Honors College Service Trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park

As a longtime hiker, I'm committed to maintaining our public lands for everyone to enjoy. Service learning and community-building are also pillars of an Honors education. When I received an email notification for a service project in Cataloochee Valley, one of my favorite areas in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it seemed like an ideal fit for an Honors College extracurricular experience. From a long list of interested students I recruited four — sophomore Jackson Cooter and freshmen Brittany Sparks, Gabby Lamb, and Abigail Burchard — to participate in the project. Together we drove to the valley, set up camp, and had a campfire cookout. The next day, we partnered with National Park Service employees and other volunteers, cleaned the historic Palmer House, and participated in an educational program about the reintroduction of elk to the valley.


From left to right: Honors sophomore Jackson Cooter and honors freshmen Gabby Lamb, Abigail Burchard, and Brittany Sparks.


Cataloochee Valley is significant both for its ecological uniqueness and its human history. Prior to the nineteenth century, the valley was heavily populated with buffalo and elk, and served as a significant Cherokee hunting ground. Euroamerican settlers moved in to the valley in the mid-nineteenth century and farmed corn, beans, and apples. At one point, the valley was home to approximately 1,200 people. These settlers were displaced when the park was founded in 1940, but the structures they left behind, including homes, cemeteries, barns, schools, and churches, remain.

Elk from Canada were reintroduced to the valley in 2001, and now several herds are active in the eastern section of the park. Cataloochee Valley, with its large fields that attract elk for grazing and fewer visitors than other sections of the park, is one of the best locations for elk viewing.


Elk are best viewed in the early morning and evening.


The group arrived on Friday evening and had the opportunity to view several large herds of elk in the valley. The elk were especially active, as it is currently their rutting (mating) season, and the group was able to observe elk behavior, including bull elk rivalries. Afterwards, the group spent the night at Cataloochee Campground and had a campfire cookout.

The next morning, the group met with Logan Boldon, Community Volunteer Ambassador for the park, to participate in an historical preservation project. The group was stationed at Palmer House, built in 1860, and worked for several hours to clean the house, wash windows, sweep, and pick up trash. The project was part of Smokies Service Days, an initiative begun in 2016 (the centennial of the National Park Service) to increase the diversity of volunteers in the park.


Honors sophomore Jackson Cooter prepares to clean Palmer House.


After lunch, the students were treated to an elk education program with volunteer ranger Ann Clayton. Because Great Smoky Mountains National Park has no entry fee, its revenue is limited, and many of its positions, including rangers, visitors center employees, and campground hosts, are staffed by volunteers.


Appalachian students, National Park Service employees, and other volunteers learn about elk from volunteer ranger Ann Clayton.


Overall, the trip allowed students to learn about the National Park Service and all it has to offer. The students also gave their valuable time and labor to help preserve a historic site. Hopefully this will be the first collaboration of many between Appalachian’s Honors College and the National Park Service!

Top photo: The team getting ready to get to work cleaning Palmer House.

Photos and story by:  Dr. Heather Waldroup

Published: Oct 10, 2018 1:28pm