The arrival of spring is a big deal in the Great Smoky Mountains. Each year from March until June, Gatlinburg and the surrounding towns kick off Smoky Mountain Springfest. For nature-lovers all around, the annual Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park gives you a close-up view of this unique land and the creatures that call it home.
Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage: Years of Journeying Through Nature
The first Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage was held in April of 1951 and even then drew a large crowd from at least 20 states. Now in its 66th year, the Pilgrimage has grown from a two-day event to a week-long journey with programs and hikes both indoors and outdoors for nature lovers of all stripes. Volunteers and experts lead groups into the trails of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to take a tour of the flowers and trees that grow here, bird watch, or to improve skills in photography or nature sketching.
Looking Forward to 2016
The 2016 Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage will run from April 19-23. This year you can expect 146 programs and guided explorations so there is a little something for everyone. April 19 kicks off the Pilgrimage with registration at the Mills Conference Center or the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts. The festivities begin the morning of April 20 and popular events will be repeated so you don't have to miss out on certain programs. You can browse through their comprehensive brochure which lists out all the programs as well as times and meeting places.
What to Expect and What to Take
Some programs take place indoors at the Mills Conference center or the Sugarlands Training Room in Gatlinburg. Most take place out of doors and on various hiking trails that vary in their length and difficulty. Make note of any special needs that a particular program may require by looking at the brochure first. Longer programs may necessitate carrying a bag lunch along the hike, while a specialized photography class will require your camera and gear. For any of the hiking programs be sure to wear sturdy shoes for hiking and carry plenty of water to stay refreshed during your adventure.
Many of the group hikes during the Wildflower Pilgrimage are guided by volunteers who have expertise in the wildlife and vegetation of the Great Smoky Mountains. Since most of the guided hikes have limited capacity, it is important to check the brochure before arriving at the trail head and possibly being turned away until the next similar event. Hikes can be short and easy or last all day, taking you up strenuous trails. Guided hikes are a great way to learn about the ecology of the Smokies up close and personal and see nature in action.
For Bird Lovers Everywhere
Ornithologists and bird watchers will have the time of their life on the Wildflower Pilgrimage with plenty of programs that focus on identifying and seeing the birds that inhabit the Smokies. Since bird watching in the Smokies is a time to see rare species, there are several programs for birders throughout the length of the Pilgrimage that may repeat so you can see all there is to see. For those with artistic talent there is even a program on sketching birds in nature.
Just like the bird sketching programs, there are programs for photographers to help them capture the beauty of the Smokies to share with friends and family back home. While these may not be as extreme as some of the longer day-hikes where carrying your equipment is not recommended, you will have the chance to learn how to shoot nature in action as well as how you can get that perfect shot. Be sure to check the brochure for photography programs before your trip so that you can pack the equipment you need.
Parking and Shuttle Services
The Wildflower Pilgrimage can draw quite a crowd and all those people have to have somewhere to park. Some trail heads have only limited parking where an alternate parking area may be designated and a shuttle service offered. However, to keep your belongings safe and to avoid being towed, it is prudent to check the brochure for appropriate parking places. Some programs specify which parking lot you will need to meet in, and there are several places where wildflower pilgrims can park without incurring a fee or causing trouble.
Leave Only Footprints
During your pilgrimage you should keep in mind that the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a protected place and you are a guest in its fold. Take care to dispose of trash in appropriate waste bins and do not disturb the natural wildlife. Avoid picking flowers or any vegetation no matter how beautiful they are. One of the most important rules to follow is to not feed ANY of the park's animals as this can habituate them, causing more harm than good. Feeding animals such as bears can lead to future issues with park animals for the next group of pilgrims or hikers that come that way.
The Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage is a wonderful opportunity to see a diverse natural ecosystem as it wakes from its winter slumber. It is just one of many things you can do in Gatlinburg and the surrounding area to celebrate the warming season and the beauty of nature.