Blue Ridge

“On the Road Again…”

Yesterday we traveled 143 miles and had a brand new adventure.  We began our morning packing up our campsite at Stone Mountain State Park. Our team rolled tents, boiled water and packed vans, ready to hit the road by 8:00am. After a short drive we hopped on the Blue Ridge Parkway and stopped at Bluff Mountain Overlook, E.B. Jeffress Park Overlook and the Linville Cove Viaduct to enjoy the beautiful scenery. We learned the rich history of how this famous viaduct came to be and why it is considered an engineering marvel. We then headed over the Viaduct around Grandfather Mountain to Linville Falls Shelter. There, we met with Ranger Jonathan Bennet to learn the vast history of the Blue Ridge Parkway. We discussed everything from how the Blue Ridge Parkway became the most traveled National Park in our country to how Linville Falls earned its name.

Then, it was back in the van for a bumpy ride to Wiseman’s View where we had a beautiful view of the Linville Gorge. From there, we drove to our campsite at Briar Bottom and discovered a surprise along the way. On the side of the road there was a Timber Rattlesnake. We were able to quickly get off to the shoulder of the road and into the nearby grass. Once at Briar Bottom we dried our tents and set up our new campsite at the base of Mount Mitchell.

Once set up, we spent the evening with John Gerwin, NCMNS ornithologist and bird expert. He discussed how the birds are tagged and how data is collected about bird migration. We ended the evening with a moth light, and searching for salamanders using fluorescent dye powder. The dinner consisted of burritos. Yum!

Check back for photos!

Blue Ridge

“What Lies Beneath”

“It was a different experience to see the mountains up close.” — Cecilia, Instructional Coach, Warren County Schools

Group Photo at the Stone River.

Group Photo at the Stone River.

Lying belly down on the cliff face with a magnifier to study the rock up close, the Blue Ridge has become an intimate experience for all of us. With the magnifier in hand, we were astounded at what we could discover in a wide open, sunlit cliff face: sparkly crystals, sage green and dark gray lichen, signs of weathering and water channels. Melissa put North Carolina’s geological history into a story that explained how we ended up on this gorgeous, igneous rock face.

Io moth caterpillar

Io moth caterpillar. Photo by Chris Smith.

On our shaky-leg hike down the mountain, we were introduced to the Table Mountain Pine, whose very special pinecones are serotinous — they only open to disperse when burned, so they patiently wait years — decades even — to spread their seeds. Greg shared a quotation by Rachel Carson about many children being fascinated by “inconspicuous things.” This was true for all of us as we took our time exploring this mountain, asking questions, pointing out caterpillars, box turtles, dragonflies and Indigo Buntings.

Cecilia taking a close look at the rocks

Cecilia taking a close look at the rocks

Crayfish hiding halfway under a rock

Crayfish in the Stone River. Photo by Greg Skupien

To culminate our journey below, T.R. Russ, from the NC Wildlife Resource Commission, told us all about the mussels and fish that are in the Roaring River (which, disappointingly, does not include the Rayed Pink Fatmucket, a species of freshwater mussel). We gathered them with a river seine and then crawled the river bottom with snorkels to see what else we could find along the rocks.

Journeys above and below, patience and presence — here’s to day two!

Blue Ridge

“Becoming Students”

Close up photo of a Red Salamander, which is a red-colored salamander with black spots

Photo by Greg Skupien

Teachers normally spend 180 days being the “experts.” Teachers always know where to turn in your homework, what time lunch is, the entire day’s lessons and when it’s time to finally go home. On this journey exploring through the North Carolina mountains, we teachers have quickly turned into the students. On day one of this trip we have been challenged to remember what it’s like to forget something you need, not knowing what’s coming next, and being encouraged to go outside of our comfort zones.

