Some travelers are constantly on the hunt for that magical, little, never-heard-of town. A charming village with local shops, local food, unique lodging, friendly faces, and streets you can wander while filling your lungs with crisp, fresh air. A setting like this definitely helps to calm the mind, ease the heart, and feed the soul. Sound like something you’re looking for? If so, I know just the place you should visit – Highland County, Virginia.
I’m lucky enough to call this delightful little town home, and I feel the genuine need and passion to tell my readers about this little slice of heaven because if I didn’t live here, I would escape here as much as possible.
Highland County is known nationwide (and even worldwide!) for its iconic Maple Festival, which can receive anywhere from 40,000 to 70,000 visitors to a county with a regular population of less than 2,200. But one of my personal favorite events is much smaller and more humble – the Hands & Harvest Festival. This homegrown (literally) event takes place annually on the second full weekend in October, and its filled with pumpkins, locally-made maple syrup, homemade apple butter, crafts, free entertainment, and so much more.
Exploring Highland County anytime is soul-lifting, but Hands & Harvest adds a cozy, refreshing feel to the area’s already captivating qualities. I’ve selected a few of my festival favorites to share with you; however a good chunk of these activities are ones you can enjoy year-round. They just have special elements added for this specific event. Take a look, and feel free to comment with any questions!
#1: The Book Sale!
First and foremost, I must say: “I LOVE BOOKS!” During Hands & Harvest, the Highland County Public Library opens up its treasure trove of texts for everyone to explore. History, fiction, biographies, autobiographies, travel, cooking, children’s books, nature… all kinds of good reads! They even have a corner of CDs, DVDs, and VHSs, which can be nostalgically amusing to browse. In recent years, I snatched up a Goo Goo Dolls CD that transported me back to high school. I also stocked my bookcase for the year with travel guides to Italy and Montana, a novel about three sisters fixing up their old Victorian home into a B&B, and the biography of Chrissie Wellington, a four-time Ironman World Champion. Among others, of course. For the price of two books from the shelves of Barnes & Noble, I walked out with (much to my husband’s dismay) two boxes of literary treasures.
#2: Local Shopping & Festival Vendors
Between the brick-and-mortar shops that adorn Monterey’s Main Street and arts and crafts vendors on the Courthouse Lawn, there is a nice, little variety of products to peruse. Twice is Nice, which is across from the Courthouse, carries very gently-used, second-hand, name-brand clothing, shoes, and accessories for women and men. Right next door, The Curly Maple has locally-made crafts and food items, including homemade candies and cookies. It’s also a great stop for lunch. (If you’re lucky enough to find White Chicken Chili on the menu, get it!) Down the street is The Blanchard Gallery, full of local artwork, The Attic, a thrift shop to help support the local SPCA, and The Shoppes at Dancon, featuring locally-made crafts as well as other merchandise, and David Cockerham Photography. A few steps further and around the corner is Morning Glories and Moonflowers, a garden-themed gift and flower shop with enchanting selections. And while I can’t say for certain what the arts and crafts vendors will be from year-to-year, vendors have sold items, such as jewelry, locally-made bread, homemade salves and bath goodies, antiques, pottery, and handmade sewn items. There usually isn’t a ton of vendors, but the ones there are quality! Also, check out the Highland Farmers’ Market, which is located up Spruce Street at The Highland Center, and definitely take the 20-minute drive to McDowell to shop Sugar Tree Country Store – handmade pottery, jams, jellies, maple syrup, rugs, and more. In addition to finding some treasures for myself at the festival, I usually pick up some wonderful, one-of-a-kind Christmas gifts here, too!
