Mountains, Maple Syrup, Sheep … 2024 Highland Maple Festival

That’s my child bonding with a sheep.

Highland County, known as Virginia’s Little Switzerland because of its steep mountains and broad valleys, is a short 45-minute drive west of Staunton, Virginia, through the scenic Allegheny Mountains of the George Washington National Forest. Steeped in history, this rural, picturesque area that bumps up against West Virginia is one of the most southern locations for producing maple syrup.

As they have since 1959 with the exception of 2020-21 because of the global covid pandemic, Highland County will be hosting their annual Maple Festival during the next two weekends: March 11-12 and March 18-19, 2023.

You will want to meander back roads, stuff yourself on pancakes drenched with locally harvested maple syrup or fill up on mouth-watering maple chicken and other maple treats. Be entertained by local cloggers and bluegrass bands while enjoying the wildly popular fresh maple donuts made by Mill Gap Ruritans.

Stroll the main street of Monterey, population 150, to check out the many vendors offering crafts, artwork, maple products, and Kettle Korn. Take in the beauty of this rural setting populated by sheep and cattle. Relax. Slow down. Breathe the cold, fresh, mountain air.

The stars of the show will be the ten sugar camps scattered throughout the county. Each offers its own unique take on syrup grades and flavors, collection techniques, and the boiling-down 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-door to Duff’s Sugar Camp)

Puffenbargers Sugar Orchard: 17 Maple Syrup Ln, Blue Grass

Rexrode’s Sugar Orchard: 1564 Maple Sugar Rd, Monterey

Southernmost Maple Products: 7738 Big Valley Rd, Bolar

Sugar Tree Country Store and Sugar House: 185 Mansion House Rd, McDowell

Tonoloway Farm: 9943 Highland Turnpike, McDowell


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, visitors will discover how maple sap aka sugar water 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 and Terry 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 into trees and hanging metal buckets to collect the oozing sap although fewer and fewer now use that method and, instead, tap trees for demonstration purposes. 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, 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-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-made goodies but 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 U.S. Coast Guard veteran and former Highland County sheriff, is happy to explain the old ways of maple sugaring that he keeps alive complete with authentic equipment and acres of land covered in sugar maple trees. This 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 latest blog post 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 Terry Duff.

Almost heaven … Duff’s pure maple syrup.

Some wonder why Tim 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 updated 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 Grade A maple syrup you will ever pour on a pancake.

While maple syrup is the main draw, other events are offered throughout the festival.

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 vendors set up throughout the area. Restaurants bustle with customers looking for a place to get out of the cold.

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 is currently under renovation but will soon reopen its doors to overnight visitors as well as those who want to enjoy a meal in its dining room. 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 walking shoes and warm clothes, and you will find that a trip to the Highland Maple Festival will be an experience you will never forget.

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. Follow 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 explains the sugaring process as my sister listens

Shenandoah Mountain to Sapsuckers, a Photo Trip Through Maple Syrup Country
Photos from First Day of 2019 Highland Maple Festival
Highland’s Laurel Fork Sapsuckers On Top of the World
Back Creek Farms pure maple syrup … Highland Maple Festival
Shenandoah Mountain to Sapsuckers, a Photo Trip Through Maple Syrup Country
Back roads, sheep farms, mountain vistas of Highland County
Shenandoah Mountain to Sapsuckers, a Photo Trip Through Maple Syrup Country

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 (Update: Evelyn’s is now closed)
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
Farm for sale
Lambing season
Highland Inn
Maple donuts by Mill Gap Ruritans
Driving over Shenandoah Mountain
Duff’s Sugar House … pure maple syrup
Historic Buckhorn Inn … Augusta County

Cover photo: Tim Duff boils sugar water at Fair View Farm

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