photo of mountain scene during sunset

Leave No Trace™ in Jackson County, NC

Simply stepping outside, seeing the grandeur of the mountain peaks, and breathing in the clean mountain air can make you feel right at home in the heart of Appalachia. The best mountains of the region are located an hour west of Asheville. Our mountain towns of Cashiers, Cherokee, Dillsboro, and Sylva have natural beauty and distinct mountain amenities, many of which can only be found here, that have made this region one of the most revered in the country for a reason.

As you gear up for your next trip to western North Carolina please be environmentally mindful and help us to keep our mountains ‘Clean and Green’ for generations to come. Curious where to start? Below is a list of the simple ways in which we can all do our part.

Respecting Wildlife

Jackson County is centrally located between America’s two favorite National Park Sites, the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Great Smokies are the most biologically diverse ecosystem in the temperate world, with over 19,000 species documented in the park. A great way to reduce environmental impact is to give wildlife their space and enjoy them from a distance.

Elk – Since being reintroduced in the park in 2000, the Great Smokies is now home to a thriving and protected elk population that can frequently be seen on the North Carolina side of the Park in Cherokee. These majestic creatures can stand up to 10 feet tall and weigh over 1,000 pounds. For this reason, it’s essential to view elk from the comfort and safety of your car, which can be done at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center where elk commonly graze the fields. Keep in mind that it is a federal offense to approach an elk closer than 50 yards, and elk, when threatened, can be dangerous creatures. Additionally, elk that begin to socialize and approach humans for food may be put down by park officials. Please make sure to never approach these creatures and to take photos from a safe distance.

Black Bears – Jackson County is home to a thriving black bear population, especially in the Great Smokies, where they can commonly be seen. Similar to elk, it’s illegal to approach a bear at a distance less than 50 yards, and for a good reason. Although bears are typically harmless to humans when undisturbed, mother bears with cubs can be very hostile. If you see a bear, make sure to remain alert and calm and do not approach it or allow it to approach you. Always bring along proper gear for camping, as well as bear proof containers for storing food and trash.

Salamanders – The Great Smokies are home to over 30 species of salamanders, making it the “Salamander Capital of the World.” These cute little critters have a delicate ecosystem in the park and live primarily under rocks and by riverbanks in moist areas. It’s important never to move or stack rocks, as many of these salamander species, such as the endangered hellbender, lay eggs under them.

On the Trail

Leave No Trace – The trails found in Jackson County are some of the country’s most scenic and beloved hikes. For areas like Panthertown Valley in the Nantahala National Forest, these principles are becoming even more important as it was recently named an “LNT Hotspot.” “LNT Hotspots” are defined as areas that have been suffering from overuse but can be revived with Leave No Trace solutions. The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics offers seven principles of Leave No Trace which we encourage everyone to adhere to in our backcountry wilderness.

  1. Plan Ahead and Prepare – Planning and preparation ensures every member of your group will have a fun and safe experience.
  2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces – Make sure to stay on the trail while hiking to avoid damaging sensitive habitats.
  3. Dispose of Waste Properly –Trash your trash and plan meals that avoid excess packaging to avoid carrying extra garbage.
  4. Leave What You Find – Leave rocks, plants, and archeological artifacts where they are.
  5. Minimize Campfire Impacts – While camping in the backcountry, consider cooking with a light stove, if possible, to avoid the negative impacts of excessive burning. Always check weather conditions before lighting a campfire and adhere to any burn bans in the area.
  6. Respect Wildlife – Do not approach or disturb wildlife. In the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it is a federal offense to approach animals such as elk or bears.
  7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors – Avoid making excessive noise while enjoying the outdoors. On the trail, the hikers heading downhill typically yields to those heading uphill.

*It’s important to note that campfires and camping are only permitted in designated camping areas. Make sure to acquire proper permits for the area and to research the selected location before you arrive.

