Most visitors zip past the James River/Otter Creek area of The Blue Ridge Parkway in their cars headed to the higher elevations of the Peaks of Otter or Humpback Rocks. This is one of the few areas of the park that you will find straighter and flatter stretches of road that prompt people to speed by attempting to make time traveling north or south. The road here follows Otter Creek, one of the longest water courses within the park boundary and through the lowest elevations (649 feet) along the entire Blue Ridge Parkway. If a visitor would take the time to stop and get out of their vehicle, they would be rewarded by the nature and history that abounds between mile posts 60 to 64.
There are the obvious facilities in this section; the Otter Creek Campground with its new entrance bridge and Kiosk, the concession operated Otter Creek Restaurant, and the James River Visitor Center. But there is so much more.
The inquisitive visitor will discover the Otter Creek Trail. This 3.5 mile trail meanders along the creek and Parkway motor road from the campground to the visitor center. The trail is easy to walk and crosses the creek numerous times on stepping stones and pedestrian bridges. Sharp rock bluffs, mountain laurel, redbud, and bird life are abundant. At State Route 130 the trail travels through an underpass of the road. If you are observant you will see what appears to be a ditch that follows the edge of the trail. This is the remains of what was once a large mill operation that was obliterated when the present bridge for 130 was built.
The trail forks and makes a loop around Otter Lake. At the north end of the loop you will find the skeletal chimney and foundation of what was once the Nathaniel Sledd Cabin. This site is believed to have been the home of the first European settler in Amherst County, Virginia in the early 1700s. He was drawn to this location to trade with Native Americans for beaver pelts. Otter Creek was a heavily used travel route from the mountains above to the James River and above the threat of flood. Otter Lake did not exist at that time being built when the Blue Ridge Parkway came through in the late 1950s. Beaver still live in Otter Creek today. Hikers can see their handiwork in dams and the stumps and bases of trees that they have felled for food and construction materials. Trees around the trail have wire mesh around their base to protect them from the industrious rodents.
Beyond the James River Visitor Center you will find a remnant of our Country’s transportation history. On the opposite bank of the James River is a fully restored canal lock from the Kanawha Canal System that served as the main commercial transportation from the Shenandoah Valley to Richmond, Virginia before the Civil War. Looking up river you will be looking into the James River Water Gap, a geological feature left from a millennium of the river cutting its way through the Blue Ridge Mountains. This makes the James one of only two rivers that flow from west of the Blue Ridge toward the Atlantic Ocean.
So the next time you are driving through this area stop and get out of your vehicle and see what wonders await you.