Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage: Still a Great Smoky Mountains Tradition

The Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage will take place this April in and around the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  Even with the extensive damage from November’s wildfires, nature enthusiasts should make plans to visit the festival, where they will still see an abundance of native flowers and foliage.

Dr. Ken McFarland, retired senior lecturer and professor of biology at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and the chairman of the Pilgrimage organizing committee, answered some questions about what will happen this year.

Photo courtesy of the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage Facebook Page
Photo Courtesy Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage

The wildfires’ impact

Q: What kind of trend do you see in the registration numbers?  Has it dropped off from last year’s festival, because of the November wildfires?
A: Our online registration is open until April 7. We had a robust registration start on March 1, 2017 which was larger than last year’s starting day.

Q: What would you tell people who are reluctant to attend this year’s pilgrimage for that reason, to encourage them to come visit?
A: This year because of the Chimney Tops 2 fire we have nine programs focused on fire ecology in the GSMNP. These programs filled up immediately on the first day of registration. I think people want to know about the impact of fire on the Park and what is going to happen next.

An expert perspective

Q: You have two zone fire management officers scheduled to speak on fire ecology.  What will people learn during this talk?
A: The reason there are two names with this program is they are both on fire duty that day.  So if one gets called away, the other one can give a presentation that evening. Their talk will focus on fire history in the Park, including the most recent one and the use of fire to manage wilderness. They will also talk about the spread of the Chimney 2 fire and the forest recovery.

The Pilgrimage’s programs fill up quickly

Q: Which programs (walks, motor tours, photography tours, art classes, seminars) are your most popular ones?
Of our 148 programs, 59 are about wildflowers and 25 about birds. The others are nature-related. Many programs are repeated 2-8 times. Generally, the most popular program is Wildflowers on Chestnut Top Trail.  However, even though it also filled up on the first registration day, I think the wildfire programs are the most popular this year.

Attendance and Interest

Q: How many visitors attend all  four days of the festival?  (Tuesday evening is for registration) 
A: For the past several years about 75% of registrations are for two or more days.

Q: Do you have many repeat visitors? 
About 45% have been to previous Pilgrimages and some have attended for more than 25 years.

Q: Why do you think they return every year?
They enjoy the forest, the Pilgrimage leadership, and the diversity of spring wildflowers in the GSMNP.

Q: Who is the typical attendee to the pilgrimage, if there is one?
A typical attendee has an interest in nature and, more specifically, in the GSMNP.  Our population is composed of all age groups from high school and college students to mid-career professionals and adults in their retirement years.

Other information to know

Q: Why did you choose Mary Ruden as your Artist-of-the-Year?
Each year the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts runs an artist competition for us. There were a number of art entries this year. The WFP organizational committee members vote on the art work they like the best. Mary’s art piece, Wildflowers, came out on top.

Q: Were there any areas of the National Park that you would normally tour, but were significantly damaged by the wildfire?
A: Most of the trails in the fire zone that we used before have been reopened. We are using a few of these again this year. The only trails closed during our event this year are Road Prong, Chimneys and Sugarlands Mountain trail. Of these, we had planned hikes on the Road Prong and Sugarlands Mountain Trails.  Maybe they will be open next year.  We do not use the Chimneys trail.

Q: Where are those areas?
A: Road Prong starts at Indian Gap (on Clingmans Dome Rd.) and ends on the Chimneys Trail. Sugarland Mountain Trail Starts at Mt Collins (on Clingmans Dome Rd.) and ends at Fighting Creek Gap.  They both parallel US 441 between Sugarlands and Newfound Gap.

Q: When do most people attend the pilgrimage – during the earlier part or the later part, or is attendance steady throughout? 
A: The heaviest days are Wednesday – Friday.

Q: What legacy do you envision the pilgrimage to have for the future?
A: The GSMNP has endorsed this program from the beginning, in 1951. They and all the other sponsors see this program as a great public educational outreach which will continue as long as there is public interest in the GSMNP.