Can you get out of your own head?
That’s the challenge—and the opportunity—for many stressed-out city dwellers. Can you actually be “present” long enough to really notice what’s around you? A getaway to Virginia’s Western Highlands is a pleasant way to unplug and get in touch with your inner self away from the hubbub.
So, cellphone and internet service are spotty. So, some places are so rural they have no stoplights. So, chain motels are rare. So, the roads are up and down and around. So, life is at a slower pace. All the better for memorable experiences.
Virginia’s Western Highlands may not be familiar to those in the Washington, D.C., area. Beyond the Shenandoah Valley, this vast, four-county region lies in the Allegheny Mountains of Western Virginia, bordering West Virginia. The localities have much in common as well as distinctive personalities.
The landscape is spectacular. Overlooks offer splendid panoramic views of tall mountains, meadows and pristine wilderness. The twisting, tree-lined roads are beloved by motorcyclists and car clubs and night-time stars are unobstructed by streetlights. The people you meet along the way are helpful and friendly.
There are many ways to explore the region, however long your visit. You may wish to plan your trip around the scenic drives on peaceful back roads; the local art, crafts and antiques; the endless outdoor adventures; the unique lodgings; the home-grown businesses; the festivals; or the many charming small towns.
Here are some highlights, focusing on towns:
Maple syrup to Mozart
Monterey in Highland County is the center for the well-known Highland Maple Festival. In a county with more sheep than people, up to 60,000 visitors converge for two weekends in March to enjoy entertainment, a parade, arts and crafts and to learn about maple sugar-making from producers like Laurel Sapsuckers and Back Creek Farms (where maple infusions add bourbon and other flavors). Other annual crowd-pleasers are the Highland County Fair, the longest-running Virginia county fair, and Hands & Harvest Festival.
But the area is about more than maple sugar and festivals, and other times offer quieter visits. “It’s a really wonderful place to refresh yourself,” said Highland’s Josh Umar.
The newly renovated Highland Center stands out as a nonprofit community hub. The multipurpose building, a 1922 school, has space for conferences, classes, business incubation, performances and artist studios, plus the county visitor center and an outdoor farmers market.
Take a downtown walking tour to see many historic buildings, including the 1904 Highland Inn (closed for renovation). Enjoy eclectic work by local artists at The Blanchard Gallery. Get a bargain at the Twice is Nice thrift store. Shop for fresh and silk flowers, handmade products and shabby chic furniture at Highland Mountain Flowers. Step into the plant-filled courtyard of Morning Glories & Moonflowers and browse the home and garden gift shop for decorative items, including pierced lampshades made by proprietor Terri Hevener’s 90-year-old mother-in-law.
Have lunch and homemade baked goods at the early 1900s Curly Maple store, where accommodations are available upstairs at Highland Suite Spots. Slip into a graffiti-filled booth at High’s Restaurant, where you learn “Jerry Luvs Lora” and “Wade is awesome.” Choose from among 11 high-quality, small-batch ciders at the Big Fish Cider Co., identifiable by a 20-foot rooftop trout. As a kid, Kirk Billingsley watched movies in the building where he now turns out national award-winning ciders using local apples.
In McDowell, an 1851 mansion holds the Highland County Museum. A current exhibit traces family trees of early settlers whose descendants are still around. “You’ll find out you’re kin to people you didn’t know about,” said the museum’s Lori Botkin.
Next door at the Sugar Tree Country Store, buy local maple sugar, apple butter, jams, soaps and handmade rugs. A still-used potbelly stove, 14-foot ceiling and “sugar shed” provide atmosphere. “This building saw the Civil War,” said the store’s Glenn Heatwole. The 1862 Battle of McDowell was fought nearby.
In the countryside, a barn quilt trail showcases a variety of geometric designs painted on square, weather-resistant boards that decorate barns and houses. Margie Boesch of Highland Barn Quilts likes to include something reflecting the buyers’ personalities in her custom work. The Ginseng Mountain Farm Store offers local foods and crafts.
