A Sweet Escape: Virginia's Maple Syrup Trail


Head for the Hills

Note to self: bring a map. When planning our getaway to explore Virginia’s Maple Syrup Trail, I didn’t realize our phones would have such spotty reception. “I think it’s this way,” I said. My husband Paul looked over from the driver’s seat with a sidelong glance. I’m not known for my sense of direction, but since we had no cell service and no map, he had little option but to trust me. As we wound our way over rolling hills, the Shenandoah Valley region unfolded in spectacular splendor. Pastural vistas dotted with cows sat against the backdrop of bare winter branches fanning out across a slate blue sky. Then, set back from the road, I spotted our first stop: Sugar Tree Country Store and Sugar House. We found it!

A Warm Welcome

As the warmth of the pot-bellied stove drew us in, Glenn Heatwole welcomed us. A resident and syrup producer for seventeen years, Glenn holds a wealth of information about Highland County. He told us this area of western Virginia has the highest average elevation east of the Mississippi River, giving it the nickname “Virginia’s Little Switzerland.” Because they flourish in this climate and elevation, there are several “sugarbush”—groups of Sugar Maple trees used to produce maple syrup—nearby. Highland County Chamber of Commerce lists thirteen syrup producers in the area. After a tour of his sugar house and a tasting, we stocked up on maple fudge, syrup, and other gifts. Glenn also gave us a passport of the Maple Syrup Trail and, much to Paul’s relief, a map of the area. 

Stepping Back in Time

Following our map and munching on maple sugar candy, we pulled onto Maple Sugar Road to our next destination: Puffenbarger’s Sugar Orchard. Doug and Terri Puffenbarger greeted us with waves and smiles. Doug is the fourth generation in his family to operate the farm and loves to tell stories of past family lore. His father Ivan, a former dairy farmer, changed maple syrup production in the area by using plastic tubing rather than buckets to collect the maple sugar water. He connected the tubing to a dairy machine, essentially “milking” the trees, to raise production by 25%. Later, he incorporated a reverse osmosis machine in the process to save time in cooking the sugar water down. As we tasted the different grades, Doug explained how the color and flavor deepened as the season progressed. My favorite? A medium amber perfect for pancakes.


Farming for the Future

Missy Moyers-Jarrells was sure footed and confident as she led us through the sugarbush at Laurel Fork Sapsuckers. “Our farm has been in the family for 65 years and we are continually managing it for future generations with a goal of becoming a century farm—100 years of ownership!” she shared. While her family’s history in syrup production connects her to the past, it’s clear that this former firefighter is also thinking ahead to the future. “Forest management and sustainability are extremely important to us,” she told us. Laurel Fork Sapsuckers is a member of the American Tree Farm System and Missy collaborates with local universities to study the farm’s ecosystem. “Virginia Maple Syrup Trail is great for experiential learning for all ages,” she said, stopping near a cluster of mushrooms to highlight the benefits of intercropping a sugarbush with non-timber forest products. After our tour, she invited us into the newly renovated barn for a tasting. Paul fell in love with cinnamon infused maple syrup for his oatmeal and I was enamored with a collection of snowmen made from different types of wood by Missy’s husband Joe. 

Staying Present

Late in the afternoon, we arrived at our final destination, Back Creek Farms. Here, Pat and Valerie Lowry produce an impressive variety of syrups, collaborating with local Virginia distilleries for barrel-aged syrups and infusing maple syrups with native and organic spices. “This one’s got a kick to it,” Pat exclaimed, as we tasted the chili pepper maple syrup. “Tastes great on roasted brussels sprouts.” Thankfully, they offer maple syrup samplers so we could take home several of our favorite flavors.

Pat Lowry began helping his father make maple syrup as a young boy. In the sugar house at Back Creek Farms, he still uses the original open pan that belonged to his great-grandmother. His sugar house sits adjacent to our lodging for the weekend, a peaceful log cabin framed against a grove of maple trees built on the bank of Back Creek. “Everyone needs a place to take away the stress of the day,” Pat told us. “This is that place for me.” As Paul and I snuggled by the cozy fire later that evening, we agreed.

A Sweet Escape

While Highland County’s population hovers around 2,300, March’s annual Highland County Maple Festival draws up to 50,000 visitors. Coming off season, we were able to visit maple syrup producers at a more relaxed pace. “It really gives visitors a chance to enjoy the beauty of Highland all year and learn more about the southern maple industry and the farmers who produce quality maple syrup,” Missy says. We came for the maple syrup, but we stayed for the connections with the people who produce it. We stayed to hear stories of the past. As for our future, Highland County, we’ll be back.

 


If you go:

Getting there from DC: Take I-66 West from Washington to I-81 South to Staunton. Take Route 250 West towards Monterey. (Approximate driving time 3.5 hours)

Activities: Explore Highland County’s Maple Syrup Trail. Contact each maple producer in advance to schedule a tour.

Lodging : The Cabin on Back Creek

Dining: High’s Restaurant 73 West Main Street, Monterey, VA

Additional Information: https://www.highlandcounty.org/

  

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