Up in Highland County, they like to say they live in "Virginia's Switzerland." Ridge upon ridge stretches from the Shenandoah Mountains into West Virginia, making the vistas grand. Sheep and cattle, grazing the heights, complete the pastoral scene. But what sets Highland County apart from its neighbors and makes it a closer kin to Vermont than to the European country for whom it is nicknamed are its grand, old, massive, sprawling sugar maples.

Some as old as 200 years, the trees have been tapped every early springtime -- "since the Indians lived here, I guess," says county extension agent Austin Shepherd. Today he estimates that Highland County's 34 maple farmers produce a total of 8,000 to 10,000 gallons a year. (For comparison's sake, Vermont farmers produced 500,000 gallons in 1982.) In Virginia, it's just one of several agricultural sources of income, ranking far below cattle, sheep and turkeys in dollar value.

Remember the days when sugar cane was a costly, exotic import, and you realize that a native-grown sweetener like maple syrup was more of a necessity than a frill. Today's shopper counts maple syrup a luxury, especially considering its price of $20 a gallon. But it's a treat worth celebrating, and Highland County's the place to do so.

Every year, for the past quarter-century, maple lovers have flocked to Monterey to celebrate the first silent trickle of tree sap that signals the arrival of spring. This year's festival, when four maple producers within a 20-mile area open up their sugar camps to show how maple syrup is made, is set for March 12, 13, 19 and 20, from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day. Quilts and crafts, pancakes and maple-dipped doughnuts in downtown Monterey add to the down-home atmosphere.

Aside from being fun, the four-stop Maple Festival tour tells a lot about the history of this all-American sweet. At the Vance Sugar Camp near McDowell, visitors see how old-timers tapped their trees with hand-hewn spouts, or "spiles," and let them drip into buckets hung on a nail. At the Vance camp, and also eight miles north at Eagle's Sugar Camp, visitors can see how the maple sap, which starts out looking and tasting like water, once was boiled down in huge cast-iron kettles sitting over a fire.

At the Rexrode Sugar Camp, further west near Hightown, over the mountain from Monterey, plastic tubing sends the sap straight down from tree-taps into a holding tank, reducing losses caused by dirt and fermentation. Everett Rexrode, a third-generation maple farmer, uses the openpan, boil-down method, stoking fire boxes under the six-foot pans with massive four-foot logs of maple, some of the hardest wood around. Great clouds of steam fill the rustic sugar house. For every gallon of syrup produced, 39 gallons of water must be boiled out of the maple sap.

Just down the road from Rexrode's, Puffenbarger's Sugar Camp displays a hightech method of making maple syrup. Plastic tubing stretches from tree to tree and down to the sugar house, where Ivan Puffenbarger has transformed a vacuum-pump milking machine into a power-driven sapsucker. He has to wait until the right time of year just like everyone else, but he figures his machine draws out more maple sap than the force of gravity provides.

Puffenbarger boils down sap the modern way, too, in an oil-fired evaporator, which offers steadier heat over a larger surface area than the old-style open pans. He may pay higher fuel bills, but he's not cutting and splitting maple wood all winter long to boil down his sap.

No one comes to the Highland Maple Festival just for an education. Most come expecting to eat. It seems that everybody in the county has a good idea for what to do with maple syrup, and most are willing to share them during festival days.

Highland County loves its pancakes. Two Monterey restaurants and four county schools serve pancakes, buckwheat cakes, bacon and sausage throughout the festival.

At the Highland Primary School in McDowell, Pearl McCray, the school's cook, will be flipping flapjacks to benefit the Stonewall Ruritan Club. She makes a sourdough out of buckwheat grown by Marvin Botkin, who lives "a way up on the mountain." She'll make huge batches of sourdough buckwheat batter -- "drums of it" is the only measurement she can name. But when people line up on the sidewalk waiting for pancakes, she'll whip up some sweet buckwheat batter, too. Some people prefer it to the sour.

"It gets awfully hot in here when you've got those old griddles cooking," she says. "That old 'east gets to working, and the dough gets pretty sour."

On the street in Monterey, members of the Mill Gap Ruritan Club will be selling maple-dipped handmade doughnuts. But you'll have a hard time convincing them to share their recipe. "It's a highly guarded secret," county agent Shepherd says, letting on that maple essence, not maple syrup, is the secret ingredient in the doughnut glaze.

Extension homemakers are a bit more generous with recipes for the maple-sweetened goodies they sell at the festival. The favorite among the breads is an anadama loaf sweetened with maple syrup. And maple-flavored cookies won't be hard to find."I don't know who started this recipe," says extension agent Ardis Stephenson. "Everybody around here seems to have it."

