Shenandoah Mountain to Sapsuckers, a Day Through Maple Syrup Country
The sun was just beginning to peek over the horizon Saturday morning when we left our house in western Augusta County on the annual trek to Highland County’s Maple Festival. The air was cold, and we had experienced a wintry mix of rain, sleet, and snow the previous night. Our destination had snow on the ground before more fell on Friday so we were hopeful there would be plenty of photo ops since the last time I had photographed the festival in snow was 2013. Road trip!
I clicked a photo of the sunrise from the road, and then we turned west onto Route 250, pointed toward the Appalachians. By the time we reached Deerfield in far western Augusta County, snow covered the ground, and from that point on we were in snow until we returned home. The temperature was hovering just above freezing, and we still had to cross four mountains before reaching Monterey. Driving up Shenandoah Mountain, fog set in, snow was deeper on the sides of the road, and snow plows passed going in the other direction. Mr. Mitchell, who had worked for VDOT while in high school, gave a wave to the drivers we passed. Thanks to them, we were about to make this trek on clear roads. The top of Shenandoah Mountain was socked in with fog and the historical overlook was empty — no view to be seen in pea-soup fog.
At the bottom of Shenandoah Mountain we passed through the sleepy berg of Headwaters. The little general store, a popular stop for many over the years, is closed and for sale. Fog lifted for a bit at the lower elevation …
… and then we crossed the second mountain, in fog, and dropped down into McDowell, an historic little crossroads that presents the first place (coming from the east) to find a pancake breakfast and crafts and maple products, and the fried pies on the sign in the photo. The famous Civil War Battle of McDowell took place on the hill overlooking the town, a place where history still lingers in the woods and across the battlefield. Read about the battle and how Shenandoah Mountain and Staunton played into it.
Two more mountains and then we were in Monterey, and it was only 8:00. The quiet street showed how early we were — perfect! Vendors were shoveling the sidewalk in front of their stands while others unloaded trucks to set up for the day.
Our usual parking lot was practically empty and covered in snow when we arrived. There was no line for the famous Mill Gap Ruritans maple donuts, something that would take 45 minutes to an hour if waiting later in the day. No wait, but the donuts were not hot off the press like the ones that are fresh and warm and melt in your mouth.
The non-existent donut line early Saturday morning. We picked up our syrup as well. I had emailed ahead of time to be sure the folks from Back Creek were going to be in Court Square so we could buy our usual case of maple syrup for friends and family all over the Commonwealth.
Next stop: Duff’s Sugar House south of Monterey. We turned on Rt. 220 for the short drive to Rt. 84 and drove alongside this mountain stream to Tim and Terri Duff’s “Fair Lawn Farm” where they process sugar water the old fashioned way with authentic, antique sugaring equipment. It is an experience to listen to Tim explain the process while the steam rises and escapes out the roof vent.
This year Fair Lawn Farm had a new covered outdoor area at the door to the sugaring house, and a new parking area that gets visitors off busy Rt. 84. There’s Clancey, the big white farm dog, greeting visitors. Check out their Facebook page.
Fair Lawn Farm
Heading west, we went to Hightown and the Blue Grass Valley where Rexrode’s and Puffenbarger’s sugaring houses were located, then up the mountain out to Laurel Fork Sapsuckers, the newest of the camps that opened about five years ago, located almost on the West Virginia state line.
I love seeing the sheep of Highland County so forgive me for the sheep photos.
I would have liked to sit and have a conversation with this guy. He watched as I took photos, occasionally chewing but never moving from his stand. The other two were all laid back … everyone was on Sunday afternoon mode.
Sapsuckers! Highest sugar camp in Highland County, they had 10 inches of snow earlier in the week. Their road to the camp often requires four-wheel drive, and they had the tractor and wagon in the parking lot on Rt. 250 for rider to park and ride. Open seven years, this is the newest of the sugar camps in Highland. It is a fun place for the kids … a trail through the woods to the sugaring house, food at the lunch counter plus maple products. Check out their Facebook page. This was my blog post when Mr. Mitchell and I visited them in 2014.
The turn-in to the parking lot at Sapsuckers was cleared but dicey a little farther up. From a previous visit to this unique place: “Okay, these guys get the prize for best view … and that’s saying a lot in Highland County where it’s impossible to find a bad view. Located on top of Alleghany Mountain that straddles the Virginia-West Virginia line ten miles west of Monterey, Laurel Fork Sapsuckers has the highest elevation of the seven sugar camps. How high? Try 4,400 feet. The breath-takingly spectacular scenery alone is worth the drive. They are also the newest camp. The land has been in the family for four generations but the camp has been operating only since 2010 and features eighteen acres of sugar maples. This was our first visit but it won’t be our last.” Read the entire post here.
Back Creek Road was snow-covered as we passed on Rt. 250 which was the reason we didn’t take that way, a usual route, from Duff’s Sugar House to Hightown. It is a higher elevation and shady which makes the snow stick around.
This wetlands area between Hightown and Sapsuckers was frozen over, a winter wonderland that is in its waning days of winter 2016-17.
This is my usual spot overlooking Hightown where I have taken many autumn pics, a perfect perch to capture the flaming reds, oranges, and yellows of the trees below.
Dugspur Road, Hightown
As we approached Monterey from the west around 11:00, thick fog had settled over the town.
Monterey was bustling — the courthouse lawn was full of vendors and lookers, and the sidewalks on the main street were busy. As we left town to drive back to Staunton, vehicles were steadily coming down the mountain to check out the festival. It was a beautiful drive and we were back home by noon with our maple donuts, maple syrup, and a camera full of memories. Highland Maple Festival 2017 is now stored in the book of journeys.
Photos by Lynn R. Mitchell
Highland Maple Festival
March 18, 2017