Several years ago, a Highland County syrup producer received a question from a Maple Festival visitor, who mistakenly (but innocently) asked “Why do you charge so much for Maple Syrup when all you have to do is tap a tree and collect it in a bottle?” Believe me, some days our syrup producers wish the process was that easy.
For many Highland County visitors, “Maple” means March, but for our syrup producers, preparation for the maple season starts the previous summer.
We reached out to Bruce Folks of Bruce’s Syrup & Candies for a more in-depth perspective of his maple-syrup-producing timeline:
That sounds like a quick and tidy list of “to do’s,” but let me tell ya – it’s not. It is hard work. Producers are on their feet most every second they’re awake maintaining lines, cleaning equipment, and continuously watching every facet of the operation to make sure things run smoothly because one little mishap could cost LOTS of dollars.
Plus, our producers are also at the mercy of Mother Nature. If those temps don’t drop and rise when and how they need to, the work-to-profit ratio can get pretty slim.
Oh! And, did I mention making maple syrup isn’t the only thing on the minds of our producers, who have other jobs, such as bus drivers, store owners, farmers, or loggers. (Or being a parent!)
In the throes of maple season, Bruce’s day begins around 6 am when he wakes and almost immediately changes out the sap filters and washes the used ones. The remainder of his day is spent doing whatever tasks the season and operation require of him in that particular 24-hours.
At about 4 pm on boiling evenings, which can be an average of every other day for 4-6 weeks after the trees start running, Bruce fires up the Reverse Osmosis machine and begins the boiling process that will last for the next six hours. (That’s basically a work day in itself, right there!)
At 10 pm, he shuts down the operation for the day, rinses out the Reverse Osmosis machine, and climbs in his truck for the approximate mile-and-a-half drive off the mountain to his home. (Which means, he probably actually gets to sleep around midnight just to wake up at 6 am and do it all over again.)
AND, this process is EASIER than it was about 25 years ago before more modern technology came into play!
Also, keep in mind, it takes about 40-45 gallons of sap to yield ONE gallon of syrup. Wow…
Furthermore, any business owner knows, things come up and/or don’t always go according to plan. And, this list doesn’t even include those hiccups!
So, how about that? Truly, aforementioned-Maple-Festival-visitor, Highland County’s liquid gold is worth the price on those bottles and jugs. In fact, it’s likely worth more. It’s a livelihood for those who create the sweet, syrupy goodness, and now we all know just how precious those dollars are that we pay for this wonderful product.
Cheers to our producers, and best wishes for a successful season!!
Seeking easy, no-brainer plans for a perfect Valentine’s Day? We got ya covered.
What’s more romantic than a lovey-dovey weekend getaway in a secluded, mountain cabin?
#1: Free Big Fish Cider and Gearharts Chocolates with your Valentine’s Reservation! Book your stay at Blue Grass Cabin for Valentine’s Day, and you’ll receive a free bottle of locally-made Big Fish Cider of Monterey, Virginia, and a package of Gearharts Chocolates, hand-crafted confections from Charlottesville, Virginia.
#2: Privacy & Solitude: Richmond, Roanoke, and Washington DC are pretty cool places… but they’re also pretty noisy. Definitely not ideal for a quiet dinner-for-two. At Blue Grass Cabin, it’s just you, your love, and maybe a hoot owl perched on a tree outside. No light pollution, no honking horns, no noisy neighbors… just peace.
#3: Cuddling in Front of the Fireplace: Yes, we are quite fond of our fireplace, but who wouldn’t be? With the adjacent plush couch and the coziness of the exposed-wood walls, who could resist the urge to snuggle up with their sweetheart and toast with a glass of wine (or Big Fish Cider!)
#4: Massages for the Heart & Soul: Massage therapist Nicole Frye of Heart & Soul Spa in Monterey has been treating clients for approximately 15 years, so it’s no wonder locals visit her and her staff regularly for their aches, pains, stress management, and… to simply relax. Heart & Soul Spa is located on Mill Alley in Monterey (an approximate 20-minute scenic drive from the cabin), and you can schedule an appointment by calling (540) 292-0568 or messaging their Facebook page.
#5: Fresh Flowers from Meadowdale Blooms: Erica Stephenson, floral designer and owner of Meadowdale Blooms, grew up amidst Highland County’s natural elements, which she now pairs with fresh-cut flowers to create spectacular arrangements for all occasions including Valentine’s Day. Roses are great, but a custom-made floral creation is even better and much more personal!