However you prefer to use maple syrup, the Highland County Festival's the place to stock up on it. Each of the producers will have syrup to sell this year. Some years nature doesn't oblige: The sap doesn't run in time for producers to make enough syrup. But this season the sap started running early enough, just after Valentine's Day.

Also available from the syrup producers is maple sugar, a traditional confection produced by carefully boiling maple syrup down even further.

To get to the Highland Maple Festival, drive to Winchester, Va., then take Interstate 81 south to Staunton.Take Route 250 west across the mountains. Spectacular views and hairpin turns make the 43 miles from Staunton to Monterey take well over an hour. (For further information, call the Highland County Chamber of Commerce at 703-468-2550.) Hotel rooms in Monterey during the festival may be hard to find, unless reservations are made early.

It's easy to spend a full day at the Maple Festival. The sugar camps are open -- no guided tours: Just help yourself to a map in Monterey, and find your way from place to place. The best advice to city visitors comes from Shepherd, who says, "Wear warm clothing and comfortable walking shoes. It's an outdoor activity. A lot of people come in high-heeled shoes, and they just don't enjoy themselves. This is about as close to nature as you can get."

For a taste of maple syrup a little farther away from nature but closer to home, the Vermont Maple Syrup Promotion Board and the Foster Grandparents Association meet in McPherson Square Thursday, March 10, from noon to 1 p.m., to celebrate the season. Vermont maple producers will give a talk on the history of Vermont maple production and demonstrate how to make "maple snow," ice coated with hot syrup.

In the meantime, here are some recipes for using maple syrup at home. MONTEREY MAPLE COOKIES (Makes 5 dozen) 1/4 cup shortening 1/4 cup butter 2/3 cup sugar 1/3 cup maple syrup 1 egg 2 cups unsifted flour 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon baking soda 1/4 teaspoon cloves 1/2 teaspoon ginger 1 teaspoon cinnamon

Cream shortening and butter with syrup and sugar. Add egg, and beat until fluffy. Measure dry ingredients into sifter, then sift together into creamed mixture. Stir to blend thoroughly. Place teaspoon-sized dough balls on ungreased cookie sheet. Bake at 375 degrees for 10 minutes. MARY CAROLYN HOOKE'S MAPLE ANADAMA BREAD (Makes 2 loaves) 2 cups water 1/2 cup yellow cornmeal 1/4 cup butter 1/2 cup maple syrup 1 1/2 teaspoons salt 1 packet active dry yeast dissolved in 1/2 cup warm water 5 to 6 cups unsifted all-purpose flour

Bring water to boil in large saucepan. Add cornmeal to it slowly, stirring constantly and keeping water at a boil. Cook one minute, then remove from heat. Beat in butter, which has been cut into chunks, then add maple syrup and salt. Pour mixture into small bowl, and let stand until lukewarm, about 40 minutes. In large mixing bowl, sprinkle yeast into warm water and thoroughly dissolve. Add cornmeal mixture and mix well. Beat in four cups of flour, one-half cup at a time. Continue beating until dough forms a ball. Then, turn out onto board and knead in remaining flour until the dough is smooth, shiny and elastic.

Grease a large bowl, turn dough ball into it and then turn it over so greased side is up. Cover with damp towel, and let rise in a warm place 1 1/2 to two hours or until doubled in bulk. Punch down dough. Knead two to three minutes, and divide dough in half. Place each half in a greased loaf pan, and cover with a damp towel. Let rise one hour or until doubled again. Bake at 375 degrees for 30 to 40 minutes, or until crust turns brown. PEARL MCCRAY'S SOUR BUCKWHEAT CAKES (6 servings) 1 packet active dry yeast 2 cups warm water 2 cups buckwheat flour 1 1/2 teaspoons salt 1/2 teaspoon baking soda Oil for griddle

The morning before you wish to serve these, dissolve yeast in 2 cups of warm water. Add buckwheat and salt. Stir to blend thoroughly, then sit in cool place. That evening, add enough warm water to reach pouring consistency (about 1 cup). Add one-half teaspoon soda if sour smell is evident. Store batter covered in refrigerator.The next morning check again to see if soda is needed, and add more warm water if needed to reach proper pouring consistency. Cook cakes on a hot, well-greased griddle. Keep some of the batter in refrigerator as a starter for the next batch, simply adding buckwheat and water the night before. PEARL MCCRAY'S SWEET BUCKWHEAT CAKES (4 servings) 4 teaspoons baking powder 1 teaspoon salt 2 cups buckwheat flour 1 cup whole milk 1 cup buttermilk (may be replaced with all whole milk) Oil for griddle

Add baking powder and salt to flour in large mixing bowl. Stir in milk and buttermilk. Stir to blend, then add warm water as needed to bring batter to proper pouring consistency. Spoon onto hot, well-greased griddle.