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Sixty years ago it was just a seed of an idea inside Bart Leiper’s head — a celebration of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Leiper, general manager of Gatlinburg’s Chamber of Commerce, wanted to develop an event that showcased the vast amount of flora and fauna in the park. He wrote Samuel Meyer, then head of the botany department at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, requesting the department to arrange a so-called spring flower jubilee.

Seeing the opportunity to turn the park into a giant outdoor classroom for students, botanists and nature-lovers alike, Meyer agreed. He recruited UT professors Fred Norris and Royal Shanks to work alongside Great Smoky Mountains National Park naturalist Art Stupka and the city of Gatlinburg to organize the first ever Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage in the Smokies.

The forecast called for rain the April weekend of the event, and that had Gatlinburg Garden Club member Lucinda Ogle worried. She feared that the wet weather would limit the pilgrims’ access to the trails and they would not get to experience the pristine beauty of the diverse flora and fauna that coat the mountainsides.

So Ogle improvised.

She washed a case of 24 glass Coca Cola bottles, picked some of the rarest flower specimens from her own woodland garden, placed them in the bottles and carried them to the pilgrimage meeting. Her Coke bottle flower garden saved the day and has remained a centerpiece of the pilgrimage.

Even though National Geographic magazine covered the 1951 pilgrimage, the event had humble beginnings. Little more than a 100 participants attended 10 tours led by 11 leaders over a two-day period.

But the pilgrimage grew wildly in popularity. Within 30 years, more than a 1,000 participants made the trek from more than 30 states to view the explosion of colors and variety of wildlife that call the Great Smoky Mountains home.

Today, the pilgrimage is a five-day celebration with 115 leaders and more than 150 programs, featuring natural history walks, motorcades, photographic tours, art classes and indoor seminars. The tours showcase the abundant varieties of plants, birds, reptiles and amphibians native to the Smokies. Some trips last all day, others but a few hours.

A team made up of members of UT Knoxville’s Division of Biology and Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and the Tennessee Valley Authority selects the trips each year. UT Knoxville provides the leaders and the other sponsors provide logistical support.

This year’s pilgrimage will be April 21 through 25. Online registration is now open at

UT 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.

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.

The Wildflower Pilgrimage is a joint venture of the UT Knoxville 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.

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