The plateau our little town is nestled on is unique and rich in its history. The uniqueness of the mountains, forests, wildlife and weather is what makes Highlands such a wonderful place to live or visit. 


Highlands is one of the highest towns east of Mississippi River at 4,118 feet on the highest crest of the Western North Carolina plateau. This landscape is old. Really old. Highlands sits upon a Plateau on the far southern end of the Appalachian Mountains, some of the oldest in the world. They’re the remnants of a geological sequence of events that began with the formation of the supercontinent of Pangaea 480 million years ago. That’s long before the time of the dinosaurs, and they once rivaled the Alps and the Rockies for awe-inspiring spectacle.   

The gentle waves of rolling mountains, so evident when you view them from vistas like Whiteside Mountain or the Blue Valley Overlook, are the remnants of those sharp and foreboding mountains. What you’re witnessing are upthrusts of gneiss, which once resided within these massive volcanoes. That’s right, if there’s a bit of poetry in your soul, you can tell yourself that you’re strolling over the cold heart of a volcano.   

 Those millions of years of volcanic activity and the titanic forces of tectonic pressure have delivered a jeweler’s dream of gemstones and gold. Stroll carefully over unpaved roads after a rainstorm and keep your eyes open, you may discover a sapphire, garnet, or emerald. Or wade into the cold, cold waters of the Cullasaja River, it’s possible to discover flakes of gold. Until the California Gold Rush of 1849, this part of North Carolina was the largest gold-producing territory in the United States.   


Highlands is at the center of one of two temperate rainforests in the United States (the other is the rich woodlands of Oregon and Washington). “Temperate” means we enjoy four distinct seasons. “Rainforest” means that we get lots of rain. In 2020, we totaled 133 inches of rain, which, when you think about it, is more than 10 inches a month and a very wet year.  

 You may find all of our rainfall a bit off-putting, let us share some advantages: It’s given us an unparalleled collection of waterfalls. Of course, there are the Big Four of the Cullasaja Gorge, but there are so many other waterfalls to discover and enjoy, some thundering, some beguiling in their gentle presence.   

All that rain also means that everyone can enjoy the little miracle of Moses Rock on the road leading into Horse Cove. This little spring, shooting from a rock face on the right side of the road, has been comforting thirsty travelers for the last 150 years. That’s when Jim Henry, who was helping to transform what had been a Cherokee trail into a road that would connect Horse Cove to Highlands, struck his maddock against a rock and a steady stream of water burst forth. It’s been flowing steadily and pooling in a little granite basin ever since. Over the years, someone added two feet of white PVC to extend the fountain and a ceramic angel to serve as a silent witness to this quiet miracle.  The rain that falls here in Highlands will eventually make its way to the Gulf of Mexico (via the Cullasaja River) and to the Atlantic, as we straddle the Continental Divide - you can pass over it on US-28 heading towards Walhalla. 


Highlands is the Salamander Capital of the World. In fact, biologists come from all over the world to study our remarkably rich pool of these shy amphibians. Lift away a bit of the leaves and plant matter and loamy earth along our waterways and you’re almost certain to glimpse them as they wiggle away (the salamanders, not the biologists). And there’s another reason we take an inordinate amount of pride in these little creatures – they serve the same function as canaries in a coal mine, and their presence certifies the purity of our air and water and soil.   

The forest, mountains and meadows that ring Highlands are home to a thriving population of birds. We’re one of North Carolina’s most important sites for species such as the Blackburnian Warbler, Golden-crowned Kinglet and Rose-breasted Grosbeak. The endangered Peregrine Falcon was reintroduced to the area and falcons are now nesting on the cliffs of Whiteside Mountain. Look up and listen carefully. You’ll understand what we’re talking about.   


Highlands is surrounded by the Nantahala National Forest. That means you’ll discover shadowed stands of trees and rhododendron thickets that are unchanged since the days when the Cherokee lived here. There are trails and paths for every level of hiker to explore these forested mountains.  

Five hundred species of mosses, ferns, wildflowers, shrubs, and trees flourish in natural forest, wetlands and old-growth plant communities connected by a series of trails and boardwalks at the Highlands Biological Station. Highlands’ unusual climate and the fact that glaciers made this their southernmost point during the last Ice Age (delivering seeds and soil), we enjoy a diversity of plant life that’s unmatched anywhere else in the world.   

We have bogs in our mountains, and they contain pitcher plants. Few people realize we have our own carnivorous plants here in Highlands. These bogs are also home to rare and threatened species, including Gray's Lily, Cuthbert's Turtlehead, Swamp Pink, and the bog turtle, meaning these small, special places need our protection. 

Our forests are constantly changing due to human influences. One major example is the chestnut blight, an introduced fungus that wiped out mature (reproductive) American Chestnut over a hundred years ago. However, you can still see American Chestnuts in our forests - the roots of those ancient trees are still alive and send up new sprouts when the existing ones are killed by the blight. This may be how Yellow Mountain got its name. When the trees were mature the mountain would have looked yellow in the spring because of the American Chestnut flowers, and yellow in the fall because of their leaves.