The summer rains were the backdrop to our group’s first meeting at Stone Mountain State Park in Surry County. We shared expectations and goals for the trip as a group. Since we come from a variety of backgrounds as educators we got to practice one of our expectations of “listening to each other” by sharing “I Am From” poems. Through this activity we gained insight into the places, people and cultures that make up every individual attending this trip. As we waited for the rains to disperse, we completed a grounding activity to become aware of the sights, sounds, feelings and smells all around Stone Mountain State Park. Through this activity we honed our observation skills and discussed how to bring this into each of our classrooms.

Photo of a man smiling and holding a salamander

Adam holding the first salamander of the trip!

As the day progressed, we continued to immerse ourselves in the surroundings of our new reality. Rolling over logs to find salamanders and worm snakes, sliding down freezing cold waterfalls, and observing the smallest of critters such as spiders, ants and net-winged beetles, we truly began to get out of comfort zones to get the most out of this experience. Creating positive relationships to learn, grow and play will be the backbone of our journey. Day one has set the bar high as it has been a complete success, with laughter, discoveries and freeze dried food!

Blue Ridge

“Gearing Up”

How much gear does it take for 12 people to camp 8 nights while exploring North Carolina’s Blue Ridge mountains? A lot!

large van packed full of bins and coolers

This week 3 Museum staff and 9 educators from across North Carolina have been gearing up for our Blue Ridge Institute. We’re packing tents and sleeping bags, oatmeal and pasta, nets and snorkels, long johns and swimsuits, and so much more as we prepare for an in-depth exploration of the North Carolina mountains. We’re looking forward to learning from experts in ornithology, herpetology, creative writing, Cherokee heritage and history, and ichthyology, among other topics. We’ll share strategies to invigorate our teaching with real life examples from our own backyard. We’ll hike and swim, learn and laugh; but most importantly, we’ll build a greater appreciation for the amazing diversity of the Blue Ridge Mountains and bring that home to share with our friends, families, and students.

Like the sun rising over the misty mountains as day begins in the photo below, this grand learning adventure is just about to begin! Meet the travelers and follow our daily blog as we travel down the spine of North Carolina.

sunrise in the mountains



“2022 Yellowstone Institute Cancelled”

Due to unprecedented flooding along the Yellowstone River and its tributaries, Yellowstone National Park is closed to all visitors for at least the next two days. Our Institute group was set to fly out tomorrow morning. Thankfully, we were able to cancel the trip and are home safe and sound during an incredibly challenging time for Yellowstone and the surrounding communities. Our thoughts are with our many friends in the Yellowstone area as rivers crest and cleanup begins.

6/13/22 Conditions of Yellowstone’s North Entrance Road through the Gardner Canyon between Gardiner, Montana, and Mammoth Hot Springs.

Blue Ridge

“A Tree-mendous Day”

Our final full day together. Today we headed to the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. Here we were able to walk among one of the few remaining old growth forests in North Carolina. Some of the trees here are estimated to be between 400-500 years old. We measured many of these Tulip Poplars, the largest circumference being over 20ft around!

Three people stretching a measuring tape around a tree
Measuring the circumference of the huge tulip poplar trees in Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest
Nine people standing in front of a huge double trunked tulip poplar tree
The group in Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest

After our hike, we made our way to Yellow Creek Falls for an afternoon of “marathon writing.” The sights and sounds (as well as a refreshing swim) of the waterfall made the perfect backdrop for our writing.

Five people sitting scattered on rocks around a pool at the base of a waterfall
We are writers

We headed back to our yurts for our final group meeting and dinner. We were able to reflect on how powerful this experience has been together and all the ways in which we have grown. We are looking forward to taking these experiences back to our classrooms in the fall.

Blue Ridge

“An In-Tents Experience”

Today was filled with serendipitous moments. We were greeted with a break in the clouds and fog revealing a beautiful sunrise, as we finished our drive down the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Silhouetted person overlooking mountains and mist
Kelly looking out at the early morning mist in the mountains

A damper was put on our morning hike due to rain, but serendipity prevailed giving us the opportunity to view a herd of elk. A bull serenaded his harem by bugling. This was the first time many of our group had seen elk in the wild, because they have only been reintroduced to North Carolina in the last 20 years.

