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KNOXVILLE — Every year, they leave their homes, work and families—or many come with their families—and head to the Great Smoky Mountains to observe the beauty and learn about the wonders nature reveals at this time of year. These people are taking part in the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage, a tradition led by the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, for sixty-one years.

Wildflower PilgrimageThe event which began with a handful of botanists from UT Knoxville, now involves as many as one thousand participants. This year’s pilgrimage—a five-day exploration of plant and animal life—will be April 26 through May 1. Online registration is now open at and onsite registration begins April 25 at Gatlinburg’s M. L. Mills Conference Center.

A welcoming luncheon from 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. on Wednesday, April 27, at the Mills Conference Center features the program, “Why Bartram Matters.” Actor J. D. Sutton will impersonate William Bartram, a naturalist who explored the United States from 1773 to 1777.

The pilgrimage’s roots grew from the joint efforts of UT professors Fred Norris and Royal Shanks, Gatlinburg City Manager Bart Leiper, Art Stupka of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, and Lucinda Ogle from the Gatlinburg Garden Club. Providing an educational opportunity for people visiting the park, the first pilgrimage was a quaint event with some hundred participants. Within thirty years, it grew to include more than one thousand registrants from more than thirty states.

Wildflower PilgrimageIt has also matured from an organic gathering to a well-organized conference with 141 guided walks and indoor presentations over five days led by 115 professionals who guide participants through the region’s rich wildflowers, fauna, ecology, and cultural and natural history.

“The Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage provides an opportunity for people with different hiking abilities and interests to explore the diverse biological areas in the Smokies guided by field biologists who accompany them on trails to identify and explain the environment they’re experiencing,” said Ken McFarland, chairman of the Wildflower Pilgrimage organizing committee and lecturer in the biology department.

This year there are twenty-nine new events spread over the five days. There is also a photography contest open to the public. Details can be found at

Wildflower PilgrimageOver the past sixty-one years, UT Knoxville and the pilgrimage have been inextricably linked. Many of the hike leaders have been UT Knoxville faculty and their graduate students. This year UT faculty will continue to lead discussions about mosses, ferns, wildflowers, fungi, birds, bears, bats, wild hogs, salamanders and much more.

The Wildflower Pilgrimage is a collaboration among 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 its outdoor programs and tours, the event features indoor speakers, art exhibitions, merchants, native plant vendors and related activities at the registration site, Gatlinburg’s M. L. Mills Conference Center. Tickets are seventy-five dollars per person for two or more days. Single-day tickets are available for fifty-five dollars. Student tickets are twenty dollars and must be verified with a student ID.

For more information on the event and details on lodging, call 865-974-0280, Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. or visit

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


Whitney Holmes (865-974-5460,