Otter Creek

Sign, Otter Creek, August 1973


The Otter Creek Campground is located at Parkway milepost 60.8, near the James River in Amherst County, Virginia and is one of many features along the Blue Ridge Parkway.   Despite the beautiful landscape that surrounds the feature, Otter Creek’s rich history largely goes unnoticed by visitors. Otter Creek’s long history began as a plan for an extravagant water feature to be included along the Blue Ridge Parkway; however, factors such as war, cost and realistic approach to development led to scaling back of plans to the Otter Creek campground.

Otter Creek As Built, Drawing No. PKY-B-OC-2058, July 1960


Today a small number amenities outline Otter Creek, which include several trails, a restaurant and gift shop, and campground.  The restaurant and gift shop closed in 2011, and the campground closed for the 2013 season due to the federal government budget cutbacks under sequestration.  The amenities today are only a shadow of what the National Park Service (NPS) originally planned for the feature.

The early conception of a feature like Otter Creek began as an idea in 1934 for a program of developed accommodations for visitors traveling along the Blue Ridge Parkway.[1]  During the early period of the Blue Ridge Parkway, planners and architects visualized a number of amenities for visitors to enjoy such as foot trails, campgrounds and water features.

In 1939, Stanley Abbott, the Resident Landscape Architect and first superintendent of the Blue Ridge Parkway, proposed a distinctive water feature for African Americans.[2] Water features along the Parkway aimed to emphasize existing rivers, lakes and streams.  In addition, the Park Service created their own water features, such as lakes, by building dams.  Abbott believed that the Blue Ridge Parkway did not have enough water features.

In 1941, Abbott proposed a water feature at Licklog Gap, Virginia.[3]  The NPS later abandoned the proposed site at Licklog Gap, however, after opposition over watershed protection.

Area at Otter Creek crossing showing pool

During the search for another location for the water feature, Abbott surveyed Otter Creek just 13 miles south of Licklog Gap. Abbott discussed moving the water feature to Otter Creek in a memorandum: “Possibilities for an elongated water feature in this area [Otter Creek] were studied carefully during the year.”  Abbott noted that Otter Creek’s “sizeable clear running stream which is cliffsided in any stretches will insure a character in this development distinctive from others on the parkway.” [4] One key feature Abbott desired for the campground was the construction of a dam to make a small lake.

In 1942, Abbott proposed a significant change to the initial plan for an African American water feature by proposing a segregated water feature upon discovering that there would be a “sizable location for whites as well.”[5]

World War II and the Korean War 

The United States’s entry into World War II in 1941 proved detrimental to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Entry into World War II moved necessary funds and resources from the Blue Ridge Parkway into the war effort.  The Parkway’s key architect, Abbott, went into the war in 1943, and Blue Ridge Parkway progress came to a halt.  By this time only two-thirds of the parkway was developed.  It would not be until 1944 when progress on the Blue Ridge Parkway would continue.

By 1944, primary plans for Otter Creek for Otter Creek included a lake with a picnic area, swimming beach, and bathhouse.  Just north of the lake, the Parkway planned for two picnic grounds, a coffee shop, and a 70-car parking area.

Later that year, Ralph W. Emerson, regional landscape architect, questioned the practicality of the plans saying, “the indicated provision of bathing facilities…for this area is questioned as being impractical and possibly undesirable.”[6] Emerson’s criticism had a harsh impact on Otter Creek where much of the development was scaled back soon afterward.

Sam Weems, the second Blue Ridge Parkway superintendent, informed the Park Service Regional Director of the reasoning for choosing Otter Creek on October 5, 1945.[7]  Weems described Otter Creek as the most desirable of the many options considered, as it would be the most cost effective and avoid unwanted bureaucracy.

Otter Creek, June 1, 1960

The outbreak of the Korean War in the early 1950s prevented progress on much of the Blue Ridge Parkway and for Otter Creek.  It would not be until after the war when progress would begin again.

