Road Trip #7

Road Trip on the Blue Ridge Parkway: Lexington to Roanoke, VA

The Peaks of Otter, James River, and Apple Orchard Mountain are just a few of the destinations on this road trip on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Written by

Jason Barnette


April 19, 2019

Ironically the lowest point on the entire Blue Ridge Parkway at the James River is closely followed by the highest point in Virginia at Apple Orchard Mountain. This road trip section includes stunning overlooks, a few trails to hike, a hidden outdoor mecca, and the iconic Peaks of Otter.

This is Section 2 of the Road Trip on the Blue Ridge Parkway, a 469-mile drive from Waynesboro, Virginia to Cherokee, North Carolina. Follow the link to learn more about the other sections.

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Section 2: Lexington, VA to Roanoke, VA

74.9 miles

1. Highway 60 at Milepost 45.6

From this intersection it is just 5 miles along a curvy road into the town of Buena Vista, VA and then an additional five miles into Lexington. You can also access I-81 just before reaching Lexington.

2. Otter Creek Campground at Milepost 60.8

The Otter Creek Campground is one of the smaller campgrounds with only 45 tent sites and 24 RV sites. The campground is built around two loops. Each loop has a restroom facility and potable water access. None of the sites have hookups and there are no showers.

3. Otter Lake Overlook at Milepost 63.1

Otter Lake is a small lake fed by the equally small Otter Creek that winds down the mountain from near the campground. It’s a man-made lake with a stone dam at the southern end. Park near the southern end of the lake. There is a staircase leading down to the bottom of the dam. Even on dry days there is usually water spilling over the top of the dam, creating a nice rippled waterfall. After heavy rains the waterfall will be roaring.

A trail leading down from the dam will cross the creek on round step stones, leading to the 3.5-mile Otter Creek Trail between the campground and the James River Visitor Center.

Did you know? Swimming is not allowed in any of the water sources on the Blue Ridge Parkway, although rangers have told me “getting your feet wet is acceptable”. However, there are places where you are allowed to canoe or kayak on the water.

4. James River Visitor Center at Milepost 63.7

At just 650 feet above sea level the bridge crossing the James River is the lowest point on the entire Blue Ridge Parkway. The James River Visitor Center is a great place to get some information, use the restrooms, or go for a short hike.

There are three trails to hike at the James River Visitor Center. The Trail of Trees Trail is an easy 0.4-mile loop trail from the visitor center. The 0.4-mile Canal Lock Trail includes a rather cool walk along a pedestrian path beneath the highway bridge over the James River. On the other side of the river the trail leads to the restored Battery Creek Lock.

5. Thunder Ridge Overlook at Milepost 74.7

The Thunder Ridge Overlook is one of those hidden overlooks I tend to love on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The entrance to the overlook can sneak up on you so be on the lookout. Once parked you’ll have to walk along a primitive path for a few minutes to reach the overlook. It’s a breathtaking view overlooking the valley below. It’s secluded and feels like a world away from everything else. And if you happen to hear voices don’t worry; you’re probably just hearing people on the Appalachian Trail just below the overlook.

6. Apple Orchard Mountain Overlook at Milepost 76.5

At 3,950 feet above sea level the Apple Orchard Mountain Overlook is the highest point on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia. This is ironic considering that just lowest point on the Parkway is just 13 miles north at the James River Visitor Center. Admittedly there isn’t much to do at the Apple Orchard Mountain Overlook other than read the info on a large board and admire the view across the landscape.

The summit of Apple Orchard Mountain is the property of a US Navy radar station, although it is possible to hike there via the Appalachian Trail. You can park at the Sunset Field Overlook at Milepost 78.4 to access the Appalachian Trail for the hike.

7. Peaks of Otter at Milepost 86

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There is so much to do at the Peaks of Otter it’s no wonder it is one of the most popular Blue Ridge Parkway destinations in Virginia. The Peaks of Otter Lodge is a wonderful place to spend a night or two. The lodge is located on the edge of Abbott Lake and features a grand view of Sharp Top Mountain. The lodge includes 63 rooms all with a view of the lake. This would be a great place to spend the night but you will most likely to make reservations in advance because of the popularity.

The Lake View Restaurant is a popular dining destination for locals and guests alike. The full-service restaurant features delicious meals throughout the day with stunning views of the lake and mountain.

The Peaks of Otter Campground is located on the opposite side of the lake from the lodge. The campground has 141 sites with 53 of them designed for RVs and campers.

A large picnic area nearby also gives you place to enjoy a quick meal.

There are several trails to enjoy at the Peaks of Otter. The easiest is the 1-mile Abbott Lake Loop Trail that provides amazing views around the lake. The 1.8-mile Johnson Farm Loop Trail takes visitors to the historic Johnson Farm to see what life on a farm was like in the late 1800’s. The 3.3-mile Harkening Hill Trail is a moderately strenuous hike across a ridge to a beautiful viewing area at Balance Rock. The 1.5-mile Sharp Top Trail is a strenuous route that challenges even the best of hikers as it ascends the side of Sharp Top Mountain to a stunning 360-degree overlook at the summit.

Adventurous hikers can also tackle the 4.4-mile Flat Top Trail as it winds through a beautiful area back to the Fallingwater Cascades Parking Area.