#3: Fair Lawn Farm
Located in Meadowdale, which is one of the prettiest parts of the county, in my humble opinion, is Fair Lawn Farm owned by Tim & Terry Duff, who have restored this property to its original glory and then some. In addition to breathing new life into the main house, the Duffs have also added a sugar camp appropriately named Duff’s Sugar House, and Tim is currently adding a small log cabin that will house his gunsmithing workshop. During Hands & Harvest, the Duffs create homemade apple butter in an antique copper tub housed inside their sugar shack. They also smoke some yummy cheeses! Visitors, who are like new family members to the Duffs, can leisurely walk the property, say “hello” to the sheep and chickens, and maybe even toss a line in the stocked trout pond. In past years, they’ve also had a pick-your-own pumpkin patch!
#4: Laurel Fork Sapsuckers
Not gonna lie, it’s a bit of a trek to this location, but its worth it. Friendly people, yummy food, and some serious passion for maple syrup-making, tree growth, and Highland County, in general. Ronnie and Sandy Moyers are simply wonderful. Their kindness shines through with every handshake Ronnie gives (his goal is to shake everyone’s hand that comes to the camp) and with every apple pie Sandy bakes (she usually has some ready during festival time). Laurel Fork Sapsuckers is a maple sugar camp located atop Allegheny Mountain and about 30-minutes from Monterey. (Along the way is Dividing Waters Farm, home to the headwaters of the James and Potomac Rivers.) Visitors to the Laurel Fork Sapsuckers Sugar Camp can indulge in Butternut Squash Soup or one of the other tasty creations sold at the gift shop while listening to Ronnie or another Moyers family member explain maple syrup or apple-butter making. For a really interesting conversation, get Ronnie going on tree farming. Hearing about tree growth techniques and methodology while you’re standing next to the giants is a special experience.
#5: The Mountains
I know… It’s like saying the biggest attraction in Virginia Beach is the beach. Duh, right? But seriously, the mountains are magical. No matter how much your battery needs recharged, a drive up these mountains and one gaze towards those vistas will have you feeling refreshed in no time. Hands & Harvest visitors have the unique opportunity to see these hills at full color with bright yellows, vivid oranges, and deep reds. My personal recommendation – start in Monterey and head west over Monterey Mountain on Route 250. Once you top the crest, you’ll meander down into Hightown and come to the four-way intersection of Route 250 and Route 640. You will see an old store to your left, which was once Hevener’s Store – a place where, in yesteryear, hunters would gather by a woodstove in the Fall and regale the most historic of hunting adventures. It’s also where I used to, as a child, ride my bike for about five miles just to buy a soda from the drink machine. Turn right at the intersection to follow Route 640 towards the iconic Blue Grass Valley and eventually through and past the village of Blue Grass. Approximately five miles afterwards, the road will end and you will turn right on Route 220. You can either travel back to Monterey or you can stop at the Virginia Trout Company (about two miles after turning on Route 220) and purchase some Allegheny Mountain Trout for dinner. (The route to Laurel Fork Sapsuckers on Allegheny Mountain is also a beautiful drive with great photo opps and can be added to the above journey.)
If you need a relaxing recede from life, a weekend getaway, or a self-empowering retreat, consider a cabin or vacay rental in Highland County. Enjoy having your morning coffee on a porch overlooking the mountains while you’re serenaded by the sounds of nature. (I actually almost listed that as a Top 5 attraction. Seriously.) If you just need a slow down, I highly recommend these lodging options:
- Blue Grass Cabin – Located in the heart of the iconic Blue Grass Valley.
- The Cabin on Back Creek – A private, creek-side cabin with a hot tub on the deck.
- Ginseng Mountain Lodging – Rustic elegance apartment with gift shop below.
- Arbogast Inn – A Victorian B&B located on Main Street, Monterey.
- The Farm Stay at Mill Gap – Private cottage with an expansive view of Meadowdale.
- The Curly Maple – Your own little private apartment in the heart of Monterey.
- Laurel Point Retreat – A B&B and cabin rental offering bird’s-eye views.
- Laurel Run Cabin – A tiny-house-like, one-room, cozy cabin.
- Rainbow Springs Retreat – Restored log-cabin perfect for a larger family. (Scroll down below Laurel Run Cabin.)
- The Wilson House – A snug farmhouse with serene privacy.