Highland County, Virginia, is full of blessings of natural beauty. As a resident, I find myself in constant awe of the landscapes. While they are visually stunning, the photos below don’t offer the entire experience. You have to be fully immersed in the scenery to truly feel the depth of its beauty.
The mysterious fog of a rainy day cloaks the mountains in shades of gray and dirty white. Gentle rains brighten the fields and trees giving a lushness to the greens – a vision I’d guess is much like Ireland, where many of our ancestors hailed.
But, on clear days here, the overhead expanse of blue dominates, and the phrase “Big Sky Country,” from the United States’ own Rocky Mountains, easily manifests in my thoughts.
Highland County’s mountains, culture, history, and natural elements make it nothing less than magical, which is a big reason we call this land our home.
And, if you stay here long enough or visit often enough, you might just experience these eight enchantments:
Seeing Animals in the Wild
Have you ever looked into the eyes of a bobcat? I’ve had such an encounter, but luckily I was in the safety of my car. It’s a fierce experience though. As is watching a Mama Black Bear standing on her hind legs to warn you away from her cubs. (Yup, seen that, too. Thankfully, also, within the safety of my car.) Some less hair-raising memories include watching a new, seven-member family of groundhogs (babies included!) playing, baby foxes following mama across the road, or (the always fabulous) watching “El Capitan,” one of Meadowdale’s resident Bald Eagles cruising through the sky.
While I’m not an expert on wildflowers, I’ve enjoyed reading Annette Naber’s blog post about a small sampling of the various species we have in Highland County. In my youth, the things I thought to be colorful weeds were actually naturally-produced beauty, the kind you can’t find at Lowe’s. (And, the kind many botany and wildflower enthusiasts seek!) In fact, I didn’t even realize until recently that a specific species of orchid grows wild in Highland County! At 36-years-old, I’m still discovering the magic of this place.
Shooting Stars for Miles
Highland County has some of the darkest skies on the east coast. In fact, astronomers from the Charlottesville Astronomical Society visit Highland County in September and October for an annual Highland County Star Party, which teaches participants about the night sky. Sadly, the event has been canceled this year due to COVID-19. Nonetheless, plenty of other traveling stargazers reserve local vacation rentals for their own private, multi-day, star parties. But, even if you’re only knowledgeable enough to identify the Big Dipper and the Milky Way (I’ll raise my hand here), you can still relax on a clear night and get lost in our dark skies for hours.
Stand In Hundred-Year-Old Unchanged Landscapes
As Crysta Stephenson, mentioned in her post about the Wilson Oak, the scene of that historical Indian raid hasn’t changed much since 1764. The Laurel Fork Proposed Wilderness Area in the northwestern part of Highland County is very similar in that regard. The dirt road through Laurel Fork (route 642 out of Blue Grass) will take you through a natural habit of more than 25 native plant and animal species that cannot be found anywhere else in Virginia. On a drive through once, I stopped my car in the road, looked around, and wondered if this landscape had changed much in the last 500 years. I would wager it hasn’t. And, in the thickest parts of Laurel Fork, there are very few traces of mankind, if any at all.
Living Among Nature
I’m in the early process of building a house on my land – 50 wooded acres with a pond that seems to transport me into my own world. While there may not be a house there yet, I can walk into that forest filled with young Oaks and 100-year-old Maples. I can sit among squirrels jumping in fallen leaves, a symphony of bird chirps, and occasionally, a passing doe and her twin fawns. One day, I will be able to live and work full-time in that environment. My home office will be in the back corner of that house, and my inspiration will be right out my window. How lucky am I? How lucky are we?
Living Off the Land
Our ancestors have been farming and raising livestock on these lands for hundreds of years, and many of us still do. Whether it’s planting a backyard garden and canning at the end of the summer or running a cattle operation, we carry on the way of life established by those before us. I’ve always said, if it comes right down to it, folks in Highland County could survive anything. Locally-grown veggies, locally-raised livestock, wild game, or foraging… there’s food here everywhere. (Including our iconic maple syrup!) It’s a pretty amazing thing to live in an area knowing if all modern conveniences shut down, you would still be able to survive.
Tractors are Traffic
Even though they may slow me down (and aren’t “natural” themselves but a product of natural living), I count my blessings that usually the only traffic jam I have to deal with is several cars getting stuck behind a tractor on the road. Of course, it’s mostly around haymaking season (July through August) unless you happen upon the occasional fall hayride or an old John Deere plowing snow after a winter storm. I don’t complain because it really gives you a nice excuse to slow down, look around, and take in the dreamy scenery. (Plus, the folks in those tractors are my hard-working neighbors, who I respect greatly!)
Witness Living History
Many Highland County residents are a small part of multi-generational family history with ties to the settlement of this land. For those of us who are lucky enough to have such a family tree, the ties to the family, the land, and the farm mean almost everything. How many people get to live in a place where your fourth-great-grandfather farmed and worked the same land you still do? That’s a pretty amazing thing.
Now, if those little tidbits don’t give you goosebumps, I don’t know what will.
About the Author
Dorothy Stephenson grew up on her family's cattle operation in Meadowdale, located in the southwest corner of Highland County. When she wasn't on horseback helping her father gather and work cattle, you'd likely find her (still on horseback) jumping creeks in her family's nearby "Big Pasture." Today, though she doesn't ride horses much anymore, she has her own cattle, land, and expansion plans for a farm. Additionally, (and with the inherited, Stephenson, entrepreneurial spirit) she owns two small businesses in Highland County - Sundance Media & Design and Sundance Studio & Productions, which houses another of Dorothy's long-time loves - Clogging. Dorothy loves exploring new places, skills, and ideas, and she intends to live life to the fullest as long as it will let her. (Oh! And she LOVES Christmas!)