Wild Ideas: Virginia’s Little Switzerland

YOUR COLUMNIST takes a break from hiking in the Bullpasture River Gorge in Highland County, while her dog, Mai Coh, cools off in one of several deep pools the river offers. Photo by Dana Owen.
YOUR COLUMNIST takes a break from hiking in the Bullpasture River Gorge in Highland County, while her dog, Mai Coh, cools off in one of several deep pools the river offers. Photo by Dana Owen.

My brother, Dana, lives in Juneau, Alaska, which sits in the middle of one of three intact temperate rainforests, the Tongass. It’s dominated by evergreens, and fall there is marked not by brightly colored leaves but by almost constant – often horizontal – rain from storms blowing in off the Pacific and chilly temperatures.

When Dana decided to come for a visit the first week in October, he was looking forward to some warm, dry weather. After all the rain we’d been experiencing in Rappahannock County, so was I. Fortunately, he brought splendid weather with him.

I had booked a cabin in Highland County for three days, knowing that, with the county’s higher elevation – ranging from 1,000 to 4,500 feet, earning the county its nickname of “Virginia’s Little Switzerland” – fall color would be more advanced there than in Rappahannock.

Highland, which juts out into West Virginia west of Staunton, is special in other ways. Mostly steep hills and hollows, much of its splendid 416 square miles lies in George Washington National Forest. As Wikipedia notes, “Highland lays claim to being one of the least populous counties and one of the highest average elevations east of the Mississippi River.”

According to a study by the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service (coopercenter.org/demographics), the county’s population in 2010 was 2,321, marking an 8-percent decline from 2000. Rappahannock, by contrast, ranges in elevation from 360 to 3,720 feet, is a little more than half the area of Highland, and has about three times the population.

I had another distinctive feature of Highland in mind as we prepared for the trip: its rocks. I had just started a class on Virginia’s geology through my master-naturalist chapter, and the instructor mentioned the county’s igneous rocks. As a 2007 U.S. Geological Survey article put it, “The igneous rocks of Highland County . . .have fascinated and puzzled geologists since the 19th century.”

Highland is in Virginia’s Valley and Ridge physiographic province, which extends from there the county’s western border east to the Blue Ridge province and runs in a diagonal band from Virginia’s northwest tip to its southern border. This province consists of faults and folds that are a product of tectonic plates bumping up against each other and pulling apart, producing long linear ridges separated by linear valleys.

The province is mostly made up of sedimentary rock, such as sandstone, limestone, and quartz. The Devil’s Backbone, a major geological feature in the northwest corner of the county, for example, consists of sandstone and quartzite beds that were turned upright and then eroded, forming a bare, rocky spine on a forested ridge.

Igneous rocks, on the other hand, are formed from molten lava, a process not common to the province. One of the most visible igneous formations in the county is the conical Trimble Knob, near Monterey. According to a Virginia Division of Mineral Resources report, it may be what’s left of an old volcanic neck or pipe.

Although agriculture and forestry make up less than 6 percent of this Highland’s economy, you wouldn’t think so by looking at it. The county’s cooler temperature makes it a good place for dairy (and other) cattle, which dot the landscape, and for maple syrup production. The biggest event in the county is the Highland County Maple Festival, held on the second and third weekends of March. Syrup, candy, and other treats made from maple sugar are everywhere in local stores.

The only entrance to the county from the east by road is over Shenandoah Mountain – a long, steep ridge that’s 4,397 feet at its highest point. When my brother and I got to the crest, we stopped briefly at the overlook there to see Highland spread out before us and the Allegheny Mountains marking the West Virginia border in the distance. I had visited the county a lot in my youth when I was doing photography for a theater group in Staunton and had seen this sight many times but never tired of it.

The cabin we rented was south of McDowell near the Bullpasture River. It featured an overgrown meadow and a view to the Alleghenies from the front porch.

The day after we arrived, the fall colors seemed to have advanced markedly. We took advantage of the beautiful weather to hike the Bullpasture River Gorge trail, which went through a mixed-hardwood forest typical of much of the county that featured a large stand of Paw-paw. The river’s several wide, deep pools with steep cliffs of sedimentary rock towering over them on the other side made it obvious why this was a favorite spot for local residents and visitors alike.

Since I’ve been having foot problems, we spent the rest of the time in Highland driving around the county checking out the view and geologic features, shopping in Monterey, or relaxing at the cabin. On the way back home, we got onto Skyline Drive at Swift Run Gap, enjoying the fall colors along the drive and stopping for a short hike at Big Meadows before descending into Rappahannock at Thornton Gap.

I’m already planning a trip back to Highland next March for the maple festival.

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Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 281 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”

1 Comment

  1. Thanks—for sharing our beautiful county. Please do come back. We were bit by the bug of Highland 13 yrs. ago, living in Newport News for all of 35 yrs. and my husband all his life, we have moved here, just love it. It’s like a vacation that just won’t stop! I stay!
    Thanks again…

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