Friday, March 07, 2014

2014 Highland Maple Festival begins this weekend

That's my child bonding with a sheep.

It is known as Virginia's Switzerland, this rural, mountainous, southern-most 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 56th annual Maple Festival during the weekends of March 8-9 and March 15-16.

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 the local Ruritans. Stroll the main street of Monterey, population 150, to check out the many vendors peddling crafts, 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.

Known as one of the premier events of the South, this tiny county of 2,500 tucked away in the western-most part of Virginia will play 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, make the perfect combination for maple sugaring. Be sure to carry a coat and gloves because it is still winter in the mountains.

Duff's on the snowy first weekend of 2013's festival.

Maple sugar camps welcome visitors who can watch as workers 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. 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 my favorites 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 a mountain slope, 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 the sap. Fifty gallons of sap are needed for every gallon of syrup. 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 and maple donuts. Picnic tables are located in the woods along the mountain stream, offering an opportunity to enjoy not only freshly-bought goodies but the beautiful mountain scenery.

Fair Lawn Farm, home of Duff's Sugar House.

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 Highland 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.

Almost heaven ... Duff's pure maple syrup.

Some wonder why Duff works so hard when others are using newer, faster methods. He smiles and responds that the syrup tastes better and is pure. Because he cannot make the product 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 show the good taste. In 2011, however, we got there early enough to buy some of the best pure maple syrup you will ever pour on a pancake. 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 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.

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 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's 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

Links to 2011 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

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