Fall is already falling in Highland County, Virginia. The sugar maples that produce all that delicious sap in early spring are now setting the mountainsides ablaze with color. These are not the mellow mountains of the Blue Ridge, where the fall foliage comes with traffic jams. These are the Alleghenies, and to get to them you have to cross the Blue Ridge and the Shenandoah Valley. It's about a four-hour drive from Washington, but a true getaway.
Boosters call this high, western corner of the state "Little Switzerland," but it looks a lot more like the highlands of Scotland: Woolly sheep graze on steep, emerald-green hillsides. There is virtually no industry here, and the land is too steep and rocky for farming. Most of the land is devoted to grazing.
Monterey, the county seat, nestles Brigadoon-like in a valley 3,000 feet above sea level between Jack Mountain and Monterey Mountain. Main Street, as Route 250 is called as it ambles through the town, is lined with homes, shops and a rambling old hotel with inviting porch swings and rockers. The Highland Inn, built in 1904 and recently restored, is a state and national landmark. It has rooms with Edwardian furniture (ranging from $29 for a single to $60 for a four-person suite), a pleasant bar and hearty country meals. Sundays, weather permitting, there's a buffet brunch on the front porch from 11:30 to 2:30.
Main Street's other attractions include a Maple Museum, which deals with the history and technology of maple production; The Campbell House, which used to be a Civil War hospital and now houses a wool shop; and a county-run crafts shop, where local people bring their weaving, woodworking, quilts and other handmade items to sell. This weekend, October 13 and 14, when the foliage -- and the visitor influx -- is expected to peak, the crafts shop will feature demonstrations by county artisans.
But the primary attraction is the countryside itself. U.S. 250, the main road from Staunton to Monterey, is really a country road, with lots of overlooks for those who can't drive and ooh and ah at the same time. Atop Jack Mountain (4,378 feet), there are some picnic tables and an old dirt road built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the '30s. Called locally "the Skyline Drive of Highland County," it leads to some of the mountain's spectacular rock formations and panoramas.
If you get tired of looking at leaves, you can watch trout hatchlings swimming through raceways at the Virginia Trout Company. It's five miles north of Monterey on U.S. 220, and self-guided tours are available on weekends from 10 to 4. You can also buy trout to take home. Say you caught them in a local stream. TAKING THE HIGH ROAD
The easiest route to Monterey is I-66 to I-81 South. Exit at Staunton and take U.S. 250 west to Monterey. The Highland Inn serves three meals a day, seven days a week. Toll-free number is 1-800/368-3204; local number is 703/468-2143. If you want to be really close to the foliage, there's a beautiful campground at Locust Springs, just across the West Virginia line in the Monongahela National Forest. Follow U.S. 250 west to West Virginia Route 28. Take Route 28 north and follow the signs to Locust Springs Picnic Area. The campground has a spring, a well, grills, tables, a lean-to and an outhouse.