Word from the Smokies: Fall glamping eco-adventure supports biodiversity nonprofit
By Hayley Benton
As the lush green hues of summer fade, yielding to the crisp crimson colors of autumn, the Great Smoky Mountains undergo a breathtaking transformation. Under the canopy, golden sunlight filters through a kaleidoscope of leaves, casting a warm, ethereal glow on the landscape. Small animals ‘shuffle-crunch-snap’ through the leaf litter, gathering fallen nuts and overripe berries in preparation for the long winter ahead.
This year, amid the commotion of critters and tucked into the mountains’ marbled mosaic, one small group will discover all that’s alive and active at the height of foliage season on the first fall Great Smokies Eco-Adventure.
Organized by Discover Life in America, a nonprofit partner of the park, each Great Smokies Eco-Adventure puts deeper connections with nature at the forefront — encouraging adventurers to explore biodiversity by finding, identifying and learning about species in their natural habitats.
“Instead of focusing on the hike’s destination, these experiences center around the discoveries made along the way,” said DLiA Executive Director Todd Witcher. “Each day is a new adventure to explore the Smokies and its incredible biodiversity. And while the focus of the trip is to provide an in-depth experience for nature enthusiasts, we have a lot of fun too.”
The new fall adventure, which will be held Sunday, October 29, through Tuesday, October 31, is an expansion of the “glamping” (glamorous camping) program that DLiA has organized each spring for the last three years. Each eco-adventure experience includes off-the-grid lodging, gourmet food and drink and guided nature hikes. It also doubles as a fundraiser for DLiA, supporting vital research on biodiversity in the national park.
“Spring is nature waking up. Spring is about growth and new birth,” said Jaimie Matzko, biodiversity program specialist for DLiA. “In the fall, it’s a totally different world. There’s so much activity. Sure, we love seeing beautiful fall colors — it’s the most popular time to visit the park for a reason — but it's also such a great time to enjoy one of nature’s greatest transitions, to watch as each species gets ready for this slower time of year.”
Eco-adventures have proven to be popular with those who love the outdoors: avid naturalists, solo travelers, camping couples and families with teens. Limited to just 15 participants per season, the small group setting provides ample time for individuals to ask questions, learn from and chat with the expert guides.
Adventurers spend their days exploring the wilds of the Smokies on expert-led nature hikes and their evenings and nights “glamping” at Camp Atagahi, a premiere off-the-grid luxury camping facility owned and operated by partner organization A Walk in the Woods. Evening activities include a night walk to learn about nocturnal life in the mountains and time around the campfire with new friends. All hikes and programs are led by DLiA staff: Dr. Will Kuhn, science and research director and entomologist, and Matzko, a recipient of REI Adventures’ “Top Guide of North America” award.
Serving as REI Co-op’s Signature Camp for excursions in the area, Camp Atagahi is tucked into the woods along a babbling creek near Cosby, Tennessee, just east of Gatlinburg and bordering the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Here, eco-adventurers stay in spacious tents atop wooden platforms outfitted with cozy camping cots for each guest. Though participants are invited to “unplug” at this off-grid outpost, they won’t be roughing it.
“Since the last day of the trip is on Halloween, the fall Eco-Adventure will be the perfect time to connect with some of the park’s more stereotypically ‘spooky’ creatures,” Matzko said. Bats, for example, “are out hunting at dusk, flying around and using echolocation — so we’ll be breaking out our new bat detector to record and identify different species through sonar. We’ll also go out after dark to look for millipedes and other creatures with UV flashlights, which let us see plants and animals in a totally different way. Millipedes, spider eyes, certain mushrooms, salamanders — you’d be surprised how many species fluoresce in the dark!”
Later in the evening, between sips of cocoa and illuminated by the glow of the campfire, participants can call to the barred owls in the treetops.
“After we’ve eaten dinner, we’re hanging around the fire before bed — it’s a great time to get people outside of their comfort zones a bit,” Matzko said. “I’ll do my best owl call, encourage others to try themselves, and it's always kind of fun to see if we can get anything to answer back. Sometimes the owls start calling before we even get a chance to all say ‘hello.’”
All proceeds from the Great Smokies Eco-Adventure help support DLiA, a Gatlinburg-based nonprofit that aims to identify, catalog and observe the park’s estimated 60,000-plus species through its flagship project, the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory. Currently, fewer than half of that approximate number, 21,669, have been officially identified by park scientists, opening up opportunities for discovery on each and every outing.
Tickets for the fall 2023 Great Smokies Eco-Adventure are $950 per person, which includes all food (including vegan and gluten-free options) and libations, glamping accommodations, entertainment and transportation during the event. Tickets are limited, so those interested are encouraged to reserve their spots soon, as trips often sell out.
Registration closes on October 9 or when all tickets are sold. For more information about the event, visit dlia.org/event/fall-smokies-eco-adventure.