“Andrew’s Hike” – The Cascades Trail and Flat Top at Peaks of Otter

I headed out this past Sunday with my chocolate lab, Griz to take on the Cascades and Flat Top Trails at Peaks of Otter. “The Greatest Day Hiker of Them All”, Kurt Rheinheimer encouraged me to check out the Cascades Trail in addition to Flat Top. The Cascades trail is located directly across the Blue Ridge Parkway from the Flat Top Parking lot, so is easy to add to the trip.

I should have known the statement “since Flat Top is only 5 or so miles, you can do the short Cascades Trail too”, would come with a price – something like 2,200 feet in total elevation gain. Thanks, Kurt…

We started downhill for the Cascades Trail even though I read a sign that said “Caution Lower Bridge is washed out!” My head was in the clouds, left over stress from the week before barely allowed the warning to register.

Sure enough the bridge was out and intimidating to cross but the water was low and there was an obvious path going across the creek and up the embankment. Immediately after the crossing, the  trail begins to climb a series of rock steps and inclines. We did the barely 2 mile trail in 40 minutes. I was hot, mad at Griz for pulling me, and seriously doubting my endurance for another 5-6 miles hike with a 1,900 foot elevation gain. I didn’t care what kind of view laid ahead of me, I was tired, hungry, and in a generally bad mood.


View of the wash-out after crossing, Griz stopped for a cool drink.

After a quick stop at the Flat Top parking lot for a snack we began the gradual climb up the mountain side to the 4,001 foot peak, Flat Top. I was still grumbling at Griz, though stopped to admire hundreds of Dutchman’s Britches and less frequent, white trilliums.

Dutchman’s Britches


A perfect white trillium

As the trail continued to get steeper and rockier, I think Griz sped up. When luckily at mile 1, a bench appeared! Hallelujah! I’ve never wanted to stop, sit and debate about turning around so much!

Then reality hit. My 30-year old cousin, Andrew, had a massive aneurysm rupture 4 days earlier and was laying in a hospital bed at Northwestern, slowly recovering from a 20-hour brain surgery. Who was I to be doubting my ability to walk and to be crabbing about hiking, an activity I normally adore? From that moment on my struggle with the hike became known to me as: “Andrew’s Hike”. This wasn’t for me or my weak mentality but for Andrew who was and still is fighting a battle. He couldn’t be out here, I was, so if I couldn’t do it for me, it would be for him.

From that point on, the extremely uneven, rocky trail was less a battle of mentality and just a gosh-I-am-lucky kind of hike. Griz and I continued our break-neck speed stopping at each of the three benches that seemed to mark each mile (based on my gps) and finally made it to the top in 1 hour, 8 minutes.

Flat Top Summit Sign


Griz waiting for me to unpack lunch and share some water.

We sunned ourselves on the boulders, shared a lunch of Tuna, crackers, water, and yogurt, and enjoyed the view for a half an hour. During that time I said several prayers and relaxed. It’s easy to get caught up in life and forget the things we love, even when we are doing them. It was good lesson for me and the down hill slide was much less taxing. The rock formations are incredible to gaze at and the wildflowers are a nice reminder that spring is here to stay.


One of the many views from my warm rock.

Notes for the trails:
Both are very rocky, high hiking boots are my recommendation.
Layers are a must, it’s windy and cool at the top.
Bring a Wildflower book if you like, there are lots I need to identify
Benches approximately placed on each mile, 3 total on the Flat Top Trail
Water available at the Peaks of Otter Welcome Center, fill up for animals there prior to hike.
If the Cascade creek is rushing do not attempt to cross the lower wash-out, use the upper route and go out and back.

Link for more information and directions:


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