Cap 2.0-4.0 cm broad, convex, plano-convex in age; margin incurved, then decurved, minutely fringed in youth from veil fragments; surface glabrous, viscid when moist, hygrophanous, the disc rusty-brown to chestnut-brown, becoming cream to pale-tan towards the margin, drying overall to ochre-tan; context thin, approximately 1.0 mm thick, pallid to pale-yellow; odor not distinctive, taste mild.
Gills adnate, close, broad, at first pallid, then light-brown, in age tinged dark reddish-brown from spores; lamellulae in two to three series.
Stipe 2.0-4.0 cm long, 3.0-5.0 mm thick, equal, round, stuffed to hollow at maturity; surface of apex pruinose, the ornamentation pallid over a cream to pale-yellow ground color; lower stipe patchy-fibrillose, cream-colored, sometimes flecked brown to reddish-brown from maturing spores; base of stipe dingy-brown; partial veil fibrillose, pallid, evanescent, leaving scattered remnants on the stipe.
Spores 6.5-7.5 x 4.0-4.5 µm, elliptical in face-view, similar but slightly inequilateral in profile, smooth, moderately thick-walled, hilar appendage and apical germ pore inconspicuous; spores dark reddish-brown in deposit
Scattered, gregarious, to clustered on burnt soil, near charred logs or in fire pits; fruiting in the spring in montane regions after snow-melt; occasional.
This charcoal loving Pholiota often fruits near melting snowbanks. It is recognized by a viscid, soon dry, reddish-brown to chestnut-brown cap with a pale margin, and relatively broad gills. Other Pholiotas collected in burns include Pholiota carbonaria, Pholiota fulvozonata, Pholiota brunnescens, and Pholiota subangularis, now known as Pachylepyrium carbonicola. Pholiota carbonaria and Pholiota fulvozonata can be separated by their fibrillose to squamulose, viscid caps, and reddish to reddish-brown partial veils; Pholiota brunnescens differs in its larger size, more conspicuously fibrilloses-squamulose stipe, and narrower gills. It occurs commonly in foothill and coastal forests. Similar to Pholiota highlandensis and sometimes found fruiting with it is Pachylepyrium carbonicola. The latter has a smaller cap, 1-3 cm broad, and a spindly 1-2 mm thick stipe. Microscopically it has distinctive spores, up to 11 microns long, thick-walled, often rhomboid in face-view, with a well developed apical germ pore. Also seen on burnt ground is Myxomphalia maura, a Clitocybe relative that has a dark greyish-brown cap, adnate, notched, to slightly decurrent, pallid gills, and amyloid, roughened spores.