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This Year’s Highland County Maple Festival in 10 Photos

Tucked against the rugged edge of Virginia’s western border at the headwaters of the Potomac, Highland County holds a small, close-knit community in the mountains, but for two weekends in March the area gets a little more crowded, when thousands of tourists flock to Highland’s corner of Virginia for a treat better known as a northern thing—maple syrup. 

For folks willing to make the journey through the Alleghenies in early spring, the rewards of the Highland County Maple Festival are (pun very much intended) sweet. For 64 years, the owners of sugar orchards across the county have opened their doors to shine a light on the syrup-making process, while Ruritan clubs and community institutions hold lively events to match. The festival is a county-wide affair — no matter what direction you come from, you’ll be met with a feast, as well as the natural beauty of a county that’s known around the state as Little Switzerland. 

It may be remote, but the Maple Festival, which this year took place on March 9-10 and 16-17, is the kind of event that often leaves first-timers wondering why they had never been before. Here are some highlights of the festival’s most recent running, in words and photos. 

Buckwheat or buttermilk?

Some decisions you don’t overthink: at the Highland County Maple Festival, you get pancakes. But picking what style of pancake to pour the county’s famous syrup over can be tricky. It’s especially tough at the Bolar Ruritan Club, which is used to a packed car lot and a line wrapping around the club’s building for its all-you-can-eat helpings of buttermilk and buckwheat cakes, paired with locally made sausage. Some local advice,  it’s hard to beat the buckwheat, the starter for which is prepped by bakers at the Ruritan Club several days in advance to enhance the cakes’ rich, earthy flavor.

Masters of the craft

Take a tour of any sugar shack in Highland County, and you’ll find masters at work. At Puffenbarger Sugar Orchard, you’ll find Doug Puffenbarger, whose family has been in the sugar business in Highland County for over a century. A dairy farmer in addition to a syrup-maker, Doug’s father Ivan revolutionized the family business in the 60s by using the same kind of tubing system they used to milk cows to “milk” the trees. The experiment worked, and the Puffenbargers still use the system today as one of the most prolific sugar orchards in the South.


While syrup takes the mainstage at much of the festival, maple donuts are a cross-county hit as well. Downstairs at the Highland Center in the county seat of Monterey, chefs at Bell Bottom Donuts work tirelessly to keep up with festival goers who buy several hundreds of their donuts per day, while up the road at Blue Grass Mercantile, a new recipe for smoked maple donuts takes front and center.

Don’t skip the stew

The Maple Festival makes it easy to have a sweet tooth all day, but the county’s non-maple signatures are too delicious to be missed. Brunswick stew—a Virginia native—is a big one, and festival-goers can find hearty cups of it in community halls and country stores all over the county, including here at Blue Grass Mercantile.

Sounds of  the highlands

A tradition of mountain music is alive and well in Highland. Along with festival mainstays like the Little Switzerland Cloggers, highlighting  this year’s lineup of performances at the Highland Center Auditorium in Monterey were Alice Shumate and the Sounds of Highland. Shumate and company delivered a satisfying set that included bluegrass standards as well as local-themed originals from Shumate’s album, “Sounds of Highland.”

Fish feed

With the Jackson, Bullpasture, and Potomac rivers rumbling nearby, it’s no wonder Highland is a hotspot for trout. At their small-scale trout farm just east of Blue Grass, Virginia Trout Company brings the fish to you, and provides feed for festival goers to get the trout jumping. The farm is known for providing trout to upscale restaurants all over the region, so grabbing a sandwich at the on-site food truck or taking a cooler of frozen filets home is a must.

Local staples

The Maple Festival might feel like showtime for Highland County, but local business around Monterey’s main drag prove that Highland County is worth a visit for more than just two weekends of the year. While the Curly Maple remains a favorite for fresh lunches, local wares, and light groceries, the micro cidery Big Fish Cider has been making waves and winning awards lately with its ciders made from Highland County apples.

Sweet drives

In a state known for gorgeous byways (think the Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive), some of Virginia’s most scenic roads sweep through the narrow valleys of Highland County. By bike or by car, stretches like VA-640 up the Blue Grass Valley from Hightown to Blue Grass make passing through a destination in itself. While the weather above 3,000 feet can make for less than ideal road conditions in early March, it can also make for stunning vistas with sun, snow, and quick moving clouds.

Community treats

In a county as close-knit as Highland, food is often community itself. The Maple Festival showcases several community sites that turn into buffets and dining halls for the weekend, extending the soul of a neighborhood potluck to outsiders. One such site is the McDowell Volunteer Fire Company building, where you can sample freshly made trout dinners, country ham sandwiches, and homemade sweets. You can even grab some of the recipes for yourself—the Ladies Auxiliary recipe book compiles over forty years of community cooking in McDowell, and copies are up for sale at the firehouse each year.

All photos by Chris Ritter

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