Highlands North Carolina Natural Environment
Highlands North Carolina is nestled in a unique region of the Southern Appalachian Mountains where the climate is moderate, the plant life rich with flowering herbs and shrubs, the streams cascade from mountaintops and the high terrain gives stunning views of distant peaks and valleys. It is a place where the utmost care was taken to preserve the the natural areas and utilize them as nature intended, pursuant to an extensive environmental study by a top team of environmentalists.
Highlands, at 4118 feet, is the highest incorporated municipality east of the Mississippi. It is located on the Highlands Plateau of the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwestern North Carolina, just north of a common border with South Carolina and Georgia.
The town itself, with about 2000 permanent residents, straddles the Blue Ridge Divide, the main watershed of the eastern part of the continent, and the source of headwaters of the Chattooga and Cullasaja Rivers. The Chattooga, now a National Scenic and Wild River, plunges precipitously from the escarpment of the Blue Ridge, and flows southward to the Savannah River of the Atlantic drainage. The Cullasaja, in contrast, flows in the opposite direction to the Tennessee River, a major tributary of the Mississippi.
The moderate climate of the Highlands Plateau is a result of the mountainous topography and the high elevation at a relatively southern latitude. Extreme temperatures are rare. For example, in July, the warmest month, the average high temperature is 76 degrees and the average low is 56 degrees. In January, the coldest month, the corresponding averages are 42 and 24 degrees. Summer temperatures above 90 degrees are virtually unknown. Though winters may be cold and sometimes snowy, extended periods of extreme cold are unusual. Precipitation on the Highlands Plateau, averaging 90 inches per year, is among the highest in eastern North America. This is an effect of the steep, south-facing slopes of the Blue Ridge, which receives warm, moist air masses circulating northward from the Gulf of Mexico.
Most of the precipitation is rain, although snowfalls are not infrequent during the winter months. There are no wet or dry seasons; precipitation is on the average distributed evenly throughout the year, with July (6.3 inches) the driest and March (8.9 inches) the wettest.
The moderate climate, past and present, is the chief reason for the botanical riches of the area. The Highlands region was not glaciated during the southward advance of ice during the Pleistocene, and many mountain species which were lost in the north survived in the southern Blue Ridge. Further, the mild temperatures and high rainfall of the present day provide ideal conditions for e wealth of plant species.
The forests of the Highlands Plateau and the entire southern Blue Ridge were once dominated by the American chestnut, decimated by the the chestnut blight which spread into the region about 75 years ago.
Now only great barren trunks, some standing, some fallen, testify to the former predominance of chestnut. Although chestnut sprouts still appear from the root systems of old trees, they are attacked by blight at an early age and seldom develop into reproducing trees.
Yet despite the loss of chestnut, the forests of the region are rich in tree species. The most conspicuous conifers are white pine and Canadian hemlock which often occur together to form majestic stands of evergreens. Among deciduous species are several kinds of oaks and hickories, red maple, tulip poplar, three species of of mountain magnolias, sweet and yellow birch, mountain ash, and many others.
Flowering shrubs which are common in Highlands include the dogwood (blooming in late April-May), purple or Catawba rhododendron (May-early June), and great white rhododendron (late June-early July). But the crowning jewel of the flowering shrubs has to be the mountain flame azalea, which, in mid to late spring, in varying shades of yellow, orange and red, proclaims from every hillside the botanical glory of the southern Blue Ridge.
Ornithologists find the Highlands Plateau a delight.
More than 180 species of birds have been observed in the area, of which 79 are known to breed on the Plateau. Species of interest include the rare golden eagle, raven, rose-breasted grosbeak (in summer), evening grosbeak (in winter), white- breasted and red-breasted nuthatches, and many species of warblers.A number of northern and southern species of birds have overlapping ranges on the Plateau; this is true of other kinds of animals as well. Thus the region is a southern outpost for northern forms, but has a mild enough climate for numerous southern species. Added to these are native species found only in the southern Blue Ridge.
The result is unique associations of animals and plants, not to be found elsewhere on the North American Continent.
About half of the land in the Highlands area is privately owned; the rest is part of the Nantahala National Forest, and is open for hiking, fishing, hunting, camping, and other outdoor activities. In addition to the National Forests, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway are within easy driving distance of Highlands.
Hunting and fishing enthusiasts find the region a rich source of sport. Important game species are white-tail deer, black bear, gray squirrel, ruffled grouse, and wild turkey. Miles of clear trout streams, punctuated by by cascades and waterfalls, support populations of brook trout (native) and rainbow and brown trout (both introduced). Fishing for black bass, walleye pike, crappie, and other lake species is available in the several large reservoirs of the region. Hunting and fishing are regulated by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.
Hikers will find many miles of well maintained trails within a short distance of Highlands, most within the National Forest lands.
The Bartram Trail, a major interstate trail which traces the path of the early naturalist William Bartram, enters North Carolina from Georgia a few miles southwest of Highlands, crosses Scaly Mountain, and leads westward into the Nantahala Mountains, to intersect the Appalachian Trail. Other trails of note include the spectacular trail to the cliffs of Whiteside Mountain, and the Shortoff-Yellow Mountain trail which crosses the two highest peaks of the Cowee range.
The Highlands Plateau, rich in natural beauty and ecological diversity, offers abundant opportunities for outdoor recreation, learning, and aesthetic appreciation. Wise stewardship and a continuing concern for natural values will secure these unique Highlands riches for those who follow.