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Photo courtesy Back Creek Farms
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Photo courtesy the Highland Inn
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Photo courtesy the Highland Center
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Photo courtesy the Mountain Mama Roadbike Challenge
Most people who venture to the tiny town of Monterey in Highland County, the least populated county in the commonwealth, visit during the Maple Festival, the two weekends in March when this region of the Alleghany Highlands is at its most crowded. To enjoy the spectacular isolation and the picturesque, bucolic mountains, meadows, rivers and creeks even more, visit any other weekend. Upcoming artists' weekends in June and September, a house and garden tour in July, and the Mountain Mama Road Bike Challenge in August provide ample opportunities to experience the region's gorgeous peaks and valleys.
The Highland Inn (540-468-2143 or highland-inn.com ) , built in 1904, suits many as an in-town base. Its interiors are from a bygone era, the large front porch sports rocking chairs and the dining room and tavern have plenty of charm.If the point of your visit is to experience the county's rural character, stay at Laurel Point Retreat (540-468-3470 or laurelpointretreat.com ) , a lovely B & B with 104 acres on Jack Mountain, a restored 18th-century log house, barns, trails, a pond, Highland Cattle and fireplaces.
For even more privacy, check with the folks running Back Creek Farms Maple Syrup (540-499-2302 or welcometobackcreek.com/cabin ) , who rent a sweet cabin with a hot tub, Internet access and a rushing creek. It's on Route 600, a partially graveled road that's perfect for biking, so bring your hybrid bikes.
Some Highland County favorite foods you can check off your life list: maple syrup, buckwheat pancakes, maple donuts, maple pound cake, maple-roasted peanuts, maple candy, maple fudge, maple suckers, maple-glazed chicken, maple cinnamon buns … you get the idea. The Black Sheep Tavern and the Monterey Dining Room at The Highland Inn offer local specialties such as maple mustard pork loin or Alleghany trout, while Evelyn's Pantry (540-468-3663) , located in the center of Monterey on 250 West, is a convenient stop for takeout and tasty chicken salad, pimiento cheese, and other homemade specialties.
If you're renting a place and looking to do some cooking, hit the Farmers' Market at The Highland Center (540-468-1922 or thehighlandcenter.org ) on Fridays, 3:30 to 6 p.m., from June through September. And a visit to Virginia Trout Co. (540-468-2280) , a commercial fish hatchery just outside Monterey, is the way to go if you haven't caught your own rainbow trout.
Yes, you missed the Maple Festival, but don't fret: Monterey's Maple Museum , a replica of an old-time sugar house, is open year-round.
With a hybrid cycle for the gravel, Route 600 between 250 and 84 at Mill Gap is picture-perfect for biking. For the serious cyclist, channel your inner Lance Armstrong to get up and down the climbs of the Mountain Mama Road Bike Challenge (540-468-2978 or bikemountainmama.homestead.com ) , held the first weekend in August.
If you'd rather stand still, bring your paintbrushes to one of the Artists' Weekends in Monterey (540-468-2916 or highlandcounty.org ) . Held this year on June 22 and 23 and Sept. 28 and 29, these events showcase the spectacular scenery of the area.
Much of the charm of the county for visitors is its lack of shopping: There are no big-box retailers here. In Monterey, mountain mainstays like wood and wool are available at local stores. Besides luscious handmade furniture — benches, tables and chairs — crafted from local hardwoods, Blanchard Furniture & Restoration (540-468-3900 or blanchardstudio.com ) offers hand-crafted benches and tables made out of maple, cherry and black walnut, as well as occasional lamps.
Tucked behind an Exxon station, Wool Becomes Ewe (540-468-2007 or woolbecomesewe.com ) caters to knitters, crocheters, quilters and the like on Fridays and Saturdays or by appointment. Their Cold Winter Yarn features 100 percent Rambouillet wool in a variety of colors from local sheep.
Driving the winding roads is a pleasure here, with eye candy around every bend. Take your eyes off the road now and again to see the bright barn quilts painted on dozens of barns in the area, many of them by local painter Margie Boesch, who works with traditional and more modern designs. The barn quilts even have their own brochure, map and Facebook page (under "Highland Barn Quilts"). Pick up notecards featuring some of Boesch's designs at The Highland Center in Monterey.