#6: Homemade Treats at The Curly Maple: This historic general store, located in Monterey directly across from the Couthouse, has been restored and features a bakery, coffee bar, fresh produce, and lunch and food items. There’s certainly some sweet treats, such as homemade cookies and candies, to be found in their displays, and if you’re lucky, you’ll stop in on a Cinnamon Bun day!
#7: Cuddle in the Cabin: Take advantage of the cabin’s peace and quiet. Spend some time inside relaxing and reconnecting with your one-and-only while enjoying these memorable activities:
Just call us at (434) 249-0419 to reserve your stay, and we’ll have the cider and chocolates waiting! Happy Valentine’s Day!
Maple Festival brings 40,000 to 70,000 guests to Highland County, Virginia, every March. Hands & Harvest? Considerably less. Does that make Maple Festival better? You be the judge!
Here’s a list of similarities and differences between the events. Which one suits you better? (We suggest coming to both to find out!)
Of course, the famous doughnuts are the first topic of contention. While these tasty treats are more plentiful at Maple Festival, they’ve made past appearances during Hands & Harvest at Southernmost Maple in Bolar.
OTHER MAPLE TREATS
During Hands & Harvest, maple goodies, such as syrup, candy, and fudge, are available at Sugar Tree Country Store in McDowell, Southernmost Maple in Bolar, and Bruce’s Syrups & Candies in Monterey. Additionally, The Curly Maple added Maple Pecan Cinnamon Rolls, Maple Pecan Pies, and Maple Pumpkin Raisin Cookies to their special Hands & Harvest menu in 2019 while Hull’s Hideaway Restaurant & Tavern featured Maple BBQ Sandwiches and Ribs. We anticipate similar specials for 2020.
MAPLE SUGAR CAMPS
With the exception of a few, most sugar camps are open during Hands & Harvest. Duff’s Sugar Camp at Fair Lawn Farm, Sugar Tree Country Store, Laurel Fork Sapsuckers, and Southernmost Maple are staffed and ready to explain Highland County’s maple syrup industry. With a couple new additions to Highland’s Maple roster – Mill Gap Farms and Tonoloway Farm – there may be new stops for Hands & Harvest in the coming years.
On a pretty Maple Festival day, vehicles can sit for hours and miles before entering Monterey. McDowell and Blue Grass are less cluttered, but regardless, people are EVERYWHERE! Hands & Harvest is a smaller event, so visitors can enjoy a better view than their dashboard, leisurely stroll the streets and shops, and experience more one-on-one time with maple producers.
Hands & Harvest has another one-up on Maple Festival – vibrant fall foliage! Depending on the year’s preceding weather, color differs from year to year. However, one can usually discover rustic reds, oranges, and yellows atop Allegheny Mountain – the home of Laurel Fork Sapsuckers. Visit their camp for maple goodies and amazing views and photo opps!
Specific performers vary from Maple Festival to Hands & Harvest, but each event features live entertainment including clogging, square dance events, storytellers, and live music like bluegrass, folk, and blues.
HARVEST TRAIL & SUGAR TRAIL
Sugar camps open during Hands & Harvest, but in recent years, the Highland County Chamber of Commerce also added a Harvest Trail featuring agricultural-based stops, such as Elegius Mini Equine Sanctuary, Lucky Loop Hollow Farm, and Emerald Mountain Sanctuary. Harvest Trail locations usually change a bit every year, so pick up a Harvest Trail map at the Highland Visitors Center when you get to town.
Most everyone is familiar with Maple Festival’s Sugar Trail; however its only recently received an official state designation. Members of the Highland County Chamber of Commerce and Highland County’s sugar producers have worked with the Virginia Tourism Corporation to establish the new “Virginia is for Maple Lovers” sub-brand!
ARTS & CRAFTS VENDORS
With well over 100 juried arts and crafts vendors ranging from handmade chocolates, woodworks, candles, photography, artistry, and jewelry, the Maple Festival has Hands & Harvest beat. But don’t let that discourage a fall visit. There are still plenty of treasures to find! During Hands & Harvest, five to ten vendors set up on the Couthouse lawn in Monterey carrying goodies like jewelry, lavender products, maple items, pottery, alpaca products, lotions, salves, and soaps. Local stores, which feature vintage and antique items, collectibles, thrifts, clothing, garden-themed items, photography, artistry, and handmade creations are also open. The best part? During Hands & Harvest, visitors can actually stroll and gander instead of fighting their way through crowds.
