Flat Top is one of the two ‘Peaks of Otter’. While not as popular as the other peak (Sharp Top), this 5.4 mile hike to Flat Top’s summit offers some nice views of the area.
Last week, we were home on a week long ‘staycation’. Most of the week, we relaxed at home, sleeping in and watching movies. When Wednesday turned out to be cool and breezy with low humidity, we decided to get up early and go for a day hike in the Peaks of Otter area of the Blue Ridge Parkway. We’ve hiked Sharp Top many times, but I had never really considered hiking the companion peak. Adam had always described the hike up Flat Top as steep and lacking any spectacular views. But, we’d read a few more positive descriptions of the views, so we decided to give the trail a shot.
When we got to the trailhead, it was almost chilly. Personally, I think chilly weather is always welcome in the middle of summer! The hike was all uphill, passing hillsides of ferns, giant boulders and patches of red columbine. The first point of interest we came to was the Pinnacle. It offered panoramic views of the valley. We could even see the Blue Ridge Parkway snaking through the mountains across the valley.
At the Pinnacle, there is sign marking a side trail down to Cross Rock. We assumed Cross Rock would be another outcropping with nice views. We were quite wrong. Instead, it was a brutally steep descent to a rock formation in the shape of a cross. Others might find Cross Rock to be fascinating, but I think I would have passed on the side trail if I had known I was just going to look at some rocks.
From the Cross Rock junction, the trail became steeper and rockier. We continued climbing for the last half mile to the summit of Flat Top. At first, we were a little confused because the summit marker was buried in the trees. Our hiking book had described the views from the top as panoramic and majestic. We eventually found a little path through the brush leading to a rocky outcropping with views. It was a little below the actual summit. The views from that point were nice, but I wouldn’t describe them as generously as our hiking guide did. If you climbed out to the edge, stood and peered beyond the trees, you could see Sharp Top. Overall, I think the view from the Pinnacle was much nicer than the view from the summit.
We relaxed on the rocks for a while, then made our way down the trail. The trail going down was really slick from the thunderstorms the night before. On one steep section, I slipped and fell hard on my left knee. At first, I was really worried I may have banged it up badly enough to jeopardize our planned backpacking trip. Fortunately, I was able to walk it off and only suffered a bruise.
The downhill hike seemed endless at times after I hurt my knee, but we got back to the car in less than an hour. Afterwards, we enjoyed a delicious lunch at the Peakview Dining Room in the Peaks of Otter lodge.
The Peaks of Otter place has a special place in my heart, since this was where my family would often visit for a picnic. I have hiked up the sister peak, Sharp Top, countless times, but I have only been up Flat Top a few times. The times that I had approached the peak of Flat Top, we had started out from the trailhead from the Peaks of Otter picnic area. I remember that path being very steep and forested, with views that were mostly through the trees. After consulting our Falcon Guide of Hiking the Blue Ridge Parkway, it mentioned great views and starting from the actual Blue Ridge Parkway to shave off some of the elevation gain. We decided to check out this path instead of the way I had experienced.
The start of this trail begins around mile marker 83.5 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, north of the Peaks of Otter Lodge. There is a parking lot on the eastern side and you will see a brown sign denoting the beginning of the Flat Top trail. The trail starts off by slowly elevating through the forest in more of a gradual ascent. Around .6 miles, the trail turns sharply to the left and you begin a series of switchbacks that last until you reach the junction with the Cross Rock trail at 2.1 miles. At this junction you reach what is termed the pinnacle. If you crawl out on the outcropping of rocks near you, you are at the Pinnacle, which provides the best views on this hike. You have the option of climbing down to Cross Rock, but this is not a great viewpoint, just an interesting rock formation. Follow the signs up the last .5 miles to reach the Flat Top summit at 4,001 feet. You will see the summit marker in the middle of the woods. Continue past the summit marker slightly for a short sidepath onto a rock outcropping that will give you some nice views. Continue back the way you came.
This path up Flat Top was better than my memories of hiking up from the picnic area. The views from the Pinnacle are gorgeous and you would miss out on this if you did the hike from the picnic area. The hike back down from the summit felt steeper than going up and there were loose rocks that required you to keep an eye on your footing. Take trekking poles to help secure your footing. There is one geocache on the hike, but I forgot to plug in the coordinates before we left:
The one thing that Flat Top has over the Sharp Top hike is more solitude. Sometimes it seems that Sharp Top is crawling with large groups of hikers, but you will likely only see a few people on the Flat Top hike. Sharp Top does have better viewpoints, but this is a nice hike to do if you have more time to spend in the area. If you are interested and not too exhausted, you can also cross the road from the parking lot for a short 1.6 mile hike to Fallingwater Cascades.
- Distance – 5.4 miles (including the optional .2 mile side trail to Cross Rock)
- Elevation Change – 1391 feet
- Difficulty – 3. The hike is steady uphill climbing and get rockier the higher you climb.
- Trail Conditions – 2. The trail is very rocky and is rather overgrown in places.
- Views –3.5 The view from the Pinnacle is beautiful, but views from the summit are somewhat obstructed.
- Wildlife – 0. We didn’t see anything.
- Ease to Navigate – 3.5. The trail itself is easy to follow, but at the summit there is no clear pointer to the best overlook. The technical summit is buried in the woods, but by following community trails you can climb onto rocky outcroppings to gain a view.
- Solitude – 2.5. Compared to Sharp Top, this trail is lightly traveled. But due to the popularity of the Peaks of Otter area, you will likely see other hikers.
Directions to trailhead: At mile marker 83.5 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, north of the Peaks of Otter Lodge. Park in the lot on the eastern side and a brown sign denotes the beginning of the Flat Top trail.