Virginia’s “Switzerland” Offers Rural Charm
If getting away means finding an idyllic spot with few people, Highland County is hard to beat.
With only 2,200 people, it’s the least-populated county in Virginia, and much of the East Coast. Highland is tucked away in the western corner of the commonwealth between the Allegheny and the Appalachian mountains.
The headwaters of the James and Potomac rivers are located here. The contrast between high, narrow ridges forested in hardwoods and broad, open valleys makes for spectacular scenery, as well as great places for hiking, biking, and fishing.
The county is best known for maple syrup, sheep and cattle farms, and a Barn Quilt Trail. As its name implies, it also boasts one of the highest mean elevations of any county east of the Mississippi River, which also makes it one of the southernmost places that maple syrup can be made.
Just getting to Highland County takes you through gorgeous territory. If you enter via State Route 39, you go through Goshen Pass, a photographic gorge in Little North Mountain formed by the Maury River.
Originally settled by Scotch/Irish highlanders and German immigrants, Highland is now an eclectic mix of native farm families and new residents drawn to the slower pace of life.
There is one time of year when life is a lot more fast paced in Highland County. In March, up to 30,000 people descend on this out-of-the-way destination for the Maple Syrup Festival.
But there is also plenty to do in the fall. The Highland County Fair is held every Labor Day weekend, and draws the second largest crowd. The fair features animal displays, carnival rides, truck pulls, and a demolition derby.
The Hands & Harvest Festival is held the second weekend in October, featuring arts and crafts as well as pumpkins and apple butter. This year it runs Oct. 8-10, and it’s a great time to see the county’s maple trees in fall color. You can also visit sugar maple camps, scenic back roads, and colorful barn quilt paintings.
Beginning in 2011, Highland County was the first county in Virginia to establish a Barn Quilt Trail, with nearly 60 designs on barns and houses throughout the countryside. With names like “Five Reds” and “Jacob’s Ladder,” each barn quilt tells a story, usually with special meaning about the owner, nature, family, business, or design.
When you follow the Highland County Barn Quilt Trail, you’ll wind your way through scenic back roads. There are also brochures with suggested driving routes, but it’s fun just to wander. Blue Grass, a tiny hamlet in the far north part of the county, is a great place for birders to head in the winter. If you’re lucky, you might spy a golden eagle, while bald eagles often gather along the Jackson River.
To further “tap” into what Highland County is most known for, try the Virginia Maple Syrup Trail passport program. It offers visitors the chance to visit eight sugar camps throughout the year, excluding the busy Maple Festival weeks and weekends, scheduled for March 7-20, 2022.
Visitors are invited to call ahead to the sugar camps, schedule a visit for a tour, taste their syrup, and get a stamp on their passport. After all eight camps are visited, you receive a t-shirt and bumper sticker, but the real incentive is to have more one-on-one interaction with the farmers who run the camps.
Doug Puffenbarger, a third-generation maple farmer, is one of them. Doug’s grandfather started their farm more than 100 years ago, and his father kept the tradition going until his passing two years ago. Doug, who also raises cattle and drives a school bus, misses his father and his help.
Now he taps 700 maple trees, and with his wife, Terri, turns maple sugar water into the magic of maple syrup. “It’s a lot of work, but a pretty good product in the end,” Doug said, adding that he puts maple syrup in his coffee, not just on pancakes.
Depending on the sugar content, it usually takes about 50 gallons or more of sugar water to make one gallon of maple syrup. Ideal conditions for syrup production are nighttime temperatures below freezing and daytime temperatures rising between 40 or 50 degrees.
When Doug was a kid, he said they would start tapping their trees in February and sometimes get sugar water through April. Now, with a warming climate, “you open taps at the end of January and are hoping you make it to March,” he said.
Because the Maple Syrup Festival was canceled in 2020 and 2021, some maple sugar camps, including Puffenbarger’s Sugar Orchard, decided to boost online sales. They ship syrup all over the country, from Washington state to Florida, Doug said.
The sugar camps still rely heavily on business during the Maple Syrup Festival, and Doug said that visitors are spread out through the eight or nine camps that participate so it’s not as crowded as you might think.
Chris Swecker, executive director of the Highland County Chamber of Commerce, said that is true for all the festivals. Because the county is 416 square miles, there is plenty of room to spread out. There is not, however, plenty of room to stay, so nearly all visitors make it a day trip.
Lodging is limited in the county, especially now, with the Highland Inn in Monterey undergoing renovation. The historic inn likely won’t reopen until 2023, Swecker said.
Swecker noted the chamber is always trying to attract more people to Highland County and added that the pandemic showed that many people can work remotely. “We have really good broadband for our area,” he said. And you can’t get much more remote than Highland, and part of him would like to keep it that way.
A native of the county, Swecker said he came back home after living in Seattle and was astonished as he was reintroduced to the quiet, the dark skies, and the beauty of the mountains. “It’s like taking a step back in time,” he said.
Learn more by visiting www.highlandcounty.org.
By Shannon Brennan | Photos Courtesy: The Highland County Chamber Of Commerce