Standard disclaimer: This is the first of three blogs featuring nature adventures incidental to wedding weekends this year. As my wife is keen to remind me: Remember, Matt, this isn’t a birding trip; we’re here for the wedding. I wholeheartedly agree. But when people get married in particularly special places, I tend to spend my spare time exploring the natural world. That’s what this blog will cover.
On with the story: This May we headed to the far western part of the state for my sister-in-law’s wedding in Highlands, NC. Neither my wife nor I had visited this part of the state before. As you may have noticed, my blog posts (and in general, my travels) are skewed towards coastal destinations, and I don’t often write about our local mountains. That’s a shame, as the lush forests and sweeping views of the Blue Ridge offer a sense of peace and beauty very different from that of the coast. I couldn’t live without either, and it’s nice to have both so close to home. Spring is also an especially good time to visit the mountains, which are alive with birdsong and other wildlife.
It’s a long way from Chatham County to Macon County. So, after hitting the road after work on Tuesday, we stayed overnight in Black Mountain. Following a bit more driving Wednesday morning, our first activity was a 12-mile hike up Yellow Mountain. 3000 feet of elevation gain was spread over several smaller highish-elevation peaks before we reached the official summit at 5127 ft. The hike offered great views, zero people, and a nice assortment of singing warblers (including an impressive 33 Ovenbirds and 25 Black-throated Blue Warblers). It was also nice to hear and see a handful Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, which I rarely hear singing in the piedmont. The wildflowers seem to be on a constant rotation schedule in the mountains, and I saw plenty of new ones this spring (though I haven’t started identifying plants in earnest… yet). Also interesting was some “bony beard lichen,” strongly resembling Spanish moss of the southern lowlands.
Free time activities on Thursday included slightly less hiking. We explored the Highlands Biological Station, a short walk from downtown. It’s a neat place, with trails showcasing bogs and a native plant botanical garden before encircling the man-made Lindenwood Lake. A pair of American Red Squirrels and a Solitary Sandpiper were the most interesting animals here.
Next, we went on a dirt road driving tour through US Forest Service lands. Our first top was Secret Falls, which was peaceful and crowd-free. Wildlife highlights included a singing Swainson’s Warbler and some Wild Turkeys along the dirt road.
Although we were only a few miles from the Georgia border, we veered southeast to the mountains of South Carolina. Yes, there are Blue Ridge mountains in GA and SC, if just barely. We started our SC hike in the Bad Creek Recreation Area towards Lower Whitewater Falls. However, we soon turned around after realizing you can’t actually see the falls unless you hike 3 or 4 miles further down the trail. The wildlife highlight on our aborted hike was an Orange-patched Smoky Moth (lifer). I also added a couple mountain birds to my SC list (Broad-winged Hawk and Black-throated Green Warbler).
We had better luck after driving back into North Carolina to visit Upper Whitewater Falls, which was more easily accessible. At 411 feet, it’s the highest waterfall on the east coast, and the views were spectacular.
We ratcheted down our outdoor activity levels as the wedding grew closer. On Friday, our main outing involved a greenway walk between downtown Highlands and Mirror Lake. The walk featured a nice assortment of singing warblers, a Veery, and both Red and Gray Squirrels.
After that, I split off for a fun drive along the winding roads paralleling the Cullasaja River, stopping at a few local waterfalls. These included Sequoyah Falls (the outflow of a lake in Highlands), Bridal Veil Falls (underwhelming), and the Dry Falls (impressive, huge, wet, and poorly named).
I rounded off the day with a visit to Highlands Biological Station, where I enjoyed photographing a Common Snapping Turtle.
The generally cloudy weather that persisted for most of our trip finally loosened up on Saturday. I took advantage of the late morning sunshine with another visit to the Highlands Biological Station, where I spent some time nerding out with dragonflies and damselflies. The best bugs were a few Aurora Damsels (lifers); it was also great to see a Comet Darner, lots of Stream Cruisers, a Painted Skimmer, Azure Bluets, and many other species. Also present were many turtles, a Common Watersnake, some colorful Rosyside Dace (among more mundane pond fish), and a few unidentified azure butterflies.
I also spent a couple hours in the early afternoon wading the Cullasajah River. It’s hard to beat the serenity and connection to nature that comes from stepping through a clear mountain stream. Wildlife highlights included a handful of Uhler’s Sundragons (lifers) that I netted and released, a Common Watersnake, and some unidentified sculpin fish.
That’s about it as far as nature was concerned. Others in our party saw Black Bears around town, but I regrettably missed them. Maybe next time!
Summary by the Numbers
We covered about 700 miles by car. No biking, boating, or kayaking, but we did hike a fair amount, with daily hikes tapering from 12 miles to 6 to 3 to 1 to 0. I saw or heard a modest 61 species of birds, including 15 or 16 species of warblers. Other vertebrates included 6 species of reptiles, 1 amphibian, 3 mammals (all rodents), and a few types of fish. Insect life was dominated by 16 species of odonates, followed by a handful of butterflies, moths, and other critters.