Safe, legal, and local options for outdoor exercise

Many in the community are doing everything they can to adhere to the emergency guidelines mandated through state, county, and local governments to slow the spread of coronavirus. During this time of social distancing, outdoor exercise is specifically mentioned in Governor Roy Cooper’s stay at home order that went into effect yesterday.

The Order directs people to stay at home except to visit essential businesses, to exercise outdoors, or to help a family member. Specifically, the order bans gatherings of more than 10 people and directs everyone to physically stay at least six feet apart from others.

A woodpecker hangs out at The Village Green in Cashiers.

The Nantahala, Pisgah, and Cherokee Forests Services recently closed multiple trailheads and access points along the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, which includes popular hiking areas such as Dry Falls, Whiteside Mountain, and Glen Falls. The aim is to stop people from congregating in large groups, so closing some of the most popular attractions on the Plateau seems like a logical place to start.

Practicing social distancing is important and so is outdoor exercise, which is included in Gov. Roy Cooper’s recent stay at home order. Pictured above a mosquito checks out a flower at The Village Green.

So where can locals go to get their nature on without compromising the health and safety of those around them?

For starters, below are some guidelines to adhere to while outdoors posted by the Nantahala and Pisgah Forest Services courtesy of the Outdoor-Alliance. Click HERE to learn more about the Outdoor-Alliance.

Guidelines to adhere to while outdoors posted by the Nantahala and Pisgah Forest Services courtesy of the Outdoor-Alliance.

Editor’s Note: If you are sick, or showing symptoms of being sick, stay home. If you are in the midst of a 14-day quarantine, stay home. Below are areas deemed safe for locals to legally get some exercise outdoors. If the areas mentioned below are not in your county of residence, stay home, or at least get your exercise in your own county.

Highlands Plateau Greenway

Highlands Plateau Greenway is a trail system maintained by volunteers that winds throughout natural and historical locations throughout Highlands.

The Highlands Plateau Greenway is a nonprofit group who volunteers their time and effort to build and manage a trail system connecting natural and historic sites throughout Highlands.

“The past few weeks have thrown a real curve ball into our daily routines,” said HPG President Sonya Carpenter. “This could be an excellent opportunity for people to develop new, healthy habits like walking more and enjoying the beautiful spring weather and the emergence of the spring wildflowers. If you live in the Town of Highlands, you are likely only a few blocks away from a Greenway trail. Why not walk to your destination on the trail?  If you have no destination, just take a walk and let that be your journey.”


Stairs along the Highlands Plateau Greenway built by volunteers.

She added there are plenty of worthy stops long the Greenway.

“Our Greenway trails radiate out from town to accommodate great points of interest such as the Highlands Biological Station, the Bascom, Sunset Rock, and Satulah Mountain,” said Carpenter. “The trails can also be used to connect various neighborhoods to downtown. The residents of Big Bear Pen, Satulah, and Mirror Lake neighborhoods can use the Greenway trails to walk to town.”

Highlands Plateau Greenway crosses Mill Creek on a trail leading to the Highlands Rec Park.

Carpenter said volunteers are currently working on a new trail entrance on Oak Street and said HPG hopes to hold a series of guided hikes over the summer to better introduce the community to the many adventures and destinations accessible via the Greenway.

Map of the Highlands Plateau Greenway.

Highlands-Cashiers Land Trust

The Kelsey Trail Preserve is a great place for birding. The Kelsey Trail is part of the Greenway, but is maintained by the Highlands-Cashiers Land Trust.

All Highlands-Cashiers Land Trust properties are open.

“It should be safe to use our properties given the low density of visitors we typically see,” said HCLT Executive Director Gary Wein. “I can’t image any of the parking lots being crowded, ever.”

Wein added that it’s kind of early for much going on in terms of Spring blooms, but the views from Satulah Mountain are fantastic, and on a clear day hikers can see into South Carolina and Georgia. That view will get hazier as the weather gets warmer.

Squirrels, birds, deer, frogs, and tons more; there’s plenty of wildlife to see along the Kelsey Trail Preserve.

“We are pretty sure you can’t get Covid-19 from trees,” said Wein. “It should be safe to outdoors as long as you maintain social distance from others.”

