Did you know… that maple syrup has a higher calcium content than milk? That maple syrup has only 40 calories per tablespoon (5 less than honey and 15 less than white sugar)? That it takes 40 quarts of sugar water from the maple tree to make one quart of syrup?
I recently discovered these things and more during the first weekend of the Highland Maple Fest this year. A delightfully local event, the fest is a collaboration of sugar houses, crafters, and local shop owners. For the most part, it’s self-guided: once you enter Highland County, you can grab a map (or print one from their website) and plot your course from there.
Our first stop was in McDowell at the Stonewall Ruritan Club. This is the perfect place to start, as you can tank up with buckwheat pancakes and sausage before you set out. There’s also a sizable craft fair portion to this location. Sheepskins, local cider in big moonshine jugs, jewelry, wood crafts, braided rugs, candles and more were all on display. But don’t eat too much — just down the street is the Sugar Tree Country Store & Sugar House, where one year I picked up maple BBQ chicken, the most incredible maple donuts from Strite’s Donut truck, maple ice cream, and — get this — cotton candy spun from pure maple sugar. The country store is charming, and they have a little sugar house out back for tours. An important note: this stop, along with some of the sugar houses, is closed on Sundays.
From McDowell, we headed west on 250 towards Monterey. It’s a really beautiful drive through the forest and up and over the mountain. You’re pretty deep into the trees until you come around the side of the hill and spy the little village nestled below. That’s where you’re headed. Craft and food vendors are lined up along Main Street, so take your pick of free parking spaces and hop out of the car to see what you can see. Don’t miss the woodworking demo (they do it the old-school way, no machinery), the art, the scoop-your-own potpourri, the country primitives, and the delightful gentleman selling mushroom logs.
We only really made time for one sugar house tour (I was on the hunt for the maple donuts), but Rexrode’s Sugar Orchard was a fabulous choice, and the next closest to Monterey. They do things the old-fashioned way, with a giant metal pan set over a wood fire to evaporate the sugar water. It takes about 12 hours to simmer down each batch, and once it reaches the correct temperature they have a five-minute window to get it off the fire before it turns into one big sugar cake. Who knew? Some of the trees on their property are over 200 years old, and they have a beautiful one standing out front and center that makes for a great photo opp.
I love local events, and this one captures such a great facet of the heart of Virginia. While it’s a bit of a trek getting out to the region, that’s part of the magic. All in all, we drove home feeling a) full of everything maple, b) a sense of peace granted by the rural environment, and c) grateful to have been invited, for a little while, into the everyday lives of the hardworking folk who put the food on our tables.
And that, friends, is just another reason to visit us here in Virginia.
From the inn, head through Downtown Harrisonburg and take a left on 42S. Follow this until 250W. This will take you through both McDowell and Monterey. Don’t worry, you can’t miss either stop, and signage is good marking all the sugar houses. Plan on an hour and a half’s drive to Monterey.