Nonprofit Spotlight: Friends of Hemlock Bluffs

In addition to a scavenger hunt and kid-friendly fact boards, the Children’s Nature Trail features a series of jumpable mushroom caps for children to enjoy.

Less than two miles away from the hustle and bustle of Cary’s Waverly Place sits Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve, a unique ecological island that the Friends of Hemlock Bluffs, a volunteer-based nonprofit organization, is devoted to supporting in whatever way they can.

As a state registered natural area, the majority of the preserve’s 140 acres is owned by the state of North Carolina, with a small parcel owned by the town, including park access, the Stevens Nature Center, the children’s nature trail and the outdoor education shelter. The Preserve itself is unique in that it harbors roughly 250 Eastern Hemlock trees and other mountainous vegetation not commonly found in the piedmont region of the state.

“It’s almost like a little visit to the mountains inside Cary,” said Jim Mason, president of the Friends of Hemlock Bluffs. “It’s also a forest in an urban area, and a nice little escape to wander around in.”

Open every day of the year from 9 a.m. to sunset, Hemlock Bluffs provides residents the opportunity to hike its shady, mountain-like topography and seek refuge away from their urban surroundings. The well-kept trails, boardwalks and scenic overlooks act as a magnet for locals and visitors, alike.

Residents are encouraged to attend scheduled volunteer workdays at The Bluffs.

“Since COVID has hit, the parking lots are full almost all of the time,” said Laura White, current secretary of the Friends and former supervisor at Stevens Nature Center. “There’s people out there who find their peace and mental health by visiting the Bluffs. It’s a routine for folks to come and take a hike, walk their dog or bring their families to enjoy the Preserve for the beautiful gem that it is.”

This love and devotion to the land is what drives the Friends of Hemlock Bluffs to help the Preserve meet their conservation education and natural resource management goals via fundraising, grant writing and “friendraising.”

The Friends have their roots in the Hemlock Bluffs Preservation Society, a group formed in the 1970s that advocated for protecting the Bluffs under North Carolina jurisdiction. The society succeeded in 1976, when Hemlock Bluffs became one of a few state nature preserves in North Carolina. By the mid-’90s, members of the Hemlock Bluffs Preservation Society sought support from the Cary Women’s Club to successfully fund exhibits, resources and equipment for the Preserve. In 2001, the board renamed itself “Friends of Hemlock Bluffs.”

“It’s not a social organization — we essentially exist to provide funds to Hemlock Bluffs,” said White. “Whether those funds go toward providing resources to the staff for their programs or providing funds for a conservation management project, the money that the members pay goes directly back to the resources on the property.”

Laura White, current secretary of the Friends of Hemlock Bluffs, shows off the newly updated, high-tech exhibits at Stevens Nature Center.

In collaboration with staff, the Friends have been able to identify the Preserve’s underfunded areas and lend a helping hand with support from the Town of Cary and generous benefactors like REI, Duke Energy Foundation and the Jandy Ammons Foundation. One of the organization’s largest contributions to the Preserve was the funding of the Children’s Nature Trail, which features a scavenger hunt, kid-friendly fact boards, a series of jumpable mushroom caps, a child-size telescope for wildlife viewing and a small playhouse.

The Friends’ most recent project has been updating the exhibits in the Stevens Nature Center, which were originally installed in the early 2000s. Over the last 20 years, the world and the way that people interact with exhibits has changed, says White. Upgrading the text-heavy walls with more hands-on, interactive exhibits continues to be one of their biggest fundraising efforts.

“Laura White especially has been instrumental in making the Children’s Nature Trail and the new high-tech exhibits happen over the last 7-8 years,” said Mark Johns, operations and program supervisor at Stevens Nature Center.

“The Friends of Hemlock Bluffs raise funds to implement important educational projects that we do not have in our current budgets. They have raised thousands of dollars so we can leverage through them and not take funds out of the Town’s budgets.”

The Friends of Hemlock Bluffs work in tandem with Stevens Nature Center staff representatives to support the Preserve’s mission and environmental education efforts. From left are Jim Mason, Friends of Hemlock Bluffs president; Morgan Burns, program specialist; Mark Johns, operations and program supervisor; Laura White, board member and Friends of Hemlock Bluffs secretary.

One service that the Friends provide is the opportunity to purchase an engraved paver in the Preserve’s courtyard — perfect for remembering a loved one, pet or commemorating an occasion. Other funding efforts include membership fees (members receive a 10% discount on nature programs), special events, individual donations via their website and partnerships with Evite and Amazon. Members attend events both at the Preserve and throughout the community, staff promotional booths, serve refreshments, organize fundraising events and attend quarterly meetings.

The Friends are proud to provide scholarship opportunities to ensure that the Preserve’s nature programs are accessible to all. Recipients of these scholarships are both children and adults who don’t typically have access to the Preserve’s programs due to a lack of funds, transportation, or social and mobility issues. The Friends believe that everyone deserves a chance to learn more about environmental conservation and protection and foster a love of nature.

Residents are encouraged to attend scheduled volunteer work days, with two of the Preserve’s largest events landing on National Trails Day and National Public Lands Day (pre-registration with the Town of Cary is required for all work days). Limited in-person, outdoor nature programs have resumed for toddlers through senior adults, providing residents with a great opportunity to learn more about this unique slice of heaven in their own backyard.

“Participate in the programs and learn more about Hemlock Bluffs,” suggests White. “When you know more about the ecology of the site, you can fully appreciate the Preserve and what we’re doing.”

For more information about the Friends of Hemlock Bluffs and their mission to support and preserve not only the land, but the experience, visit

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