Mountains, Sheep, Maple Syrup … 2019 Highland Maple Festival

That’s my child bonding with a sheep.

It is known as Virginia’s Switzerland, this rural mountainous location for gathering maple syrup, and it is right here in our back yard. Just 45 miles west of Staunton, picturesque Highland County hosts its 61st annual Maple Festival during the weekends of March 9-10 and March 16-17, 2019.

Make plans to meander back roads, stuff yourself on pancakes drenched with locally-harvested maple syrup, or fill up on mouth-watering maple chicken. Be entertained by local cloggers and bluegrass bands while enjoying the wildly popular fresh maple donuts made by local Ruritans. Stroll the main street of Monterey, population 150, to check out the many vendors peddling crafts, art work, maple products, and Kettle Korn. Take in the beauty of this rural setting populated with sheep and cattle. Relax. Slow down. Breathe the cold, fresh, mountain air.

The Maple Festival is known as one of the premier events of the South as this tiny county of 2,500 tucked away in the western-most part of Virginia plays host to more than 40,000 visitors during the festival. Driving scenic back roads to visit a variety of sugar camps, they will discover how maple sap is gathered from the numerous sugar maple trees and processed into syrup. It is 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 sugaring. Be sure to carry a coat and gloves because it is still winter in the mountains.

 

Tim Duff’s “Fair Lawn Farm” on the snowy first weekend of 2013’s festival.

Maple sugar camps welcome visitors who are invited to observe as workers boil down sugar water collected from hundreds of sugar maple trees into various grades of syrup. Some use the old way of tapping trees and hanging metal buckets to collect the oozing sap while others have updated to the use of rubber tubing running from trees to collection points. Folks working the fires and evaporation process are happy to answer questions and explain what they are doing.

Although there are a number of sugar camps in Highland, a popular one is 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 slopes of Jack Mountain, this family-owned operation has been in business for 200 years. The family members who run it still gather sugar water the old-fashioned way, by tapping trees and attaching buckets, while also using updated methods.

Inside the rustic buildings are evaporating units which are wood-fired to boil down sap. Fifty gallons of sap are needed for every gallon of syrup. There is also a sales area for purchasing maple products as well as local crafts. Outside there is a snack area that sells lunch items and maple donuts. Picnic tables are located among the trees along the mountain stream, offering an opportunity to enjoy not only freshly-bought goodies but the surrounding mountain scenery.

 

Tim and Terri Duff’s Fair Lawn Farm.

Another favorite is Tim Duff at Duff’s Sugar House at Fair Lawn Farm south of Monterey. Duff, a 20-year U.S. Coast Guard veteran and former Highland County sheriff, and his wife Terri are happy to explain the old ways of maple sugaring that they keep alive complete with authentic equipment and acres of land covered in sugar maples. Tim, an outgoing friendly man, smiles and enthusiastically welcomes visitors into the sugaring shed where he encourages hands-on participation and seems to enjoy the curiosity of visitors who are genuinely interested in what he is doing. Their blog post, “Renovations & Maple Syrup,” explains the pavilion addition to the sugaring building, and they now have a Facebook page. No trip to Highland is complete without stopping by to see Tim and Terri Duff.

Almost heaven … Duff’s pure maple syrup.

Some wonder why Tim Duff works so hard when others are using newer, faster methods. He smiles and responds that syrup made the old way tastes better and is purer. Because he cannot make the quantities of those using more sophisticated methods, his syrup and maple products are in demand and sell out quickly each day of the festival. On previous visits when we stopped by he had just sold his last pint but had samples available to showcase the excellent taste. In 2011, however, we arrived early enough to buy some of the best pure maple syrup you will ever pour on a pancake.

While maple syrup is the main draw, other events are offered throughout the festival including Civil War re-enactors camped at the McDowell museum to provide living history with a peek at army camp life and demonstrations about baking and camping.

Monterey’s Main Street is lined with vendors during the Maple Festival.

Hungry visitors will find trout, maple chicken, and ham dinners as well as pancakes, maple donuts, maple popcorn, maple ice cream, funnel cakes, chili, lamb kebobs, hamburgers, hotdogs, and much more located at venues set up throughout the area. Restaurants bustle with customers looking for a place to get out of the cold while grabbing a bite to eat.

Staying in Highland helps avoid having to navigate traffic backups on the narrow mountain roads. The Victorian Highland Inn, located in downtown Monterey, was built in 1904 and still opens its doors to overnight visitors as well as those who want to enjoy a meal in its dining room. [Update: The Inn is closed for the 2019 festival due to renovations that are taking place.] Rooms always book fast in Highland but overflow can be found in nearby Staunton.

Held every year on the second and third weekends in March, it is easy to find your way around the festival, and people are eager to help if you get lost. The Highland Chamber of Commerce has lots of helpful information, and maps of the area are readily available by downloading or at locations in Highland.

For a fun weekend, be sure to wear your warm clothes and walking shoes/boots because it can be muddy, and you will find that a trip to the Highland Maple Festival will be an experience you will never forget.

 

The 1904 Highland Inn located in Monterey.
Mill Gap Ruritans sell maple doughnuts by the dozens.

 

 

 

Getting there is easy: Take I-81 to Staunton Exit 225 (Holiday Inn). Turn south onto Rt. 262 (bypass) and follow to Rt. 250. Exit onto Rt. 250 and turn right (west) toward Monterey. The drive will take you through Churchville, Deerfield, over Shenandoah Mountain (stretch your legs at the Confederate Breastworks at the overlook on top), and into Highland County. Continue on Rt. 250 to Monterey. Watch for directional signs along the way to various sugar camps.

Photos by Lynn R. Mitchell

Cover photo: Tim Duff at Duff’s Sugar House at Fair Lawn Farm

Back roads, sheep farms, mountain vistas of Highland County

Shenandoah Mountain to Sapsuckers, a Photo Trip Through Maple Syrup Country 2017: Snowy Highland County Maple Festival

Links to 2014 Highland Maple Festival photos:
Photos #1: Duff’s Sugar House at Fairlawn Farm
Photos #2: Laurel Fork Sapsuckers at the roof of Highland County
Photos #3: Lunch at Evelyn’s Pantry in Monterey
Photos #4: Back Creek Farms pure maple syrup
Photos #5: Late winter Highland County landscapes

Links to previous Highland Maple Festival photos:
Snowy Maple Festival 2013: Duff’s Sugar House
The back roads
More back roads
Doors and windows of Monterey
Back Creek Farms maple syrup
Duff’s Sugar House at Fair Lawn Farm
Walk of Honor to thank U.S. veterans
Arts and crafts
Church
Farm for sale
Lambing season
Highland Inn
Maple donuts by Mill Gap Ruritans
Monterey
McDowell
Driving over Shenandoah Mountain
Duff’s Sugar House … pure maple syrup
Confederate breastworks at Shenandoah Mountain
Historic Buckhorn Inn … Augusta County