Through the years, our family has taken many guided tours, mostly in national parks. We always learn something new, and it’s a great way to get out of doors on a field trip. This year we were following the Apologia “Flying Creatures” curriculum, and my kids’ assignments included completing the Bird, Insect, and Wildflower Pathfinder honors. So, when a friend suggested attending the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage in the Great Smoky Mountains, we jumped on it!
The title “Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage” is something of a misnomer only because it doesn’t just cover wildflowers. Experts in ornithology, entomology, biology, forestry, ecology, and herpetology join botanists. Artists and photographers are included to teach nature journaling and photography classes. Park rangers and managers round out the experienced staff.
We chose to focus on wildflowers, birds and nature journaling, though we were sad that the salamander tour filled up so fast! I spoke with a birder who had attended the salamander walk, and he reported that they had seen 11 species of salamander in one morning!
My kids thoroughly enjoyed the wildflower walk, and having an easy-to-use wildflower guide with clear pictures was exceptionally helpful! This particular book is organized according to when flowers bloom, so the smaller kids only had to flip through a small section of the book, rather than the whole thing, to successfully find a match to what they were viewing along the trails. (Most guides are organized according to flower color.) All together, we identified more than 40 wildflowers or flowering bushes/trees.
Attending a nature journaling class gave us an opportunity to sit in the shade and be creative. It was a perfect afternoon activity when the sun was hot and the kids were worn out from walking. The kids learned how to embellish their pages with stamps, fancy writing, and even pop-ups.
In the fall of 2016, fires devastated Gatlinburg and the Smoky Mountains, so the forests’ response to the fires was of particular interest to many on the tours this spring. We were delighted with a spectacular wildflower display; apparently the destruction of brush and undergrowth in the forest allowed sunlight to reach more deeply into the forest, and some flowers produce more after a fire anyway. God provides for the smallest detail in His creation. It was a beautiful spiritual lesson and reminder of grace and protection.
It was on our birding tour that I discovered my 10-year-old son needed glasses… Oops!
The kids realized out on the trail why we have been listening to recordings of bird songs: it’s often easier to hear the bird and then find what you know you’re looking for! Completing the Pathfinder honor was a breeze, with help from a guide. With help, we identified 18 birds by sight and an additional six by sound only. Some of these birds my kids were familiar with, like the brown-headed cowbird, red-bellied woodpecker, American robin, and downy woodpecker. But, others were brand new to them, such as the golden-crowned kinglet, yellow-throated warbler, white-breasted nuthatch, northern parula, ovenbird, black and white warbler, black-throated green warbler,and blue-gray gnatcatcher. Along the way we also identified more wildflowers: white-fringed phacelia, trout lilies,and spring beauties.
Our final guided tour was presided over by a Native American; she taught the wild edibles class. Her personal experience was invaluable for the kids to hear, and they appreciated the Native American items she brought, such as beads, porcupine quills, and clothing. We also learned that it’s important not to boil the stinkbugs with the staghorn sumac for tea! 🙂
A sick child and car troubles precluded us from attending our last two guided tours, but I felt like the entire excursion was definitely worth the trip and expenses. There is no substitute for an experienced guide along to help the kids positively identify plants and animals in the wild. The more exposure the kids get to these things, the more those plants and animals become like “friends” every time the kids find them. When we returned home, the first thing my kids did was to take a jaunt through our local woods, searching for trillium and lady slippers. That’s my definition of success!
Tips for Taking a Guided Tour with Young Kids:
- Be prepared for long walks. Check the printed guide and ask about the terrain. Some walks are labeled “easy” or “along a path”; on those walks a jogging stroller might be something useful for very small children. (But ask first!)
- Pack a small, lightweight backpack for every child. Include water bottle, rain poncho/jacket, hat, lightweight pocket guides or laminated fold-out guides, journal or small pad of paper, pencil, binoculars if birding, a magnifying glass (lightweight), and a quiet snack.
- In your backpack, a roll of toilet paper and baggies might be very useful for small bladders and those kids who drink all of their water in the first half-hour!
- Dress appropriately for the weather, and wear good walking/hiking shoes.
- Prior to the trip, it might be helpful to practice walking along a trail looking for flowers and listening for birds. Quietly walking and being observant is a skill, not a natural trait for most children. Preparing them ahead of time for what is expected helps!
- Birding tours are probably best suited to older children. My younger kids enjoyed the wildflower tour and the nature journaling class the most. Wildflowers don’t fly or run away, and they are easier to spot!
- If you are wanting pictures of the flowers you spot, you probably should tote along an actual camera. It’s difficult to steady and zoom in with a phone camera.