The 73rd Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a dynamic program with over 120 experts leading 200-plus educational opportunities, will take place April 26-29.
The director of the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage is Dr. Joey Shaw, UC Foundation Professor of Biology, Geology and Environmental Science at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
Registration for the four-day event, which regularly draws 1,000-plus participants, will open at 10 a.m. ET on Wednesday, March 1, via the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage website.
“The Spring Wildfire Pilgrimage is a nonprofit event in which we invite expert biologists and ecologists from every platform,” said Shaw, who has been part of the Pilgrimage since 1998 and director since 2015. “I handpick the experts and invite all of them based on their expertise and ability to communicate with the public.”
Shaw said the Pilgrimage offers expert-guided hikes to learn about wildflowers, trees and shrubs, pollination, ferns, mosses, fungi, lichens, insects, butterflies, spiders, salamanders and snakes, birds, owls, warblers, bats, bears, boars, parasites, animals of the leaf litter, stargazing, nature journaling, wildflower and bird sketching, human uses of the land and wild foods. There are programs for beginners and those with more advanced knowledge bases.
“The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the most diverse places on the planet,” he said, “and to have all of these experts there—and the sheer numbers of species that you can see on any of these hikes—is incredible. The biological diversity is impressive.”
The event program can be found on the website, and Shaw suggested attendees—known as “pilgrims”—do their prep work and plan out their own pilgrimages because registration often sells out.
“There are 200 different educational programs over the four days, and for one ticket price, people can sign up for as many experiences as they’d like,” he said. “People who register on March 1 should study the program now to figure out what courses or hikes they want to go on. There are even tips and tricks on the website to help with the registration process.”
Shaw said 20 UTC faculty and current or former students are participating as educational program leaders.
The Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage series began in 1951 as a collaboration between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the city of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and UT Knoxville.
Shaw first got involved as a graduate student at UT Knoxville. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in biology from UTC in 1998, he headed to Knoxville—where he obtained master’s (2000) and doctoral (2005) degrees in botany.
“I grew up in it,” he said. “My mentors at UTK (Ken McFarland, Gene Wofford and Pat Cox) asked me to help. Eventually they all retired, and I’ve been running the event since 2017.”