Most will say Maple Festival has more food options; however, this isn’t 100% accurate. Yes, Maple Festival has different food booths; however, Hands & Harvest features specialty menus at local restaurants like High’s Restaurant, Hull’s Hideaway Restaurant & Tavern, and The Curly Maple. During the 2019 fall festival, The Curly Maple added Trout Sandwiches, Hull’s Hideaway featured Maple BBQ Ribs, and High’s Restaurant served Pumpkin Pankcakes for breakfast with Big Fish Cider-braised Chicken, Pumpkin Alfredo, and Rotisserie Chicken with Potato Chowder for lunch and dinner. (Plus, you don’t have to wait for a seat during Hands & Harvest like you would at Maple Festival!)
Again, we ask: Which is better? Neither! They’re just different.
If you hate crowds and traffic, you may consider renting Blue Grass Cabin on the second full weekend in October during Hands & Harvest. But if there’s no way you can pass up Maple doughnuts, be sure to book your stay months (or years) in advance for Maple Festival.
Or just be awesome and come to both!
With all the cider craze these days, we have to ask: Have you ever heard of a Wassail?
In a nutshell, wassailing is an old English custom performed to ensure a healthier apple orchard by walking through an orchard at night, scaring away evil spirits that are harmful to the trees, and waking the tree spirits with gifts and a blessing. The folks at Big Fish Cider Co. in Monterey can surely explain the event to you! Take a look at the video below where Kirk Billingsley, Big Fish owner and cider maker, tells a little more about the tradition.
For updated event information and ticket prices, call Big Fish Cider at 540-468-2322.
For more information on Big Fish Cider, their products, awards, and events, visit their website at www.bigfishcider.com. And if you’re a big cider fan, consider becoming a member of the Big Fish Cider Club!
We hope to see you at the Wassail!
Living in the city offers a variety of activities to enjoy at any given moment even in the winter. However, noisy traffic and the constant hustle and bustle of people can get old and monotonous.
For our friends in nearby cities, such as Richmond, Roanoke, Charlottesville, Fredericksburg, and Washington DC, Blue Grass Cabin can provide a quick and inexpensive vacation to the hills of Highland County, where families can leave dirty, snow-slush streets for solitude, bonding time, and relaxation.
Reserve your winter or holiday stay at Blue Grass Cabin, which includes three bedrooms, two baths, a full kitchen and dining area, an outside deck, covered front porch, and a cozy family gathering area complete with a plush couch, recliner, and warm, stone fireplace. (View our full list of amenities here!)
To add to your stay, here is a list of 10 fun, snowy-day activity suggestions. Just stock up on some food items and a few supplies before you hit the road!
PLAY A BOARD GAME Monopoly, Clue, Trivial Pursuit… Pack some of your favorite family games, stop at the store to purchase your favorite snacks, slip on the cozy, comfy pajamas, and enjoy a family game night!
WATCH A CHRISTMAS MOVIE Could anything be better than watching a Christmas classic by the fire while sipping hot cocoa and cuddling in a big snuggly blanket? Hop on Netflix, and watch White Christmas. Or find Holiday Inn, The Christmas Story, or Prancer!
CREATE WINTER CRAFTS Set up Santa’s Workshop at the dining table. (Just make sure to lay a protective cover on the tabletop!) Create fun, handmade Christmas ornaments, sparkling pine cones, penguins from egg cartons, or your own customized snow globe. Here’s a link for more ideas!
A WALK IN THE WOODS Hugging the cabin is a beautiful forest where families can explore and learn about nature. Take a camera, photograph different birds or trees, then bring the images back to the cabin where you can research your findings!
ICE SKATING AT THE HOMESTEAD For around $15 to $25 per person (depending on the time of day and age of the individual), your family can make memories by gliding on the ice at the historic Omni Homestead resort, located in Hot Springs, Virginia, which is an approximate 45-minute drive from the cabin. (Before planning, please check the Omni Homestead hotel website for COVID-19 operations.)
RELAX WITH A COLORING BOOK Even though grown-ups might act skeptical about adult coloring books, you know they’d love them. Besides, it’s supposed to relieve stress, right? Grab a coloring book, some warm cider, and enjoy creating with the family! (A very personal keepsake for the scrapbooks!)
