van for lunch at 1:00 and up to summit of Flat Top. Nothing very steep for this climb other than short spur to Cross Rock. Summit is enshrouded in trees so you must work your way out to separate rock outcroppings for nice views east and west. Arrived back down by 5:00. Trail is in good condition with one fallen tree crossing path. Nice flora and fauna with variety of wildflowers.
Only saw about two dozen people going to falls and one dozen on mountain trail--nice spot away from crowds on a Saturday afternoon. Nice time to think on the trails.