A drive through the Blue Grass Valley shows what makes Highland special—expansive postcard-perfect vistas with a European feel. “You get views here on ordinary roads you’d have to go to scenic overlooks in other counties,” said Umar.
Hot Springs in the County of Bath is known for the luxurious Omni Homestead Resort, an anomaly in a region of extensive wilderness. The resort where 23 U.S. presidents have stayed is an Old Dominion treasure.
A newcomer to Main Street is the Bacova Beer Company, the county’s first craft brewery, where brewer Seth Ellis invites you “to feel like a local.” Quality is uppermost at the family-owned brewery, where customers hang out to taste its seven “malty to hoppy” beers and hear live music.
Shop for unusual items at The Sparrows Nest, the Hot Springs Gallery, McGraw Minerals, Laura’s Boutique, Ashford Station (a rebuilt gas station landmark from the early 1900s) and the 1908 Old Ashwood School Antiques. Eat with the regulars at Country Cafe.
A cultural jewel is the internationally known Garth Newel Music Center, where the resident Garth Newel Piano Quartet perform year-round chamber music concerts in a converted horse barn, then sit down with concert-goers for gourmet dinners styled to fit the music. World-class visiting artists rave about the natural setting of the former country estate, and guests revel in the camaraderie. Pay-what-you-wish pub concerts add other musical genres. An overnight stay in the 1920s manor house enhances the experience.
“Everything about this place just screams ‘come here’ ” said the center’s Shawn Puller. He is a firm believer that a visit can be transformative for those willing to engage on a deeper level.
Warm Springs is another enclave, featuring Warm Springs Gallery, which hosts a fall plein air festival; a museum and genealogy center; and Springhouse Antiques.
Although it started out in 1843 as the courthouse and jail, The Inn at Warm Springs provides modern comfort with a restaurant, tavern and coffee shop. It’s located across from the Jefferson Pools, where TJ himself once soaked in a day when people “took the waters.” The two mineral springs-fed wooden bathhouses, owned by The Omni Homestead, are due to reopen in 2020 after restoration.
Summer rustic retreats in Millboro include Nimrod Hall, a 1783 stagecoach stop turned resort that now nurtures artists and writers. Participants stay in the rambling house or in cottages next to the Cowpasture River, fueling their creativity with workshops, collaboration or solitude. Founded in 1927, Camp Mont Shenandoah nurtures young girls, teaching outdoor skills and building self-confidence. Both retreats accept other guests as space allows.
Arts, trains and camels
In Alleghany County, visitors love to photograph the dramatic 80-foot Falling Spring Falls and the 1857 Humpback Bridge, the only U.S. bridge of its kind. A forked tree creates part of the Virginia LOVE work sign.
In Covington, the city’s rail heritage is highlighted by the handsome 1910 C&O passenger depot, where the Alleghany Historical Society has a museum. The adjacent original 1890 station has been newly renovated for event space. The society is currently rehabbing four nearby historic buildings for an industrial heritage museum and technology discover center.
Pause for coffee at Cakes Your Way, where customers clamor for Theresa McCoy’s unique and artistic cakes and cupcakes. See artists at work at Art Squared, where a mother-daughter duo recently displayed their dreamcatchers, painted jeans and glittery sneakers. Marvel at the colorful variety of material at Sew Many Quilts.
The Alleghany Highlands Arts Council offers a multitude of performing arts for the region, including theater, the symphony, ballet, opera and concerts. Name actors sometimes appear, as well as unusual acts, such as the Chinese Golden Dragon Acrobats. Recognizing community needs, the council partners with local groups to enhance the meaning of performances.
“We don’t just put on a show,” said the council’s Tammy Scruggs-Duncan. “You use the arts to heal a community.”
Clifton Forge has a real beauty as one of the performing-arts venues. The long-neglected Historic Masonic Theatre, built in 1905, has undergone a $6.9 million restoration to bring back its grandeur. A variety of shows,movies, speeches and weddings take place onstage, while a ballroom, lounge/cafe and outdoor amphitheatre add more community options.
