A camp within a national park sounds like a great idea, but the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont is more than a camp.
“You get to experience the Smokies in a way that is not only more in-depth than a just a day visit, but it’s also a really good opportunity to do things like night hikes, campfires in the evening and storytelling and just have a well-rounded experience that’s unlike any other thing you’re going to have in the national park,” said Tremont President and CEO Catey Terry.
A nonprofit partner with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tremont has been connecting people with nature for more than 50 years, but don’t think of it as just a camp with the benefit of dorms, bathrooms and meals provided.
Tremont offers not only a more catered experience but also a sense of community through shared experiences, Terry explained.
People of all ages experience Tremont throughout the year in different ways.
Children as young as 4 can stay overnight with parents or grandparents in a Firefly Camp, but for decades most children’s first experience at Tremont has been a school trip, a program that draws participants from more than a dozen states.
Terry herself visited as a sixth grader and was surprised later while living in North Carolina how many people had not yet heard of Tremont.
Tremont’s programs draw participants from more than three dozen states, with offerings for teens, college students, adults, first responders and seniors. Some just discover it by following a sign on their way to Cades Cove, dropping by the facility and asking, “What are you?” Terry said.
“There’s a tendency for people to think of Tremont as a science camp or science organization, but it’s really so much more than that,” she said.
At its core it offers a large outdoor classroom, allowing a connection with nature to bring in other components.
Students standing at the cemetery may learn about the history and culture of those buried there, while another student group may explore math through sampling what they observe in nature.
From the vantage point of the area known in recent decades as Girl Scout Rock, Terry said, “You start to see that these places are so important to different people in different ways,” from prehistoric to present day.
“A fifth grader can go in the same field as a Ph.D. student or an adult, and they’re all going to have a different experience,” she explained. “It might look the same; it’s the instruction that can be different.”
At a stream, a 5-year-old may receive a very basic introduction to nature, catching and identifying critters.
A climate scientist at the same stream may talk about water quality and chemistry and how those may change over time.
During a photography workshop, the stream’s currents and eddies offer opportunities to explore shadows, motion and camera aperture.
Tremont’s teacher naturalists and interns aren’t just supervisors or chaperones. They are trained to connect people with what makes the Smokies so incredible, and many hold advanced degrees in areas such as birding or lichen, Terry noted.
“They’re not going to go out there and just preach everything they know,” she said. “They want to build that interest and that excitement about birds in others, and they recognize that starts with seeing the bird-banding process or watching and listening for birds as they’re migrating through. It’s really a unique opportunity for them to share a common love or help build a common love for some of the critters and creatures and whatnot that we find in the Smokies.”
They are trained to allow participants to observe and come up with their own questions, which lead to greater exploration.
Tremont trains school teachers to foster learning in new ways and shows people through the Southern Appalachian Naturalist Certification Program that they can build knowledge and skills to enjoy things more deeply, even if they don’t know everything such as the Latin name for a plant, Terry explained.
Community science programs also are prevalent at Tremont, including bird banding, monarch butterfly tagging, monitoring wood frogs and phenology, studying changes in the Walker Valley ecosystem.
“We provide opportunities for people to connect with science that’s being done in the park, and it doesn’t have to be a very high level,” Terry said. “It can just be as a community member.”
Taking it home
The COVID-19 pandemic shut down several programs at Tremont, but when schools closed, the staff jumped in to offer a range of options through social media for people to connect with nature while still at home, prompting activities such as nature journaling.
On Memorial Day weekend, about 200 teams joined in Tremont’s Great American Camp-In, receiving instructions for scavenger hunts and other activities online to earn points for prizes.
Tremont also was among the GSMNP partners that contributed to Smokieees.org (with three E’s for Explore, Entertain and Escape), online content that brought the Parks as Classrooms idea to people’s homes.
Starting at home can create pathways of experience, Terry explained, from drawing the trees they see from their window to exploring a local park and then more. “That has started a lifetime of learning and a lifetime of love for nature,” she said. “We know we have succeeded if we can do that.”
On the Tremont campus, Terry also has seen the impact of the hike to Spruce Flats Falls, less than 2 miles round trip, not an easy hike but not too difficult for a broad range of physical abilities.
Hikers may discover something about themselves, perseverance, motivation and goal-setting. Even those who hate sports and never hike discover the pride of completing that journey. It becomes a metaphor for achievement.
Terry said she came to Tremont with the understanding that “Education is the most powerful tool we have to save the places we love.”
Saving the Smokies isn’t just about conservation but also the mental, physical and emotional health benefits people receive from nature.
“What I didn’t realize is that sometimes it’s those places we love that save us in return,” she said.
Programs fill up quickly, so follow the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont on Facebook and Twitter, @gsmitremont, for information.