High in the narrow Allegheny Mountain valleys of George Washington National Forest lie two small rivers. The Jackson River winds through gorges and dams before joining Cowpasture River just outside the town of Clifton Forge. This junction marks the start of the mighty James River. Virginia’s longest river, it stretches over four hundred miles from this point all the way to the Chesapeake Bay. Passing through the Norfolk and Richmond areas and forming one of the few water gaps along the Blue Ridge Mountains, it has served as an important transportation corridor from the earliest days of European settlement.
It was here in the James River Valley we left you last week on our Blue Ridge Parkway adventure. As mentioned before, the Otter Creek Campground makes a great stopping point for those who have driven the entire way from Shenandoah National Park. Continuing on from the campground and nearby Otter Lake, it’s only a short distance to the James River Visitor Center. This is the lowest area along the entire Blue Ridge Parkway, sitting at 650 feet above sea level.
We recommend taking a ranger led walk along the James River Canal Trail. This trail leads to a restored section of the James River and Kanawha Canal as well as the Battery Creek Lock. Built between 1845 and 1851, the canal was meant to connect the James River to the Kanawha River system in West Virginia. This would allow easy passage through the mountains for those settling the Ohio Valley and midwestern states. Thanks to the rise of railroads in the mid 1800’s, it would never be completed, reaching only the town of Buchanan just north of Roanoke before being abandoned.
The roadway steeply climbs from the valley over the next fifteen miles to reach Apple Orchard Mountain Overlook, the highest point on the Virginia section of the parkway. The elevation here sits at an impressive 3,950 feet and many of the peaks in this area exceed 4,000 feet. The rugged terrain here creates several waterfalls a short distance away. Trails lead to both Apple Orchard Falls and Fallingwater Cascades.
At milepost 85 the Blue Ridge Parkway enters the Peaks of Otter Recreation Area. This high mountain valley is the premiere attraction on the Virginia portion of the parkway and has been a destination resort since the 1800s. Framed by Flat Top Mountain to the north, Sharp Top Mountain to the south, and Harkening Hill to the west, it’s not hard to see why this area has long attracted visitors. Stop by the visitor center to get an idea of the myriad of opportunities waiting for visitors here. Not only is there a campground, but the Peaks of Otter Lodge also sits on the edge of a beautiful lake. With views of Sharp Top from the windows and an on site restaurant, the lodge fills up months in advance.
Hiking trails crisscross the entire area and connect the visitor facilities together. Abbot Lake Trail encircles the entire lake and was one of our favorite walks on the trip. Johnson Farm Trail leads to the historic Johnson Farm, one of the last remaining vestiges of the community that was here before the parkway necessitated their removal. A more challenging hike leads to the top of Harkening Hill and past Balance Rock. Of course, the most popular trails are those that lead to the Peaks of Otter themselves. Once thought to be the highest peaks in America, Flat Top and Sharp Top are still a challenging hike today. Views from Sharp Top are superior thanks to the treeless rocky peak as well as the overlook that has been constructed. Those who don’t feel like climbing the thousand feet up may take a NPS bus ride a good portion of the way.
As the parkway leaves the Peaks of Otter, the Blue Ridge Mountains begin to get smaller. Approaching the town of Roanoke, the roadway sits on top of a narrow ridge-line. Views to each side stretch out westward over towns in the Great Valley and the undulating hills of the piedmont to the east. As the Blue Ridge Parkway descends into the Roanoke River Valley, the mountains begin to dwindle even more. This area serves as a transition from the high ridges we’ve traveled on so far to the Blue Ridge Plateau. This high plain sits at elevations averaging 3,000 feet. While higher mountains occasionally sit on top of the plateau, this area is fairly flat and mostly consists of farmlands.
Passing through Roanoke, there is very little of the woods and wilderness that were a highlight of the parkway’s first hundred miles. Now open fields line the roadway and neighborhoods encroach on all sides.
Despite the intruding signs of civilization, this segment has two recreational parks that make great side trips. Explore Park sits on the banks of the Roanoke River and offers recreation for the whole family. While not an official part of the Blue Ridge Parkway, the adjacent park is easily reached by a short side road. Roanoke Mountain Road can be found at mile marker 120. A one-way loop road leads four miles to the top of Roanoke Mountain and offers outstanding views of the city. Just past the entrance on the right the Mill Mountain Parkway splits off and leads to the top of Mill Mountain. This recreation area features hiking trails, the Mill Mountain Zoo, and the famous star that overlooks downtown Roanoke.