Highland County, known as Virginia’s Little Switzerland for its rugged mountains and valleys, is a 45-minute drive west of Staunton, Virginia through the scenic Allegheny Mountains of George National Park. Washington. Steeped in history, this rural and scenic region that collides with West Virginia is one of the southernmost places for maple syrup production.
As they have done since 1959, with the exception of 2020-21 due to the global covid pandemic, Highland County will hold its annual Maple Festival over the weekends of March 12-13 and March 19-19. March 20, 2022.
You’ll want to stroll the back roads, binge on pancakes soaked in locally harvested maple syrup, or fill up on maple chicken or maple candies. Be entertained by local cloggers and bluegrass bands while sampling the wildly popular fresh maple donuts made by local Ruritans. Stroll along Main Street in Monterey, home to 150 people, to check out the many vendors selling crafts, artwork, maple products and Kettle Korn. Admire the beauty of this rural setting populated by sheep and cattle. Relax. To slow down. Breathe in the cold, fresh mountain air.
The stars of the show will be the ten sugar camps scattered throughout the county. Each offers their own unique take on syrup qualities and flavors, collection techniques and the boiling process:
–Back Creek Farms: 7781 Upper Back Creek Rd, Monterey
–Duff’s Sugar House: 3118 Mill Gap Rd, Monterey
–Eagle’s Sugar Camp: 5503 Jack Mountain Rd, Doe Hill
– Laurel Fork Sapsuckers: 10677 Mountain Turnpike, Hightown
–Mill Gap Farms: 2760 Mill Gap Rd, Monterey (next to Duff’s Sugar Camp)
–Puffenbargers Sugar Orchard: 17 Ln of maple syrup, blue grass
– Rexrode Sugar Orchard: 1564 Maple Sugar Rd, Monterey
–Southernmost Maple Products: 7738 Big Valley Road, Bolar
–Sugar Tree Country Store and Sugar Shack: 185 Mansion House Rd, McDowell
–Tonoloway Farm: 9943 Highland Turnpike, McDowell
The Maple Festival is known as one of the premier events in the South, as this small county of 2,500 people nestled in the westernmost part of Virginia welcomes over 40,000 visitors during the festival. Driving along scenic drives to visit a variety of sugar camps, visitors will experience how maple sap is collected from the many sugar maple trees and turned into syrup. It’s also lambing season in this rural paradise where sheep outnumber people.
Highland County’s high elevations and abundance of sugar maple trees, along with the cold nights and warm days of March, create the perfect combination for maple syrup production. Be sure to wear a coat and gloves as it is still winter in the mountains.
Maple camps welcome visitors who are invited to watch as workers boil the sugar water collected from hundreds of sugar maple trees into varying grades of syrup. Some use the old method of tapping trees and hanging metal buckets to collect the seeping sap while others have updated the use of rubber tubes connecting trees to collection points. People who work with fires and the evaporation process are happy to answer questions and explain what they are doing.
Although there are a number of sugar camps in Highland, one of the earliest was Eagle’s Camp located in Doe Hill. For those who want to avoid the crowded streets of McDowell and Monterey, Eagle’s is easily accessible. Nestled in the woods on the slope of Jack Mountain, this family business has been in business for 200 years. The family members who run it are still collecting sugar water the old-fashioned way… by tapping trees and tying buckets… while using updated methods.
Inside the rustic buildings are evaporation units that are heated with wood to boil the sap. Fifty gallons of sap are needed for every gallon of syrup. There is also a sales area to buy maple products and local crafts. Outside, there’s a snack area that sells lunch items and maple donuts. Picnic tables are located among the trees along the mountain stream, providing an opportunity to enjoy not only the freshly purchased treats, but also the surrounding mountain scenery.
Fair Lawn Farm, home of Duff’s Sugar House.
