Family vacations were a rarity in my youth. My parent’s lived paycheck to paycheck. They didn’t have money for such opulence. But one time, somehow, they managed to find the means to take my brother and I on a camping trip to the mountains. I couldn’t have been more than six or seven years old at the time but memories from that adventure still remain. We traveled along the Blue Ridge Parkway. We slept on army cots inside a olive green canvas tent. It rained a lot. We saw black bears, one of which climbed into a station wagon when a fellow camper left the back window ajar. We roasted marshmallows over a campfire. We climbed on rocks and waded in cold mountain streams. We hiked to waterfalls and to vistas with scenic mountain views.
Those few days camping in the mountains made a life-long impression. I’ve made the trek to the Blue Ridge many times since then. I’ve camped there with my own children recreating those memories. I feel at ease in the mountains. So when grammi and I entered the Blue Ridge Parkway it felt like a homecoming of sorts.
Along the parkway under the shade of thick forest trees is Peaks of Otter Campground. Operated by the National Park Service, it is old and in desperate need of maintenance. The sites are small, not at all designed for today’s larger campers. The pavement is cracked and dotted with potholes. Sites are overgrown. The place is underutilized as not many campers see the charm in this quiet spot. Cool nights, even during our August visit, made for cozy sleeping. It was the perfect quiet spot for us to seek out adventure.
The Peaks of Otter is the site of a 19th century community between three prominent peaks, Sharp Top, Flat Top and Harkening Hill with Abbott Lake resting in the center. A lodge near the lake was a destination for vacationing tourist. The visitor center was the place to learn about the area’s history.
Our first adventure was to tour the Johnson Farm. The family lived there for three generations. It is one of a few reminders of a community that existed it the area before the establishment of the parkway. We took a two mile loop trail from the visitor center up the mountain to the old homestead. There we saw the main house and a variety of out buildings with costumed interpreters giving demonstrations and describing the life on the farm. They explained the family was nearly self sufficient needing only flour, sugar and coffee. A small garden and fruit trees were planted on the hillside.
We saw a roadside sign for the Peaks of Otter Winery and thought “why not”. The road zig-zagged down to the foot of the mountain where we discovered a family owned winery with hundreds of fruit trees and grape vines from whence they make their wines.
Grammi and I sat for a wine tasting before selecting a couple of bottles to take back to the camper. The view of the Peaks of Otter Mountains provided a gorgeous place to spend an afternoon relaxing and tasting wine.
The next day, Saturday, we took a shuttle bus to a drop off point below the Sharp Top Mountain summit. The final 1500 feet was a rugged, rocky, strenuous hike to the top. There was a crowd of people at the top sitting around on rocks or standing where ever they could find a spot. We then realized we were crashing a wedding. A bride and groom with friends and family ascended the mountain to take advantage of the picturesque backdrop. We missed the ceremony but mingled among the guest and climbed over rocks to find a suitable location to see the 360 degree view. The photographer, undeterred by our presents, continued to take pictures. I can only imagine some years later, a child asking, “Mommy who’s that bearded man at your wedding?”
As we waited for the shuttle bus for the return trip down, we talked with a couple that said the Natural Bridge is a “must see”. So we took their advise and made the forty minute drive to Natural Bridge State Park. Once owned by Thomas Jefferson, the Natural Bridge is the newest of Virginia’s state parks. The 215-foot arch is the main attraction however, the Cedar Creek Trail continues beyond the bridge past a cave, a hidden springs, and a Monacan Indian living history exhibit to the 30-foot high Lace Falls.
We capped off our day with dinner at the Peaks of Otter’s Lakeview Restaurant. Dining while looking across the lake at Sharp Top Mountain, where earlier that day we sat at the peak, was a special experience. The food was excellent. The atmosphere perfect. We were in a happy place!
We departed the next morning heading south on the Blue Ridge Parkway for a yet to be known location. We stopped often at the overlooks to gaze at the mountains, something I can do for hours. Soon after stopping at one such overlook, a dozen or more cars pulled in behind me. So many that they were lined up on the parkway potentially blocking traffic. Wow, what the heck is going on? Then a young bride in a beautiful white wedding dress ran up to us and asked if we were leaving soon because she wanted to take pictures with her wedding party. Crashing one wedding this week was enough for us, so I smiled, congratulated her, and wished her well before driving off to another overlook.
Lunch time came and went and we were feeling a little hungry so we started to search for a place to stop and fix something to eat. We pulled into the Blue Ridge Music Center at mile post 213. We found a spot where we could park with the camper. Grammi fixed a quick bite before we headed inside.
The amphitheater and 17000 square-foot museum was built to preserve the history and culture of the mountain music. Walking through the museum you will get a glimpse of the origins, instruments, and sounds heard for decades around this part of the country. Music and concerts are played here through the warm months. We were lucky to see the Midday Mountain Music session. We clapped our hands and stomped our feet to the sounds of fiddles, guitars, banjos, an upright bass, a mandolin, and a washtub bass. One of the musicians would call out a song or sometimes just start playing and then the others would join in. It was a fabulous toe-tapping time.
The day was getting away from us and we still needed to find a place to park. We continued along the Blue Ridge Parkway until entering North Carolina. There we turned and headed for a state park. We were ready for hook-ups. Water and electric sounded great to us after more than a week without it. Having perfected the skill of taking military showers, we were looking forward to long continuous hot running water. I glanced in my side mirrors to see the Blue Ridge Mountains fading in the distant. A somber feeling swept through us. It’s a place of fond memories, the place where the seed for my desire to travel and seek adventure was planted. I know I’ll be back.