Explore Nature

Highlands is Home to Rare and Endemic Plants and Animals

Some say ours are the oldest mountains in the world. Their geology tells us that they were formed a billion years ago and over time changes in the landscape have created ideal habitat for a plethora of plants and animals like no other place in North America. They are home to 400 rare and more than 250 endemic plants, meaning they occur nowhere else on the planet.

Our streams and rivers contain the largest variety of fish, fresh-water mussels and crayfish in the temperate world and new species continue to be discovered. Indeed, our forests are the most ecologically rich in the world but it's not just the plants and wildlife who thrive here.

While not endemic, a stroll through the Plateau’s woods and meadows will reward the alert guest with glimpses of racoons, otters, snakes and terrapins, bears, and occasional bobcats. Foxes still abound, although the arrival of coyotes over the last few years may have diminished their range. Armadillos are rumored to have recently arrived on the Plateau, and you’ll still hear of occasional sightings of mountain lions, although they are supposed to have vanished from the forests around here nearly 100 years ago.


 It used to be that spotting a Black Bear in Highlands was a noteworthy event.   Nowadays, if you spend any time in town – in the woods, at a home on the edge of the woods, at one of the country clubs, even on Main Street – you’re bound to run into one.  It’s not like they’re seeking out a Close Encounter. It turns out they’re spectacularly uninterested in you. They’re inevitably looking for an overstuffed garbage can, or a generously seeded bird feeder.  The last thing they’re looking for is a confrontation with you (and your dog).  Having said that, there are some simple steps that you can take to ensure that your Bear Encounter is a simple learning experience for both parties.


For breathtaking views of the Nantahala National Forest, take a backcountry, adventure excursion with Highland Excursion.  Spanning approximately 250,000 acres, complete with waterfalls, rivers and mountain views as well as historic buildings, the Highlands-Cashiers Plateau’s natural beauty and history are well-suited for the avid hiker and the modest explorer alike. We recommend dedicating three to four hours to tour. Your four-legged hiking buddy is welcomed, too!  For more information, call (864) 373-4022 or email



The woods, meadows and skies of the Plateau are teeming with glorious birds. Their chorus of songs begins in the hour just before dawn and continues until dusk, with occasional arias from nightingales performed in the middle of the night. Since its earliest days, Highlands has portrayed itself as a getaway from the stresses of modern life. That message extends all the way to the avian world, with the Highlands-Cashiers Plateau being designated an Important Bird Area by The Audubon Society which means it’s a habitat vital to the survival of several species of birds. The elevation, which rises to 4,600 feet, creates an ecosystem that is more like southern Canada than what you’d expect in the Southeastern United States. This habitat is home to unique species of animals, plants and birds that are not found at lower elevations. Over 160 species of birds use the Highlands area regularly for breeding, wintering or spring and fall migration.  Birds such as the Redbreasted Nuthatch, Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Golden-crowned Kinglet regularly nest and breed in Highlands and are not usually found breeding just 20 miles to the South. The Highlands Plateau Audubon Society has programs and field trips where you can learn about the birds of Highlands and where to find them.  The first place to start birding in Highlands is the Highlands Nature Center, Botanical Garden and Sunset Rock Trail. Common species found in this area are the Blue-headed Vireo, Redbreasted Nuthatch, Black-throated Blue Warbler and the Canada Warbler. For the more adventuresome, walk to the top of the trail at Whiteside Mountain where in the spring, Peregrine Falcons nest on the steep rock face.  Finally, drive Rich Gap Road to look and listen for a rich variety of species including the Scarlet Tanager, Worm- eating Warbler and Ovenbird. At the beginning of Rich Gap Road in Horse Cove don’t miss the Padgett Poplar Tree Trail and the third largest Tulip Poplar tree in the United States. This is a good place to see the Blackthroated Green Warbler.



Highlands’ rich collection of plants, and healthy populations of wildlife comprise one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world. Since the Highlands-Cashiers Plateau is a rain forest, vegetation grows in lavish proportions. The hollows and summits found on the Plateau have allowed an astonishing variety of plants to thrive, many are holdovers from the last Ice Age.

To appreciate the depth of this bounty, take a stroll through the Highlands Botanical Garden, located behind the Highlands Nature Center on Horse Cove Road (an easy stroll from downtown). Wander through 12 acres of woodland trails to discover nearly 500 species of wildflowers, ferns, mosses and trees flourishing on the Plateau. It’s open year-round from dawn to dusk, free of charge. While you’re at the Highlands Botanical Garden, make a point to go inside the Highlands Nature Center and buy a copy of Highlands Botanical Garden: A Naturalist’s Guide to make the most of your visit. It’s the first-ever guide to the garden, with maps, historical overview, and profiles of hundreds of native plants. Not so much identification guide as botanical celebration, this commemorative Botanical Garden volume introduces readers to little-known aspects of our native plants, from the backstory to their names to their ecology and natural history.



There is quite a variety of flowering plants in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Here is a list to highlight a few of the 1,600 species.

MARCH- Columbine • Hepatica Jack-in-the-Pulpit • Trout Lily Violets • Wild Plum

APRIL- Bleeding Heart • Meadow Rue Phlox • Solomon’s Seal • Trillium

MAY- Bluets • Flame Azalea • Mountain Laurel • Wild Geranium

JUNE- Butterfly Weed • Rhododendron • Daisy Flame • Azalea • Hydrangea Magnolia • Oxalis

JULY- Bergamot • Coreopsis • Partridge Berry • Queen Anne’s Lace • Rhododendron

AUGUST- Bee Balm • Evening Primrose • Joe Pye Weed • Turtlehead

SEPTEMBER- Boneset Fleabane • Lobelias • Sunflowers •Yarrow



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