Recreate Responsibly – Like Leave No Trace, Recreate Responsibly is founded on six pillars to help visitors Recreate Responsibly while outside: Know Before you Go, Plan and Prepare, Build and Inclusive Outdoors, Respect Others, Leave No Trace, and Make it Better. Learn more about the standards here.

#TrashTag – #TrashTag, the environmental movement to remove litter and restore the environment, was founded by Steven Reinhold, a long-time resident of Jackson County. To participate, bring along a trash bag on your next hike and collect any pieces of trash that you may see along the way. Snap a photo of what you picked up and hashtag #TrashTag when you post on social media!

OutdoorNC –In an effort to encourage the protection of North Carolina’s outdoor spaces, we’ve partnered with OutdoorNC. The best way to get involved in this movement is to follow its principle to “Leave it as you Find it.” This means snapping a photo instead of picking a flower, avoiding carving into trees, leaving rocks where you find them, etc.

On the Water

Jackson County’s waterways are equally as stunning as its vistas and include the Best Lakes in the NC Mountains, the WNC Fly Fishing Trail®, and the “mom-approved rapids” of the Tuckasegee River. Spending time on the water is a great way to enjoy the mountains, but please keep the following in mind.

Fly Fishing Trail Sportsman’s Pledge – the WNC Fly Fishing Trail® has over 92,000 fish stocked annually bringing anglers from all over to angle the pristine waters of the Tuckasegee. We ask users of the trail to follow the pledge: “as a true sportsman, I pledge to never litter and to avoid trespassing on private lands. I will respect the rights of property owners, and always leave the streams in better conditions than I found them.”

Recreating on the Water – taking a float trip down the Tuckasegee, relaxing on the lake, or even just sitting by the riverbank can all be great ways to enjoy R&R in Jackson County. If you are out on the water, make sure to bring a trash bag along with you, and please be respectful of private property along the river.

On the Town 

In our towns of Cashiers, Cherokee, Dillsboro, and Sylva, sustainability is at the forefront as we seek to maintain a vibrant destination and community.

NC Green Travel – many of our local businesses have been recognized by the NC Department of Environmental Quality as NC Green Travel certified. Favorites include Sylva restaurants like Guadalupe and City Lights Café and hotels like the Holiday Inn Express and Best Western River Escape in Dillsboro. This program highlights restaurant and lodging partners who incorporate ‘green’ principles in different aspects of their business, as well as having learned sustainability best practices.

Jackson County Green Energy Park – Tucked up on a hill in the artisan village of Dillsboro is the world-renowned Jackson County Green Energy Park. The JCGEP harnesses otherwise harmful methane gasses from the old town landfill and uses them to fuel artisan studios for local potters, blacksmiths, glass blowers, and more, and it is the only of its kind in the world.

Doing Our Part Together

Sustainability and stewardship go hand in hand. One of the best ways you can help with our effort of sustainability is by visiting during our ‘Secret Season.’

Our ‘Secret Season’ from January – March offers a peaceful mountain experience while simultaneously helping our county maintain a vibrant and sustainable tourism scene. Benefits of visiting our ‘Secret Season’ include hiking and enjoying your favorite trails all to yourself, no waits at your favorite restaurants and enjoying the beauty of snowcapped peaks in the distance. During this time of year, many hotels offer lodging specials and deals, meaning you’ll love the savings and our towns will benefit from avoiding overcrowding and negative impacts on the environment. We understand if summer and fall are more your pace, but please keep in mind one of the best ways to help spread the love during busier times of the year is to visit on weekdays.

Lend a Helping Hand – When visiting Jackson County, please consider getting involved in our many green efforts, such as Cleaning Up the Mountains, the Tuckasegee River Cleanup, or taking part in the #TrashTag challenge on your next hike. Organizations such as Friends of Panthertown offer trail cleanup days that are a great way to enjoy the trails and leave natural areas, hiking trails, and public lands better than you found them.

Every effort no matter how big or small is a step in the right direction to maintaining a clean future for the NC Mountains. Are you ready to get involved? Check out our Trip Planner for lodging, trip ideas, inspiration, and more.

Header Image Courtesy of Ben Robinson