If indeed you've got to shop and count the roses along the way, the Peaks of Otter were blooms that begged review. But time was short, the way was long and an enticing fishing trip 40 miles south beckoned.
We'll return to the peaks before long. They're a delicacy to be savored slowly, from the sweet confines of a canvas tent with a pair of sturdy hiking boots and a graphite fly rod at hand.
The Peaks of Otter line in the heart of Virginia's Blue Ridge, 29 miles east of Roanoke. It's a long way from nowhere, and that's part of the magic.
The National Park Service claims that the campgrounds are almost never filled. That in itself is a miracle to those of us who've suffered through packed weekends at Big Meadows, a hundred miles north.
There are 86 tent sites and 62 trailer sites at the base of imposing Sharptop Mountain. According to NPS, the only time you'll have trouble finding a vacancy is over the Fourth of July weekend. Otherwise there's always a spot, even on weekends. There are no reservations. Just show up.
This is high country, where a prerequsite to camping is the ear-popping ride up the ridge from nearby Interstate 81. Once arrived there are two things to do - fish and walk. The hike up Sharptop is 1.6 miles, most of it straight up. At the rock peak there are a shelter and an overlook and that's it. The other attraction is at the bottom, where a 24-acre man-made lake boasts native rainbow and brown trout said to grwo up to nine pounds.
While spring has come and nearly gone in steamy Washington, there's only a glimmer of green at the Peaks; dogwoods barely flowering, oaks mostly barren, pungent redbuds yet to bloom. The creeks are high with spring runoff and the birds chatter endlessly. A hike around the lake startles big frogs, tadpoles, turtles, snakes. The air is cool and clear, the breeze never ends. With a pair of sunglasses you can short-circuit the glare and spot small brown trout dimpling the surface as they feed near shore on caddis flies.
Our stop last week was brief, but sufficient to taste the gentle pleasures of fishing the little lake. The rules are single-hook artificial lures only, a creel limit of two fish over nine inches long.
In an hour we hooked two or three browns and landed one tiny rainbow that had the sparkling markings of a native, which is a treasure to a trout fisherman worn out with pale and stupid stocked fish.
One fishes from shore. No boats are permitted, nor is wading or swimming. We found the best spot right in front of one of the two lodges that look out over the lake. Folks dining in the lodge watched us work our flies 50 feet away. The sun was shining as we scanned the calm water, Sharptop loomed high and craggy directly in front.
Ah! how we wished for more time. GETTING THERE
Peaks of Otter is on the Blue Ridge Parkway at Mile 86. Quickest route from Washington is west by whatever road you favor to Interstate 81, then south to Buchanan and southeast on Route 43 to the parkway. At best it's a five-hour drive, but that's the price you pay for solitude.
While NPS takes no reservations for camping, it insists there's no need for them. If the grounds do get full there are two other little-used NPS facilities nearby: one 20 miles away on Roanoke Mountain. The fee is $3 a night.
For those less adventurous, the Peaks of Otter Lodge has rooms for two overlooking the lake for $29.50 a night. Prices higher for more people; a single room is $20. Call 703/586-1081 for details. For information on the campgrounds write Blue Ridge Parkway, Rt. 2, Box 163, Va. 24523.