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Celebrating its 90th anniversary in 2017, the Highlands Biological Station has a long tradition of research, teaching and learning taking advantage of the extremely bio-rich “natural lab & classroom” of the southern Blue Ridge that surrounds it.  Located in the town of Highlands, N.C. (elevation 4,118 feet), the Station is well equipped for scientific investigations and education, with modern classrooms, GIS lab, wet labs, seminar room, and library.  The 23-acre campus, a short walk from downtown Highlands, also contains dorms, molecular genetics lab, WPA-built natural history museum (Highlands Nature Center) and Amphitheater, beautiful Lindenwood Lake, and the renowned Highlands Botanical Garden, a 12-acre native plant botanical garden now in its 55th year.  Amenities further include the Weyman commons building, firepit, outdoor classroom, boats for use on Lindenwood Lake and the HBS Bike Fleet – freely available bicycles for pedaling around campus or around town.

Students in the Highlands Field Site program live in a ca. 1880 home, Valentine House, on the Highlands Biological Station campus.  Classes are based in the W. C. Coker Laboratory building, named for the noted UNC-Chapel Hill botanist and second Director of HBS in the 1930s-1940s.  But the emphasis is on fieldwork and experiential learning, from the Spruce-Fir forest of the highest peaks to the river basins.  Accordingly, much time is spent on trail and river, and, in the Cultural History seminar, visiting culturally significant sites illustrative of the many ways people have interacted with the mountain landscape over the centuries.

The program takes advantage of its proximity to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Qualla Boundary (Reservation of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Nation), Roan Mountain, Gray Fossil Site, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and other areas of interest to experience firsthand the complexities of environmental history and issues facing the southern mountains.

Health of the Headwaters The Blue Ridge Escarpment rises over 2,500 feet from the Piedmont to the Highlands Plateau, in eastern North America’s wettest locale (second only to the Pacific Northwest in average annual rainfall).  Highlands straddles the Savannah and Little Tennessee River Basins, and is situated at or near the headwaters of 7 river systems (Cullasaja, Tuckasegee, Chattooga, Horsepasture, Whitewater, Little Tennessee, and Thompson) — an ideal “base camp” for hands-on, field-intensive exploration of regional watersheds, hydrology, and river and stream systems and health.  Accordingly, the Highlands Field Site is increasingly focusing on forest ecosystem watershed and river & stream ecology and health — our “Health of the Headwaters” initiative.  The ecological, historical, and social context of logging, hydroelectric dams, farming, tourism, population, and global climate change will be explored in relation to Blue Ridge Escarpment headwater stream and groundwater dynamics, and students will have opportunities for study and research at nearby partner facilities such as the USFS Coweeta Hydrological Lab and Western Carolina University’s Hydrological Research Station.
Presentation of Highlands Field Site (PDF)

The Carolina Photojournalism Workshop, rich multimedia experiences put together by photojournalism students, featured some of the research at the Highlands Field Site from 2005. This five minute profile by UNC-TV shows some great footage of the Highlands Biological Station. More recently UNC-TV returned to produce this 2014 piece entitled Small Creatures/Large Lessons, featuring Highland Field Site students Whitlee Angel and Lindsey Ebaugh.  And last but not least, check out the field site’s 5-minute video “Pollination on the Highlands Plateau” focusing on pollination ecology initiatives at HBS in the broader context of the biorich southern Appalachian region.

The program, which is only offered in fall semesters, gives preference to rising UNC-Chapel Hill seniors, but rising juniors will also be considered. Students are encouraged to begin planning with their advisor during their sophomore year if they wish to go to the Highlands Field Site. The semester at the Highlands Field Site follows the same schedule as the University during the fall semester. It is expected that students will complete all the research and writing for their Capstone project during the time that they are at the Highlands Field Site.


Coursework for this field site would be suitable for students pursuing a concentration area in Ecology and Environmental Infrastructure.  Note that HFS students are required to complete an internship with a local organization or an independent study with a HFS faculty member.

  • ENEC 204 Cultural and Land Use History of the Southern Appalachians
  • ENEC 256 Mountain Biodiversity
  • ENEC 264 Conservation of Biodiversity in Theory and Practice
  • ENEC 395 Research in Environmental Science and Studies
  • ENEC 479 Landscape Analysis
  • ENEC 698 Capstone

Award Opportunities
Please visit the Institute’s Awards + Scholarships page for more information on these awards.

Recent Student Publications

The following faculty are involved with the HFS:

Contact Information

For more information about the Highlands Biological Station or the Field Site program, go to or Executive Director Jim Costa.