During the Korean War, in 1952, Superintendent Weems and Assistant Regional Manager Edward Zimmer discussed potential features to include at Otter Creek.[8]  Weems listed these features in a memorandum to Zimmer in which he emphasized accommodations for a large number of visitors.  Weems listed as a noteworthy item a manmade lake that would be a key tourist attraction for the site.

Mission 66 and the Revival of Otter Creek

After World War II, years of inadequate funding and resources left many sites and resources in National Park Service neglected.

Mission 66 Sign, August 22, 1958

In preparation for its 50-year anniversary, however, the Park Service in 1956 acquired funds for a decade long internal improvement program called Mission 66.  The allocation of $32 million exclusively for the road development of the Blue Ridge Parkway largely finished the main features and attempted expanding the Parkway to Georgia.  Mission 66 expanded beyond road development when Congress appropriated approximately $4 million to the Parkway to develop more lodging, restaurants and other visitor accommodations.[9]  The funds appropriation for recreation development included Otter Creek, and the future of the site seemed to be hopeful.

Recreational development on the Parkway was in full swing in 1957 when NPS issued a prospectus for bids to companies to provide accommodations and services North of Roanoke, Virginia, including Otter Creek.[10]  A year later, 1958, NPS chose the Virginia Peaks of Otter Company to manage accommodations at Otter Creek.  The particular amenity the company was charged with was creation of a motor service station and lunchrooms.

[BLRI_601_2056AZ11_[161962] Otter Creek Campground Blueprints]

Drawing of prototypical Blue Ridge Parkway gas station

Two years later, in 1960, the Otter Creek gas station officially opened with several new amenities open along the Blue Ridge Parkway.[11]  The gas station was one of the few amenities from the original Otter Creek plan to be developed.

With several sites not receiving the amount of attention they originally attended, the Blue Ridge Parkway over the years made a series of concessions.  Many facilities along the Parkway deemed non-essential were later closed, including, in 1984, the Otter Creek gas station. [12]


The Parkway along Otter Creek, June 1, 1960

Since 1984, Otter Creek seems like a shadow of the initial plan devised by Stanley Abbott.  Although it never embodied the original idea of a large water feature for tourists, Otter Creek has maintained the emphasis on water features.  Otter Creek has several bridges that highlight the rivers and streams, as well as a small man-made lake in the area and along trails; however, many of the original ideas were lost.  Shelved twice due to World War II and the Korean War due to inadequate funding, Otter Creek has endured with a rich history that continues to go unnoticed.

[1] Richard Quin, “Blue Ridge Parkway HAER Report No. NC-42,” Historic American Engineering Record, National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 1997.

[2] Stanley Abbott, “Progress Report: Development of Recreational Areas on the Blue Ridge Parkway,” United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service, April 24, 1939, Blue Ridge Parkway Archives, Asheville, NC.

[3] Stanley Abbott, “Progress Report: Development of Recreational Areas on the Blue Ridge Parkway,” United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service. July 2, 1942, Blue Ridge Parkway Archives, Asheville, NC.

[4] Stanley Abbott, Annual Report of the Blue Ridge Parkway, Va. to the Director National Park Service, July 1942, Blue Ridge Parkway Archives, Asheville, NC.

[5] Quin, “Blue Ridge Parkway HAER Report No. NC-42.”

[6] Ralph W. Emerson, Memorandum for the Superintendent, United States Department of the Interior National Park Service, Region One, Richmond, VA, 1944, Blue Ridge Parkway Archives, Asheville, NC.

[7] Sam P. Weems, Memorandum to Regional Director, 1945, Blue Ridge Parkway Archives, Asheville, NC.

[8] Sam P. Weems and Edward T. Zimmer, Memorandum – Master Plan – Otter Creek – Blue Ridge Parkway,” April 1952, Blue Ridge Parkway Archives, Asheville, NC.

[9] Anne Mitchell Whisnant, Super-Scenic Motorway: A Blue Ridge Parkway History (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2006).

[10] Quin, “Blue Ridge Parkway HAER Report No. NC-42.”

[11] Quin, “Blue Ridge Parkway HAER Report No. NC-42.”

[12] Quin, “Blue Ridge Parkway HAER Report No. NC-42.”