Friday, March 11, 2011

53rd annual Maple Festival begins this weekend in Highland County, Va.

That's my child bonding with an ewe.

Cross-posted at the Washington Examiner....

It's known as Virginia's Switzerland, this southern-most location for gathering maple syrup, and it's right here in our back yard. Just 45 miles west of Staunton, Highland County will once again host the 53rd annual Maple Festival during the next two weekends, March 12-13, and March 19-20, at locations throughout the county.

Make plans to meander back roads, stuff yourself with pancakes drenched with locally-made maple syrup, or fill up on maple chicken. Be entertained by cloggers and bluegrass bands while enjoying fresh maple donuts made by the local Ruritans, check out the many crafts, take in the beauty of this rural setting populated with sheep and cattle, and relax. Slow down. Breathe the cold, fresh mountain air.

Known as one of the premier events of the South, this tiny county tucked away in the western-most part of Virginia will play host to more than 40,000 visitors interested in seeing how maple sugar is gathered from the numerous sugar maple trees and made into syrup. It's also lambing season so watch for little ones frolicking in the fields. Highland County's high elevations and abundance of sugar maple trees, along with the cold nights and warm days of March, make the perfect combination for maple sugaring. Be sure to carry coats and gloves because it's still winter in the mountains.

Maple sugar camps welcome visitors as they boil down the sugar water collected from trees into various grades of syrup. Some use the old way of tapping into trees and hanging metal buckets to collect the oozing sugar water while others have updated to use rubber tubing running from trees to collection points. Most folks who are 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 my favorites is Eagle's located in Doe Hill. For those who want to avoid the crowded streets of McDowell and Monterey, Eagle's Camp is easily accessible. Nestled in the woods and looking like a mountain camp, this family-owned operation has been in business for 200 years. The family members who run it are friendly, and they still gather sugar water the old-fashioned way ... by tapping trees and attaching buckets ... while also using updated methods. Inside the rustic building are evaporating units which are wood-fired to boil down the sap. There is also a recently added sales area for purchasing maple products as well as local crafts. Outdoors is a snack area that sells lunch items as well as maple donuts, and picnic tables set along the mountain stream in the woods offer an opportunity to enjoy not only freshly-bought goodies but also the beautiful mountain scenery.

Tim Duff at Duff's Sugar House south of Monterey is happy to explain the old way of maple sugaring that he keeps alive complete with authentic equipment and acres of wide open space covered in sugar maple trees. A friendly man who smiles and welcomes visitors into his the sugaring shed, he encourages hands-on participation and seems to delight in the curiosity of visitors who are genuinely interested in what he is doing, and who question why he works so hard when others are using newer methods. His syrup is pure and, because he cannot make the quantities of those using more sophisticated methods, it sells out quickly each day of the festival. The day we visited he had just sold his last pint but had samples available to show the good taste of his product. Rob Hedelt with has a good article about Duff and the process of sugaring the old-fashioned way.

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

Hungry visitors will find trout, maple chicken, and ham dinners as well as pancakes, maple donuts, 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.

Staying in Highland helps avoid 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 its dining room. Rooms are booking fast but there are still places to stay in Highland as well as nearby Staunton.

Maps of the area are readily available by downloading or at locations in Highland. It's easy to find your way around and people are eager to help if you lose your way.

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 go through Churchville, Deerfield, over Shenandoah Mountain (see the Confederate Breastworks at overlook on top), and into Highland County.

Cross-posted at Virginia Virtucon

Photos by Lynn R. Mitchell

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