The arts presence continues in the Alleghany Highlands Arts & Crafts Center, where rotating artists sell everything from fine art to quilts, pottery, jewelry, fiber items and woodwork. “We act as the town center. People come here and we send them everywhere else,” said the center’s Betsy Carter.
Drop in at Livy’s Closet, where former Kansan proprietor Jenny Oeltjen admits she was “scared to death of the mountains” when she moved to the region. Now she happily sells brand-name consignment clothing and gift items. Fire and Light Gallery specializes in blacksmith art and photography. The Clifton Forge Antique Mall has more treasures.
The Clifton Forge School of the Arts bustles with recreational and vocational courses in drawing, painting, sculpture, pottery, fiber arts, photography, music, yoga and more.One instructor is George Ayars, who teaches about leaded, stained and fused glass. “Every piece of glass speaks to somebody,” he said. Artist Henrietta Crandall helped created the center, which is composed of several repurposed buildings and a garden. Some visitors may enjoy girls’ weekends in town, taking a class and seeing a show.
Train buffs will enjoy the memorabilia at the C&O Railway Heritage Center, housed in an 1895 freight depot. See the railroad equipment and operating model train, climb aboard rail cars, and ride the tiny C&O train on the grounds. A gift shop in the 1900 passenger station replica features “Chessie” the railroad cat, a onetime popular symbol.
Stop for lunch at the Club Car Shop & Deli, which continues the train theme with sandwich names like “The Caboose.” Popular waitress Maria Culliss wears an apron top filled with pins, such as flowers and hearts, that customers have given her. Gift items and a Christmas shop are available. A fine-dining choice is Cafe Michel, where the chef says “the house specialty is good food.”
Innkeeper Martha Crawford makes you feel like royalty at the 1910 Hillcrest Mansion Inn, a quintessential upscale bed-and-breakfast. Elegant rooms and meals, wine and tea receptions for guests, and a stunning hilltop view from the wraparound porch make this family-owned establishment special.
A visit to Paint Bank in Craig County is a step back in time. The village has a 1930s general store with a restaurant and huge stone fireplace. Upstairs are a swinging bridge and gift shop. The old-style Depot Lodge is a reminder of railroad days, with a 1929 caboose among accommodations.
Mountain Crafters, a former service station with the old gas pumps outside, now carries artwork and handmade knitted products, stained glass, wooden items and jewelry.
The waterwheel still turns at Tingler’s Mill, which is under restoration. The history of the creekside mill, where corn and wheat were ground for the community, goes back centuries.
New Castle is dominated by the 19th-century courthouse and Old Brick Hotel, where rooms are filled with local artifacts from yesteryear that spark visitors’ memories. Recently at the museum, the county historical society’s Gerlene Sizer pointed out a portrait of a gentleman with a long white beard—it was her great-great grandfather, Lloyd Caldwell, whose gun was displayed below. The building has a genealogy library, and the second-floor porch offers a fine view of the historic district, where the fall festival and other activities are held.
Nearby are three two-story log houses from the early 1800s that were dismantled, moved from elsewhere in the county, and reconstructed. They are currently being furnished for public tours.
Volunteers run the budding county tourism program, so call ahead for an appointment to see the buildings or visit the library, which serves as a visitor center.
On Main Street, The Emporium General Store sells Virginia-made items and old-time remedies like J.R. Watkins’ liniment and Rawleigh salve out of an 1895 building. The town park and Virginia LOVEwork sign also are noteworthy, and a barn quilt trail is a good reason to explore the countryside.
In a county heavily covered with national forest, a mountain overlook gives sweeping views. And there are special delights: a glider center at the “New Castle International Airport” run by the Blue Ridge Soaring Society; a trout farm; a Christmas tree farm; a blueberry farm; a buffalo farm; and a camel farm, where Nadine, Charlene and Otis munch on bread out of your hand.
Overall, for a city-slicker tourist in Virginia’s Western Highlands, even an unexpected encounter with a stray cow on a country road is a thrill. After stopping to gaze at each other with curiosity, both move on silently. It’s another precious moment to savor.
Virginia’s Western Highlands: vawesternhighlands.com