Great Smokies: Just what is a Wildflower Pilgrimage?

Birding with nerds at Great Smoky National Park

The timing was just right for our week in the Great Smoky Mountains. It was the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage, a Smokies tradition almost 70 years in the making. We assumed it would be mostly amateur outdoor enthusiasts giving ranger talks similar to what we have seen in other national parks, just focused on flowers.

Trilliums, the most popular of all the wildflowers in the park.

We vastly underestimated this Great Smoky Wildflower Extravaganza. The line to register was absurdly long, and people were nervous wrecks fretting over programs that filled up too fast (the Night Owl Prowl walk is the crowd favorite) and eager to snatch up the last few programs spots. I too, panicked and grabbed slots like a women possessed, if nothing else so as to keep pace with my fellow pilgrims.

Crested dwarf irises on the trail

It turns out that each program was a specialized hike or class with professional nature experts, often professors at nearby universities, rather than the young rangers or volunteers I expected. The topics were varied – from “Wildflower Identification for Beginners,” to “Forest Foods and Pharmacy.” A dozen hikes focused on trillium flowers, while other explored wildlife habitats of black bear, wild hogs and salamander. Native American pharmacology and history was another focus, and there were even skills classes on wildflower sketching and wildlife photography.

Hiking with our teachers along eastern side of the Smokies
Measuring oak trees with our tree and flower experts on the trail

All of our hike leaders were professors of biology or botany, including one legendary 88-year old botanist with 50 years of experience leading Spring Pilgrimage treks and an astounding historic knowledge of these mountains. Our bird expert was able to name 18 types of sparrows based on their calls alone, and other professors argued over the classification of an enormous oak based on bark patterns and fallen leaves. It was the ultimate nerdfest and we were overjoyed to have a ticket to the show.

A field of wild and delightful Spring Beauty flowers, protected from the feral pigs running amok in the park

We were led to an exclosure in the middle of the forest where a carpet of delicate white Spring Beauty were protected from foraging feral pigs. We learned to identify a dozen wildflowers, and about the existence of ‘sedges’ in the world of botany. We had deep conversations on human rights in China with a biology professor and hung out with a group of elderly ladies who made up the fan club for our suave British ornithologist who taught me that it’s utterly feasible to make a living traveling to all the most exotic places in the world as a bird guide.

More trillium, growing on a fallen log
Trout lilies

I think we inspired the spirit of our National Parks Pilgrimage by joining the Smokies Wildflower Pilgrimage with our professors and wildflower junkies. Hiking deep into the hills, seeking knowledge about the natural world, and taking the time (sometimes a lot of time!) to seek out the tiny wildflowers at our feet. Really slowing down was the magic of this week; I’ve never hiked that slow, taking out a hand lens to magnify the beauty of individual flower petals and then taking some more time to marvel at it and then some more time to share with your fellow hikers.

Dutchman’s Britches, another tiny wildflower we learned to identify this week.

The Smokies is the most visited National Park in the system with over 10 million people coming through annually – but most are just passing by in cars en route to other cities, other places, without even stepping out of their cars, not to mention these slow investigations of the minutiae of the Smokies. I highly recommend joining one of these Pilgrimages if you can – but if nothing else folks, at least steer clear of the tacky lights of Gatlinburg and its wax museum and take a long stroll through the forests.  Just remember to walk slow, and look down.

A rare Vasey’s trillium
Bishop’s Cap
Trout lilies
Learning to slow down and relax at camp too.
Blood root, the strangest name for this pure white beauty

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