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KNOXVILLE — Every spring for the past 59 years, hundreds of nature lovers from all over the world have descended upon the Great Smoky Mountains as part of the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage.

The event, which began with botanists from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, now involves as many as 1,000 participants. This year’s pilgrimage — a five-day exploration of plant and animal life — will be April 21 through 25. Online registration is now open.

University of Tennessee Interim President Jan Simek will speak at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, April 23, at the W.L. Mills Conference Center in Gatlinburg. His talk, Prehistoric Art in Tennessee, will explore how prehistoric people in this area decorated their landscape with religious symbols both above and below the ground.

This year’s celebration will also include a Welcoming Luncheon and salute to Theodore Roosevelt in honor of his role in founding the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which is celebrating its 76th anniversary this year.

The pilgrimage’s roots sprang from UT professors Fred Norris and Royal Shanks, who worked closely with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park naturalist Art Stupka and the city of Gatlinburg to provide an educational component. The first pilgrimage was a quaint event with a hundred participants. Within 30 years, it grew to include more than a thousand participants from over 30 states, explained Ken McFarland of UT Knoxville’s ecology and evolutionary biology department.

“From the beginning, the botany and, now the ecology and evolutionary biology departments, have been an integral part in directing this event to its current 152 programs over five days with 115 leaders,” said McFarland, chairman of the pilgrimage organizing committee. “Over the past 59 years, many of the hike leaders have been UT Knoxville faculty and their graduate students, and the graduate students of these graduate students.”

The founders’ initial intention was to promote the incredible diversity of the spring flora in the region in a fun way. But education became an integral component due to the vast amount of knowledge shared by the dozens of leaders supplied by UT Knoxville, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and others. UT faculty will be contributing discussions about bats, salamanders, spiders, black bears and much more.

The Wildflower Pilgrimage is a joint venture of the UT Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts, the City of Gatlinburg Department of Tourism, the Friends of the Smoky Mountains National Park, the Gatlinburg Garden Club, the Great Smoky Mountains Association, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Southern Appalachian Botanical Society.

Along with outdoor programs and tours, the W.L. Mills Conference Center — the event’s registration site in Gatlinburg– will feature art exhibitions, merchants and related activities. Tickets are $75 per person for two or more days. Single-day tickets are available for $40. Student tickets are $10 and must be verified with a student ID.

For more information, call (865) 436-7318, Ext. 222, Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. or visit the Wildflower Pilgrimage Web site. Lodging information is also available on the site.

The host city of Gatlinburg was ranked one of the top five best bargain destinations for this spring by USA Today.

For an in-depth look into the pilgrimage, please read “A Walk in the Park” by Dennis McCarthy.

Note: Wildflowers pictures courtesy of John B. Breinig.

C O N T A C T:

Whitney Holmes (865-974-54609,