Another favorite is Duffs Sugar House at Fair Lawn Farm south of Monterey. Tim Duff, a 20-year veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard and former Highland County Sheriff, is happy to explain the ancient maple sugaring methods he keeps alive with authentic equipment and acres of land covered. sugar maples. This outgoing, friendly man smiles and enthusiastically welcomes visitors to the sugar shack where he encourages hands-on participation and seems to enjoy the curiosity of visitors who are genuinely interested in what he is doing. Their latest blog post explains the addition of the pavilion to the sugar bush building, and they now have a Facebook page. No trip to Highland is complete without stopping to see Tim and Terri Duff.
Some wonder why Tim works so hard while others use newer, faster methods. He smiles and replies that old-fashioned syrup tastes better and is purer. Because he cannot make the quantities of those using more modern methods, his maple syrups and products are in demand and sell out quickly each day of the festival. On previous visits when we stopped he had just sold his last pint but had samples available to showcase the excellent taste. In 2011, however, we arrived early enough to purchase one of the finest grade A pure maple syrups you’ll ever pour on a pancake.
While the maple syrup is the main draw, other events are offered throughout the festival, including Civil War re-enactors camped out at the McDowell Museum to provide living history with a glimpse of life in a military camp and cooking and camping demonstrations.
Hungry visitors will find dinners of trout, maple chicken and ham as well as pancakes, maple beignets, maple popcorn, maple ice cream, funnel, chili, lamb skewers, burgers, hot dogs and more at vendors throughout the area. . Restaurants are teeming with customers looking for a place to shelter from the cold.
Staying in Highland avoids having to navigate traffic jams on narrow mountain roads. The Victorian Highland Inn, located in downtown Monterey, was built in 1904 and is currently undergoing renovations, but will soon reopen to overnight visitors as well as those wishing to dine in its room to eat. Rooms are always booked up quickly in Highland, but an overflow can be found in nearby Staunton.
Held on the second and third weekends of March every year, the festival is easy to navigate and people are ready to help if you get lost. The Highland Chamber of Commerce has lots of useful information and maps of the area are readily available for download or at locations in Highland.
For a fun weekend, be sure to pack your walking shoes and warm clothes, and you’ll find that a trip to the Highland Maple Festival will be an experience you’ll never forget.
Getting there is easy: Take I-81 to Staunton Exit 225 (Holiday Inn). Turn south on Rt. 262 (bypass) and follow to Rt. 250. Exit on Rt. 250 and turn right (west) toward Monterey. The ride will take you through Churchville, Deerfield, over Shenandoah Mountain (stretch your legs at the Confederate Dam at the top) and into Highland County. Follow Rt. 250 to Monterey. Watch for directional signs along the way to the various sugar camps.
Photos by Lynn R. Mitchell
Cover photo: Tim Duff at Duff’s Sugar House as my sister listens as he explains the sugar process
– Back roads, sheep farms, Highland County mountain vistas
–Shenandoah Mountain to Sapsuckers, a photo journey through maple syrup country
Links to photos from the Highland Maple Festival 2014:
– Photos #1: Duff’s sugar shack at Fairlawn Farm
– Photos #2: Laurel Fork Sapsuckers on the roof of Highland County
– Photos #3: Lunch at Evelyn’s Pantry in Monterey (Update: Evelyn’s is now closed)
– Photos #4: Back Creek Farms Pure Maple Syrup
– Photos #5: Landscapes of Highland County at the end of winter
Links to previous Highland Maple Festival photos:
– Snowy Maple Festival 2013: Duff’s sugar shack
– Small roads
– More secondary roads
– Monterey Windows and Doors
– Back Creek Farms Maple Syrup
– Duff’s sugar shack at Fair Lawn Farm
– Walk of honor to thank American veterans
– Farm for sale
– Lambing season
– Highland Inn
– Maple donuts by Mill Gap Ruritans
– Driving on Shenandoah Mountain
– Duff’s Sugar House … pure maple syrup
– Confederate Dams at Shenandoah Mountain
– Historic Buckhorn Inn… Augusta County