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Outdoor Adventure in Highlands

Posted by: Jennifer Kornegay

Tucked neatly into the Nantahala National Forest and the Blue Ridge Mountains, Highlands sits at 4,100 feet above sea level and is one of the most bio-diverse locations in the country. These two characteristics combine to create some awe-inspiring views and provide plenty of opportunities for outdoor activities.

Flying High
At Highlands Aerial Park [], you can get a bird’s eye view of the area’s scenic splendor. This zip line park on High Holly Mountain opened in 2012 and at 3,400 feet in elevation, features the highest zips in the Southeast. Its expert guides provide all the instruction and equipment you need to feel completely safe and secure.

Take the canopy tour and soar through and above the old-growth forest. While most zip lines are pole-based, the zip lines at HAP are tree based and don’t just go from tree to tree, they transport thrill seekers from mountaintop to mountaintop.

The longest zip is the aptly named the Squealing Mare. At 1/4 mile long, 21 stories high, its combination of intense height, speed and views you can't get anywhere else will leave you breathless. HAP recently added another exciting adventure, a giant swing with a surprise drop that will have your heart racing.

But if all this sounds like a bit too much for you or your young children, there are other options for fun at HAP. The Brave Indian Family zip course is a smaller, lower system of zip lines that lets kids (and grandparents!) experience zipping too. Plus, HAP takes full advantage of its lovely surroundings with a nature trail that identifies more than 200 species of moss, trees, wildflowers and other plants. The walk along the path is easy and fairly flat, and there’s also a picnic area and a deck with fire pits at HAP (for the cooler months).

Catch a Rainbow
Within a one and a half hour drive of Highlands there are more than 3,000 miles of cool, clear public fishing waters, offering some of the area’s best angling action. For 32 years, Highland Hiker [], an outdoor outfitter and guide service with locations in Highlands and Cashiers, has been teaching folks how to fly fish and taking them to the sweet spots on rivers including the Cullasaja, Nantahala, Chattooga, Davidson, East Fork of the French Broad and more as well as smaller bubbling creeks and streams to try their skills.

Watching an aptly named rainbow trout rise up from the rocky bottom to take your fly, its brilliant green, pink and silver sides all a-shimmer, is nothing short of exhilarating. Whether you’re a novice or an expert (or somewhere in between), you can choose from a variety of types of rivers and streams and cast your line to try for a bite from rainbow, brook and brown trout.

Some waters are catch and release only, some are stocked and allow you to keep your fish at certain times of year, and some contain only native fish. These "native" waters provide more of a challenge, as stream-born fish are more wary. Delayed harvest streams are “super stocked" in October through May, and thanks to this and their easy access points, they promise the chance to catch a lot of big fish. In fall, winter and spring, these waters are catch and release, but in summer, you can take fish out.

Sign up for a lesson at Highland Hiker, and you’ll the ins and outs of the different rivers and learn knot tying, casting techniques and more before heading to the water. And don’t think you can’t do it. As owner of Highland Hiker David Wilkes explained, casting a fly-line may not come naturally, but it can be learned pretty quickly. “Like tennis or golf, most people don’t have natural fly-fishing ‘swing,' so lessons help,” he said. "It usually takes about two hours to get most people to the point that they can make a good cast,” he said.

And once you learn, there’s nothing like it. "Casting a fly rod is a really enjoyable experience and the best way to catch trout because they feed on aquatic insects. You can’t imitate those insects with a regular rod,” he said.

Even if you’re not in need of lessons or a guide, the folks at Highland Hiker will share some of their favorite places to fish and also rent rods and other equipment.