Editor’s Note: One of my favorite properties managed by HCLT is the Kelsey Trail Preserve at the end of 5th Street in Highlands. It’s a short trail that leads to Rhododendron Park, but along the way are excellent spots for birding. I know people always scream Brushy Face when they think birding, but give Kelsey Trail a shot.

Highlands-Cashiers Land Trust trail map in Highlands.

Highlands Botanical Garden

Spring time in the Highlands Botanical Garden.

Highlands Botanical Garden is located at the Highlands Nature Center at 930 Horse Cove Road. The Garden contains nearly 500 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.

Highlands Biological Foundation Communications & Events Coordinator Winter Gary said they are encouraging folks to get outdoors and connect with nature, but do so responsibly. Gary emphasized the importance for people to keep their distance from others.

Spring time is an excellent time to visit the Highlands Botanical Garden.

“Social distancing is a critical step right now to combat the spread of the COVID-19 virus, so of course it is important for everyone to strictly follow all recommendations provided by the CDC as well as our state and local emergency and health services,” she said. “However, getting out in nature can be an antidote for isolation.”

A frog making noise during the Highlands Biological Station’s Salamander Meander through the Botanical Garden in May, 2019.

The Garden boasts over 450 native plant species with many spring blooms popping up, including the treasured Oconee Bells, a protected plant in N.C. that’s only found in six counties in the Carolinas.

“The garden is also a great spot for birding,” said Gary. “Earlier this week, our staff observed Northern Cardinals, Carolina Chickadees, American Crows, Blue Jays, and Brown Thrashers around the Nature Center. Many birds are returning to the Plateau now that spring has arrived, and the southern Appalachian Mountains has very high bird diversity. As guests walk around the garden, they’ll see mammals, insects, birds, amphibians, and more in our various habitats including trees, the lake, the bog, and our various demonstration gardens.”

A creek winds through the Highlands Botanical Garden.

Lastly, Gary asked visitors to act responsibly, not only for the health of the community during the stay at home order, but for the Garden as well.

“For those who do plan an outdoor excursion during this time, please consider that due to current circumstances, many large public areas are closed or have very few staff meaning that trash cans, recycling bins, and even restrooms are not being managed as they usually are,” she said. “It is important that we practice leave no trace principles. Whatever you bring on your trip with you, you should take home with you afterwards as to keep ourselves, our community, and our environment healthy.”

A map of the Highlands Botanical Garden courtesy of the Highlands Biological Station.

The Village Green

Pollinators are out and about as flowers bloom at The Village Green.

The Village Green in Cashiers is 12.5 acres encompassing meandering walking paths, a nationally recognized dahlia garden, beautiful native landscaping and stone walls, boardwalks over tranquil protected wetlands, a children’s playground with rustic pavilions for family picnics, sculptures by internationally renowned artists and two multi-use open-air event venues. Located at the intersection of Highways 64 and 107, it’s an ideal spot to get one’s nature fix on for the day.

“The Village Green is here for you with its wide-open green space and many therapeutic benefits,” said The Village Green Director Ann Self. “For example, you can stroll the winding pathways of The Village Green. Trees are budding and more than 200 daffodils are blooming right now. Support one of our local restaurants by picking up curbside take-out and have a picnic in one of our shelters.”

Visitors can hear frogs throughout The Village Green, especially along the boardwalk.

Self suggests finding one of the many benches tucked away throughout the park and bringing a book to read or a sketchpad, or simply sit and listen to the birds.

The Village Green is also a great location for birding, late morning or dusk tend to be the best times to visit to see an abundance of birds.

However, one area of The Village Green that is closed to visitors is the Village Play (the playground).

“It was an important decision for the health and wellbeing of our community,” said Self. “We want to discourage gatherings of more than 10 people, per the CDC guidelines, and encourage the practice of social distancing. Still, families with children might consider other forms of play, using the large grassy area at the Commons for games like Red Light, Green Light or Mother May I?”

The Village Green bustles with life during spring and is a great place to stroll through to get outdoor exercise.

Stay tuned to Plateau Daily News as new information becomes available to help slow the spread of coronavirus in the community.

Photos by Maggie Burd and Brian O’Shea
Article by Brian O’Shea
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Highlands Plateau Greenway

Highlands-Cashiers Land Trust

Highlands Botanical Garden

The Village Green

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