Top 10 FREE Things To Enjoy in Highland County

Written By: Carly Thomas

With a population of only 2,200 people and only one stoplight (well, actually, it’s a blinking traffic light) one might think there’s nothing to do in this little town. In actuality, there is so much to do in Highland County, Virginia! In fact, here are some examples that are free! 

#1 – Enjoy a Hike

Highland County offers hiking opportunities with varying difficulties. Just check out the Highland County section of Virginia’s Western Highlands Trail Guide. Each excursion brings breathtaking views and rejuvenating, mountain air. Additionally, the Highland Wildlife Management Area, which includes Jack Mountain, Bullpasture Mountain, and Little Doe Hill, provides over 14,000 acres for hiking, birding, primitive camping, and more.

#2 – Climb the Sounding Knob Fire Tower 

Photo Credit: Blue Ridge GeoGraphics, LLC

The Civilian Conservation Corps originally constructed this tower in 1934 deep in the forest atop Sounding Knob on Jack Mountain. In 2002, it was disassembled and removed from its original location, and in 2017, it was restored by the generosity of local men Skip Jones and Steve Good. It now overlooks Monterey – still on Jack Mountain, but a little closer to public access so we can all enjoy it! It’s a simple 1.3-mile drive up the graveled Sounding Knob Road. The Sounding Knob Fire Tower stands just south of the road’s intersection with Route 250. When you hike up those 100 steps, you get a bird’s eye view of our breathtaking mountain ranges!

#3 – Explore the Virginia Maple Syrup Trail 

Because of the freezing and thawing cycle in late winter, Highland County is a prime location for maple syrup production. Highland County, which is known for its maple syrup industry, typically hosts an annual Maple Festival during the second and third weekends in March. However, you can now get your maple fix all year ’round! Throughout the year, eight sugar camps are open by appointment for tours, maple syrup tastings, and fun activities as part of the Virginia Maple Syrup Trail. Just grab a “Maple Passport,” collect a unique stamp from each camp, and present it to our Highland County Chamber of Commerce to receive a free gift! Life is pretty sweet in the mountains! 

#4 – Travel the Barn Quilt Trail

In 2011, Highland County was the first locale in Virginia to have its very own Barn Quilt Trail. Each barn quilt tells a story – sometimes with significant meaning about nature, family, business, history, or the quilt or property owner. Barn Quilts are painted, wooden quilt blocks, rich in color, and can be found on barns and houses. Pick up a Barn Quilt Trail brochure or view the online version to locate over 50 unique barn quilts while taking a leisurely, country ride.

#5 – Learn about Local History

The Highland Historical Society and Museum reside in the Mansion House – a building that accommodated the area’s only hospital during the Battle of McDowell in May of 1862.  Once you step through the front doors at 161 Mansion House Road in McDowell, you’ll feel as if you stepped back in time. Immerse yourself in Highland County’s rich history, learn about our area’s first settlers, and how our home has flourished throughout generations.  They’re open Thursday through Saturday from 11 am to 4 pm from May through October.  More info and a virtual view of its newest exhibits can be found at  

#6 – Walk the McDowell Civil War Battlefield

This free adventure is located on the outskirts of McDowell. There is a nice parking area, but be prepared to lace up your hiking boots to explore trails and hills. The battlefield itself is largely on private property, but there are many interesting signs along the way to help you learn the history of the battle. Spend time exploring trails through the woods and hills where the conflict took place. It is an extensive area that starts at the top of a mountain where Fort Johnson once stood and continues a few miles down the mountain to the town of McDowell.

#7  Discover Adventures at the Library

Parents, are you searching for a place to take your child that is fun and educational? The Highland County Public Library offers unique youth programs throughout the year at no cost to the public. Their Crafts & Stories, LEGO Builders, Maker Monday, and STEM Program provide lots of opportunities for fun with other kids. Check out their website to see when the next event will be as well as a full listing of all the benefits they have to offer. (Benefits for adults, too!) The library also has nature-themed backpacks designed to help families, Scout groups, homeschoolers, and other groups explore nature and learn science concepts while visiting a Virginia State Park. Each backpack contains a free parking pass good at any Virginia State Park, a magnifying glass, a bug cage, a dip net, five pocket guides, and activity sheets. They even have four backpacks ready for check-out now!

#8 – Go Fishing

Highland County offers three rivers for public fishing: the Bullpasture, the Potomac, and Laurel Fork. Favorite catches like Rainbow, Brown, and Brook trout swim freely in our pure, mountain streams. However, if you don’t like to fish, it is just as beautiful and peaceful to walk along the rivers’ edge. Bring along a fishing net to catch salamanders, snails, crawfish, and other riverside creatures. Or, if you’d rather fish in a stocked pond, check out Hiner Town Trout Fishing or the Virginia Trout Company/Laurel Hill Trout Farms.

#9 – Watch a Rocket Launch

Join the Valley Aerospace Team for monthly rocket launches just south of Monterey on Route 220 South. You can see all sorts of models, from only inches long to over six feet tall, fly into the sky! If time allows, you may even be able to create your own rocket! Visit their website to see their launch schedule.

#10 – Stroll on the Community Walking Trail / Playground 

(Photo Credit: Highland County Chamber of Commerce)

Did you ever consider walking to be an attraction? It is in our picturesque town of Monterey! The Highland County Community Trail is an easy one-mile stroll. There are two options for parking – in the school parking lot on Myers-Moon Road or in the Community Pool parking lot just off Route 220 South. On your way around the loop, be sure to check out our barn-quilt-themed LOVEworks sign, and let the kiddos check out the school playground! You’ll find basketball hoops, so you can live out your dream of being Michael Jordon or Kobe Bryant. You can even ride on the back of a crocodile, hippopotamus, or a bumblebee. (Although, they are plastic.) The playground is open to the public before and after school hours.  


About the Author

Carly Thomas
Writer | More Posts by This Author

Carly Thomas, a 2022 graduate of Highland High School, resides in the southern portion of Highland County. Growing up as the seventh generation to live on her family’s cattle ranch, Carly learned the importance of family, faith, and devotion to the land. She is passionate about FFA, agriculture, and supporting Highland County farmers. Carly enjoys being challenged and works in a variety of jobs from writing sports articles for her local newspaper to cooking at a local sandwich shop. She can often be found working on the ranch, riding horses with her father, or working on the next FFA activity.  



  1. Betty Lockridge

    Carly this is very interesting, learned things about our County that I did not know.

    • Dorothy Stephenson

      So glad you enjoyed the post, Betty!

  2. Karen Raybourne Pierce

    Carly, This is very nice information to learn and have. Well written. Thank you

    • Dorothy Stephenson

      Thanks so much, Karen!

  3. Susan Bailey

    Thank you Carly,what an interesting article. Your mom and dad should be mighty proud of you…

    • Dorothy Stephenson

      Thank you for reading, Susan!

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