Embracing and Protecting Nature

04 Apr 2024

Mountain Retreat & Learning Center is a sanctuary for all people and the earth


Just west of downtown Highlands lies an unsuspecting, serene, and idyllic mountain retreat with a connection to nature that is evident at even the slightest glance. In an area once inhabited by the ancestors of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI), the mountain peak serves as a sacred and spiritual landmark overlooking Blue Valley and what we now know as South Carolina, just due south. A designated Wilderness Study Area, indigenous cultures once filled the valley as they lived as one with the land. Even to this day, members of the EBCI visit to pay respects to this sacred space, which is now The Mountain Retreat and Learning Center (MRLC).

For just over two years, Steph Anderson has served as the Executive Director of MRLC. As she explained, “of the property’s 100 or so acres, 82 are protected in perpetuity through a conservation easement with the Highlands-Cashiers Land Trust (HCLT), and when you pass through the main entrance, you can see what a gift that is.”

With so much of the property protected, the retreat maintains a purity often missing in today’s world, the kind of purity that makes you want to take a deep breath and stay for a while. At the base of the property lies a working organic farm used for programs as well as providing food for the kitchen. The property is also host to several dozen dwarf white oaks, some 600 years old at last count, all of which are protected under the HCLT easement. Because of these trees, MRLC is part of the National Old-Growth Forest Network, a designation given to only four other areas in North Carolina. At the top of the mountain, resting amongst the rhododendron thickets that fill the understory, lies the main retreat center. With each section complementing the other, MRLC seems almost other-worldly, which only highlights its mission to make the world a better place through social justice, climate justice, and youth programs oriented towards inclusivity and respect.

MRLC’s history is rooted in the faith of the Unitarian Universalist, though no particular faith is imposed upon its visitors. With inherent worth and dignity as core values, it’s a place where people of all religions will feel welcome, respected and safe. According to their website, “They searched for somewhere they could deepen their engagement with their congregational communities and retreat with their families. When they found Little Scaly Mountain, they knew they discovered the right place and understood what it could become for so many.”

As a registered 501(c)(3), MRLC hosts programs year-round, and the public is encouraged to attend, visit, volunteer or donate. With nearly 150 beds, programs and reservations run throughout the year for events such as weddings, family reunions, corporate outings, wellness retreats, youth programs, and virtually any other like-minded group. 

For those considering MRLC for an event or retreat, the working farm is a particular draw, offering a connection to nature that is immediate and profound. “I love to connect guests with the food grown on-site,” says Anderson. “The dining staff works fervently with the farm to promote healthy and eco-friendly options that also promote energy conservation, composting, low food waste and regenerative farming. The public is welcome to come and volunteer in the farm, which offers a direct and meaningful connection to nature.” For those who are interested in purchasing food grown at the farm, products are also available at the farmers markets in both Cashiers and Highlands.

As for larger events, current campaigns include an upcoming Climate Justice Summit running from April 28 to May 3, where a diverse set of leaders, activists, artists, educators and facilitators in the areas of environmental justice, climate science, public policy and community organizing will discuss global climate change and offer pragmatic responses. With most events open to the public, everyone is encouraged to attend. MRLC also offers summer camps for children, a program that has been active for 43 years.

Thanks to HCLT and its care for the land, MRLC will be saved forever and will continue to be a learning center and a place to connect with nature. MRLC is located at 3872 Dillard Rd, Highlands, NC 28741, about 15 minutes west of downtown as you head toward Georgia. To learn more or to make a donation, visit www.themountainrlc.org or give them a call at (828) 526-5838.

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