Staunton-to-Lexington via Raphine
The rural area around the tiny hamlet of Raphine, about halfway between Staunton and Lexington, is quintessential Shenandoah Valley, with country roads winding among farms blanketing steep hills. This gorgeous area makes an easy excursion from either of the two towns or as a stop when traveling between them. The quick way is via I-81, but Va. 252 is much more scenic. However you get here, follow Raphine Road (C.R. 606) between the Interstate and Va. 252.
Starting at Exit 205 off I-81, take Va. 56 east toward Steele's Tavern and follow the signs to the picturesque Cyrus McCormick Farm (tel. 540/377-2255; www.vaes.vt.edu/steeles/mccormick/mccormick.html). Now part of a Virginia Tech agricultural research facility, it's in a lovely rural setting with a small blacksmith shop, a gristmill, and other log cabins, where exhibits include a model of Cyrus McCormick's 1831 invention, the first reaper, which revolutionized American agriculture and made him a fortune. This is an excellent place to spread out a picnic and take a half-mile walk along Mad Creek to the mill pond. It's open daily from 8:30am to 5pm; admission is free.
Now backtrack west on Va. 56, go under I-81, and follow C.R. 606 for 1 mile through Raphine to the award-winning Rockbridge Vineyard (tel. 888/511-9463 or 540/377-6204; www.rockbridgevineyard.com). The tasting room is open Sunday and Monday from noon to 5pm, Tuesday through Saturday 10am to 6pm.
Four miles west of I-81 is the 1882-vintage Wade's Mill (tel. 540/348-1400; www.wadesmill.com), which grinds whole grains into flour, cornmeal, polenta, semolina, and an herb beer mix for pancakes (the mill supplies the area's top restaurants). The shop sells high-quality kitchen gear, and occasional cooking events feature guest chefs. The mill is open from April to the Sunday before Christmas, Wednesday to Saturday 10am to 5pm, and on Sunday from 1 to 5pm during spring and autumn.
Most of this area is in northern Rockbridge County, so contact the Lexington & Rockbridge Area Visitor Center for more information.
You can stay in this area at Fox Hill Bed & Breakfast, 4383 Borden Grant Trail, Fairfield, VA 24435 (tel. 800/869-8005 or 540/377-9922; www.foxhillbb.com), which sits on rolling pastureland with a fine view of the Blue Ridge about 13 miles north of Lexington. Fox Hill is no Victorian home full of frilly lace and antiques, for it was built during the 1990s as an equestrian inn. The architecture is more German than Virginian, with lots of knotty pine and a big stone fireplace in the guest lounge.
Staunton-to-Warm Springs via Monterey
Another scenic alternative to I-81 from Staunton to Lexington is via U.S. 250 West across the mountains into Highland County, whose rugged beauty has given it the nickname "Virginia's Switzerland." In fact, U.S. 250 from Staunton to the town of Monterey is one of the state's most scenic excursions. Carved out of the rocks in the early 1800s as the Staunton-Parkersburg (W. Va.) Turnpike, the two-lane highway climbs (and I do mean climbs) over four mountains on its way to Monterey. Don't be in a hurry: the 50-mile drive can take 1 1/2 hours.
Plan to stop a few moments atop Shenandoah Mountain at the breastwork remains of Confederate Fort Edward Johnson, 25 miles west of Staunton. Rebel Gen. Edward Johnson built the fort in the winter of 1862 to protect the Shenandoah Valley from Union forces advancing from the west. It was abandoned a few months later without ever seeing action. There is an interpretive trail and a tremendous view.
Later Gen. Stonewall Jackson led his army across the mountain and won the Battle of McDowell, in the Bullpasture River valley. Today you'll pass through the village of McDowell, which explains the battle in the Highland Museum and Heritage Center (tel. 540/396-4478). The museum is behind the local funeral home on U.S. 250 and is open from mid-April to mid-November Wednesday to Saturday 11am to 4pm, Sunday 1 to 4pm; rest of the year Friday and Saturday from 11am to 4pm, Sunday 1 to 4pm. Admission is free. Next door, members of the local Mennonite community sell homemade maple syrup and candy in the Sugar Tree Country Store & Sugar House (tel. 800/396-2445 or 540/396-3469), which still has its pot-belly stove.
Seen from U.S. 250 as it descends into the valley, Monterey's white clapboard churches and Victorian homes conjure up images of New England hamlets. At more than 2,500 feet elevation, it enjoys a refreshing, springlike climate during summer. Information is available in the Highland Inn on Main Street . Stroll along Main Street (U.S. 250) past the likes of H&H Cash Store, a holdover from the days when general stores sold a little bit of everything. You can also poke your head into arts-and-crafts stores.
The best (and most crowded) time to be here is on the second and third full weekends in March, when Monterey hosts the Highland Maple Festival, one of Virginia's top annual events. A smaller version, the Hands and Harvest Festival, is held on the second weekend in October.
Accommodations are available at the charming Highland Inn, on Main Street (tel. 888/466-4682 or 540/468-2143; fax 540/468-3143; www.highland-inn.com), a 16-unit, veranda-fronted hotel built in 1904, renovated and improved in the 1990s. The inn serves dinner Wednesday through Saturday, brunch on Sunday.
Fresh deli sandwiches and salads are available on Main Street at Evelyn's Pantry (tel. 540/468-3663), where you can shop the pantry for local maple syrup and candies. It's open Monday to Saturday from 7:30am to 6pm. High's Restaurant, also on Main Street (tel. 540/468-1600), serves inexpensive, down-home Southern fare Monday to Saturday from 6am to 8pm, Sunday from 7am to 6pm.
For more information contact the Highland County Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 223, Monterey, VA 24465 (tel. 540/468-2550; fax 540/468-2551; www.highlandcounty.org). It's open Monday through Friday from 10am to 5pm.
From Monterey, U.S. 220 takes you 30 miles south through the Jackson River Valley -- to my mind one of the most idyllic in Virginia -- to Warm Springs . From there, you can drive 42 miles across the mountains to Lexington via Va. 39 and the Goshen Pass, a marvelously scenic drive in itself.