WINTER SPORTS AT SNOWSHOE Skiing, snowboarding, shopping, good restaurants, and more are laid out for families to peruse and enjoy at this mountain-top resort. Snowshoe, which is about 45 minutes away, also holds special events including concerts. Check out their website for more details! (Before planning, please check the Snowshoe Resort website for COVID-19 operations.)
BAKING PROJECTS Have you ever built a Gingerbread house? If not, your vacation at the cabin is a great place to start. Just stop at the store and pick up the ingredients on your way in. Decorative, seasonal sugar cookies are also a fun project – a treat to savor during that Christmas movie!
SNOW FUN Usually in January or February, you can find snow on the ground in Highland County. If so, let your imagination guide you! Build a snowman version of your family. OR! Each member of the group can build their own snow fort. Then… let the snowball fight commence! (Remember, there’s a warm fireplace and homemade hot chocolate inside afterwards!)
INDOOR CAMP OUT If there’s no snow on the ground, no worries! The weather is always right for an indoor fort made of blankets, chairs, and pillows! Set up camp in the living room or bedrooms, grab a story book (or coloring book!), and enjoy!
Traveling on a budget is sometimes hard, but Blue Grass Cabin guests can easily have a memorable and relaxing time in Highland County with these free-to-inexpensive activities:
BARN QUILT SELF-GUIDED TOUR: With over 50 barn quilts in Highland County, our mountain paradise is home to the first barn quilt tour in Virginia. “What’s a barn quilt?” you may ask. This unique piece of artistry, which decorates country barns, is a hand-painted square featuring a pattern similar to a quilt square. The first barn quilt trail began in 2001 with Donna Sue Groves of Adams County, Ohio. Today, Highland County is one of the thousands of communities nationwide that participates in this newer tourism and heritage trend. A majority of squares featured on the Highland County Barn Quilt Tour were created by local barn quilt artist Margie Boesch of Highland Barn Quilts while others were created by local residents. Take a look at this online brochure from HighlandCounty.org to see the variety of shapes and colors you can find along the trail. It can be a learning experience for kids or even a kind-of scavenger hunt for all ages!
SCENIC DRIVING SELF-GUIDED TOUR: Another Highland County self-guided tour includes a Scenic Driving option that points drivers through the beautiful Bullpasture, Cowpasture, and Blue Grass valleys. Explorers will also pass through Big Valley, Back Creek, and Doe Hill – all of which are little corners of Highland County that are even less-populated and showcase true country and remote living. Additionally, the McDowell Battlefield Drive holds something for history buffs as it highlights the Highland County Museum & Heritage Center, Sugar Tree Country Store, the historic and cannonball-hit McDowell Presbyterian Church, as well as Sitlington Hill and the McDowell Battlefield, itself. Click here to download the online brochure through HighlandCounty.org!
HIGHLAND COUNTY MUSEUM & HERITAGE CENTER: As mentioned above, this educational stop is part of the Scenic Driving tour; however its also a great stand-alone attraction. Enter the museum through the massive door of what is locally-known as the “Mansion House,” which was originally owned by George Washington Hull. Believed to be the first large brick home in the village, the house served as a hospital during the Battle of McDowell in 1862. Around the turn of the century, the Bradshaw family operated the Mansion House Hotel, which catered to those traversing the historic Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike. Today, it houses the McDowell Battlefield Orientation Center as well as other exhibits that feature local history as well as civil war info. It is also home to the Highland Historical Society – a group of volunteers and one employee, who passionately document Highland County’s history. (The Center is closed from the end of October until the first weekend of the Maple Festival in March, but they are available at other times by appointment.)
BONUS TIP! If a getaway where you stay tucked away sounds ideal, Blue Grass Cabin is fully-equipped with a full kitchen and features a spacious back deck for warmer days as well as a cozy fireplace with a nearby comfy couch where you can curl up in a large blanket with a good book, your favorite movie, or settle in for a Netflix binge.
Navigate over to our Rates & Reservations page to plan your trip!
Every year on the second full weekend in October, the Highland County Hands & Harvest Festival celebrates the culmination of the area’s agricultural production season with maple sugar camps, farm tours, apple butter, the Highland Farmers’ Market, maple doughnuts, local honey, local cider, and more. Visitors can traverse throughout the county and experience farm life amidst the vibrant, autumnal, rolling hills that lovingly embrace the fields and farmlands of Highland County.
Even though Highland County is one of the smallest counties in Virginia, there is still a lot of ground to cover. Here is a sampling of some of the regular activities festival-goers can enjoy during the event:
For more detailed festival information, visit the Highland County Chamber of Commerce website or call (540) 468-2550. We hope to see you at Hands & Harvest!