Just a quarter mile down the Parkway from the lodge is the Peaks of Otter Visitor Center. This small building has lots of information about destinations on the Parkway and restrooms for those needing a quick pit stop. The gift shop sells books, clothing, and souvenirs.

8. Roanoke River Parking Area at Milepost 114.9

The funny thing about the Roanoke River “Overlook” is that you can’t actually see much from the designated “Pedestrian Overlook”. It’s a moderate 30-minute roundtrip hike along the 0.5-mile trail along the edge of the river that leads to a lackluster view.

The better view is actually from the bridge crossing the Roanoke River. There is a pedestrian path on either side of the bridge although I will admit it’s narrow and a little bit frightening if a large 30’ RV passes you while walking across (this comes from personal, harrowing experience). But if you want the best view of the river walk along the east side of the bridge (across the Parkway from the parking lot) to see a pretty good view.

9. Virginia’s Explore Park at Milepost 115

Although not owned or operated by the National Park Service, Virginia’s Explore Park is a pretty amazing destination I visit every time I’m on this section of the Parkway. Operated by the county parks department the park has been growing in recent years.

At the heart of Explore Park is an official Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center. This visitor center has a 3D map of the Parkway that I always spend a few minutes admiring like a school kid. The visitor center also has a very nice gift shop and information desk for both the Parkway and surrounding area of Roanoke.

Explore Park offers a growing list of outdoor recreation options like horseback riding, mountain biking, kayaking, and camping. One of my favorite things to do is some hiking. The 0.17-mile Journeys End Trail leads to a hidden frontier settlement with over a dozen log homes, buildings, and a grist mill.

One of the coolest additions to the park in the last couple of years has been the pod cabins, yurts, and glamping tents. Along with primitive tent sites and RV sites there are plenty of ways to spend a night at Explore Park.

More Information

Virginia’s Explore Park

10. Roanoke Mountain Road at Milepost 120.3

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The 3.7-mile Roanoke Mountain Road is one of my favorite hidden destinations on the Blue Ridge Parkway with two stunning scenic overlooks. But before you plan to visit I will caution you: travel trailers and RVs are not allowed because of the narrow, winding one-way road. You might also want to check your brakes before hitting the road.

The first place to stop on this road is the Mill Mountain Overlook. With a view toward Mill Mountain you can’t see the city of Roanoke, and that’s part of the beauty. It’s a great place to watch sunset almost year-round.

The second place to stop is the very top at the Roanoke Mountain Overlook. The parking lot loops around so you can drive through twice if you want. The lower parking area has a great view from the top of the mountain. If you want to reach the actual summit there is a short 15-minute trail to hike, but there is no view or observation deck at the summit.

11. Mill Mountain Parkway at Milepost 120.4

The 2.4-mile Mill Mountain Parkway is a spur road off the Blue Ridge Parkway that leads directly into downtown Roanoke. Along the way it passes the entrance to Mill Mountain and a couple of exciting things to do.

Drive to the end of Mill Mountain Spur Road to a small parking lot. These spots might be taken considering you are about to visit one of the most popular attractions in Roanoke. Walk along the paved path to a scenic overlook with a breathtaking view of the city and valley below. Turn around to see the iconic Mill Mountain Star. Also called the Roanoke Star, the Mill Mountain Star was built in 1949 as a season Christmas decoration on the mountain top. But the locals loved it so much the star has remained lit ever since. Today the pattern of a blue star inside a white star inside a red star is one of the most recognizable icons of the region.

Another fun way to spend some time is to visit the Mill Mountain Zoo. You can stay parked at the top or drive down a little to the Discovery Center. Either way you’ll end up walking along a concrete path to reach the zoo entrance. It’s a small zoo, but still exciting to explore.

Did you know? Knoxville, Tennessee is considered the “Red Panda Capital of the World”. Zoo Knoxville is the location of the largest red panda breeding program that provides most of the red pandas to zoos around the world, including the ones at the Mill Mountain Zoo.

12. Highway 220 at Milepost 120.5

This interchange is the easiest for accessing food, gas, and lodging off the Parkway. The road will lead back into Roanoke if you want to visit or spend the night there.

Roanoke, VA

Roanoke tourism bills itself as “Virginia’s Blue Ridge” and that’s a pretty good description. The city is located in a beautiful region of Southwest Virginia and is a hub for all kinds of opportunities.

Book a night or two at the historic Hotel Roanoke. The Tudor-style hotel was built in 1882 when the city was first developing as a rail road hub. Today the hotel over three hundred rooms, a day spa, on-site restaurant, and just about any convenience you could hope for in a hotel. Located at the edge of downtown the hotel is within walking distance to some pretty awesome destinations in Roanoke.

Just across the street is the O. Winston Link Museum. This museum offers a fascinating exploration through the lens of photographer Link who spent a career photographing anything to do with railroads. The Market Street Walkway takes visitors across the railroad tracks into the heart of downtown. A few blocks down is the Virginia Museum of Transportation with a vast collection of cars and trains associated with Virginia history.

Almost next door is Beamer’s 25, a local restaurant owned by former Virginia Tech football head coach Frank Beamer. Grab a drink at Big Lick Brewing Company before heading back to the hotel.

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