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Combine a walk to the farm with a trek over Harkening Hill and you have a 3.9-mile walk full of history and discovery.
The Johnson Farm/Harkening Hill loop at the Peaks of Otter at Blue Ridge Parkway milepost 85.9 is one of my “go-to” hikes. I go to it when I want a bit of exercise, but don’t want to put forth the effort involved in a major mountain trek. I go to it because it’s fairly close to home and I don’t have to invest hours to reach it. I go to it when hunting season brings the cracks of rifles to the mountains, because that activity is prohibited on parkway property. But, mostly, I go to it because I just plain enjoy what I experience each time.
Unlike the famous saying, this familiarity does not breed contempt. Rather, I find that I have a sense of excitement, and even wonder, knowing that I may see something I have overlooked, get to observe an animal going about its daily life, or learn more of the history of the area.
My last outing is a case in point. I know that the Peaks of Otter area was a thriving community and tourist area, complete with the large Hotel Mons, as early as the mid-1800s, but the person at the visitor center told me of an occurrence during the Civil War I was unfamiliar with. In June 1864, Confederate soldiers, following what is now the route of Va. 43, swung around the southwestern side of Harkening Hill, downing trees as they went in order to slow the pursuing Federal forces. The latter made it past those obstacles and advanced along a primitive road that is now the parkway—and helped themselves to the hotel’s storehouse of food.
The Johnson Farm Trail begins at the visitor center and goes by two trail intersections in .25 mile. Stay to the right as the first trail comes in from the left (this is the return portion of the Johnson Farm Trail), but bear left when coming to the second intersection. (The trail to the right goes .1 mile to the Peaks of Otter Lodge.) It was in this area that I learned yellow-bellied sapsuckers leave rows of small circular holes in tree trunks in their pursuit of insect sustenance.