For explorers longing to see a variety of sites in one trip, Highland County, Virginia, is a perfect home base. In an easy one to two-hour drive, travelers can ride historic railways, view naturally growing Venus Flytraps, learn about the search for extraterrestrial activity, and explore 460-million year old caverns.
Here is just a sampling of day trips where one can achieve adventure while staying at our Blue Grass Cabin. (And the potential fall colors in these locations is just an added bonus!)
This protected botanical area, known as Cranberry Glades, is the largest collection of bogs in West Virginia and is home to extremely rare plants for this part of the United States, such as carnivorous or insect-eating plants. Over 10,000 years ago, climate and glacial changes made way for several species of unique plant life to migrate from Canada and the northern U.S. and take root in this unique, 750-acre property. Two boardwalks allow visitors to traverse through the bogs and view these plants in their natural habitat. Visitors may also spot wildlife, such as the American Black Bear, West Virginia Northern Flying Squirrel, Red-tailed Hawk, American Bald Eagle, Coyote, Cooper Hawk, Screech Owl, and White-tailed Deer.
In about an hour’s drive through scenic, country back roads, travelers can discover the attractions at Seneca Caverns. Drive up around noon, and pack a lunch to enjoy under the picnic shelter or dine in Asbury’s Restaurant, a log-cabin eatery located next door to the cavern’s entrance. (The caverns and the restaurant share a parking lot, so you can walk from one to the other.) However, before you enjoy lunch, reserve your spot on the next cave tour at the Seneca Caverns Visitor Center. Then, get some food in your belly and walk it off during the one-hour tour that takes explorers 165 feet below the earth’s surface to see stalagmites, stalactites, fairies, devils, Chief Bald Eagle, and Princess Snow Bird. Some NFL teams even make a special appearance, too!
Visit the Greenbank Observatory to see the world’s largest steerable telescope, which weighs 17 million pounds and has a surface that could hold two entire football fields! Even though the famous telescope is so massive, it can be directed with an accuracy of one arcsecond – the equivalent to the width of a human hair seen from 34 feet away. Learn about the fascinating world of radio astronomy from the pioneer instruments of the 1950’s to today’s most modern technology. Visitors can also take a SETI tour, which offers exciting and comprehensive info on the on-going search for extraterrestrial life. On the Behind-the-Scenes High Tech Tour, one can visit telescope control rooms and engineering labs normally off limits to the public. Not to mention there are walking trails, a gift shop, a cafe, star parties, and Star Lab Sundays – a planetarium event offered every Sunday at 2 pm.
Built in 1901 to haul lumber to the mill in Cass, West Virginia, Cass Scenic Railroad is now a state park where visitors can experience the same Shay locomotives used in Cass during the time of the railway’s creation. Home to the world’s largest fleet of geared Shay locomotives (six to be exact!), the legendary turn-of-the-century class C-80 Shay #5 has been making the trek up Cheat Mountain for nearly 100 years, which makes it one of the oldest engines in continuous services and the second oldest Shay in existence. From September 24 through October 27, the train will depart the station at 12 pm Tuesday through Sunday for riders to enjoy a relaxing and scenic ride up the mountain. (View their website for additional seasonal hours.) The approximate 22-mile trip lasts around 4.5 hours and climbs to an elevation of 4,842 feet to Bald Knob, the third highest point in West Virginia.
Explore one of the most photographed attractions in West Virginia – Blackwater Falls. This 57-foot cascade is tinted by tannic acid from fallen hemlock and red spruce needles. A short walk on a well-maintained path will lead visitors to several viewing platforms where the falls can be enjoyed year-round. (Other landmarks, such as Elakala Falls, Lindy Point, Pendleton Lake, and Pendleton Point Overlook, are also located nearby if you want to add more sites to your trip!) And if your geocaching enthusiast (or even if you’re a first-time geocacher), there are plenty of hidden cache sites to search for. The park also offers more than 20 miles of hiking trails for the warmer months as well as cold-weather activities including cross country skiing, snowshoeing, and is home to the longest sled run on the East Coast. Not to mention, this site is a photographer’s paradise during any season!
Of course, at the end of any day-trip adventures, you can settle in at your home-away-from-home, the Blue Grass Cabin. Comfortable beds, a soft couch, a fireplace, and a back deck offer the relaxation opportunities you need after a big day of exploration!