Five elk in a field of grasses and wildflowers
Herd of elk in the field near Oconoluftee in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Freeman Owle, an elder of the Cherokee tribe, gave us a fresh perspective on the injustice that he and his people have endured. Most people in this situation would be bitter, but Elder Owle shared this message of hope. “If you’re trying to get even, you’ll never get ahead. “ He was very open to sharing the Cherokee’s sacred land, and he gave each of us a blessing by the Tuckasegee River. One of the special moments we had with him was when he sang “Amazing Grace” in the native Cherokee language, the song that thousands of Native Americans sang on the Trail of Tears.

Man holding a shell full of water and a sycamore leaf that is almost touching an outstretched hand
Freeman Owle also shared a blessing with each of us

On a personal level, Elder Owle connected with us as a fellow educator, reminding us that, “You can’t take possessions with you when you go, but you can leave a blazing trail behind you.” It is not solely the Native Americans’ responsibility to keep their culture alive; we all have a responsibility. Today’s experiences were unexpectedly powerful, moving, and magical.

Blue Ridge


After a very rainy, peaceful sleep, we meandered to the group area for a breakfast of grits, oatmeal, assorted pastries, yogurt and creations with leftover fried chicken.

We loaded up the van to head for the Skinny Dip Falls trailhead. Along the hike, we were educated on identification of the Indian cucumber root, which has an edible root that tastes like cucumber with the texture of a carrot. It’s always beneficial to be aware of natural food elements in your forest surroundings. After a short but brisk hike to the falls, we took in the magnificent wonders of the waterfall.

We left Skinny Dip Falls and went back to camp to prepare for snorkeling in the Davidson River for a peek into the habitat of the hellbender salamander. We arrived at the Pisgah National Forest ranger station for an informational meeting with Lori Williams, a wildlife biologist with the NC Wildlife Resources Commission. She educated us on everything hellbender. We even got to meet Rocky. Rocky is an almost fifteen-year-old hellbender that has been raised in captivity and is used for educational purposes.

Following our visit with Lori and Rocky, Ben and Reid (wildlife technicians) accompanied us to the river, where we suited up in warm clothes or wetsuits and snorkeled in the frigid water. Our group goal of spotting three elusive hellbenders in the wild was accomplished.

Thankfully, we warmed up in dry clothes and continued our adventure to Dolly’s where we revelled in luscious ice cream cones. We finished our eventful day with dinner in Brevard.

We returned to camp exhausted but satiated and ready to greet tomorrow with excitement and eagerness to continue to learn from Melissa, Megan, Chris, and one another.

Blue Ridge

“Little Girl Magnolia”

This morning we had the privilege of exploring the NC Arboretum grounds, where we saw a wide variety of plants, lizards, and tadpoles. After a quick stroll through the Bonsai forest including one piece created to look like the spruce fir forest of Mount Mitchell, Dr. Mildred Barya of UNC-Asheville led us through a powerful poetry exercise.

First, we read “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver to inspire our inner writer. The group dissected the poem and made personal connections to the theme and the healing powers of the natural world. Then, we were tasked with constructing our own poem in just 20 minutes! The caveat: we had to use 4 out of 7 words provided AND all of the five senses in our writing. The theme would be around motion and stillness. Take a look at Sandy’s beautiful poem:

Little Girl Magnolia

Your outstretched, bent, and gnarled


shield the musty, decaying

world beneath.

With leaves of velvet, fluttering

and filtering the searing heat

from above.

The vibrant abundance of your

chartreuse family rid me of

my loneliness.

Allowing me to escape the

despair that once bound me.

Your cool, wispy shade

envelops my body and

restores my hope.

That one day the inner,

ancient voices that haunt

me will seize.

And I will again savor

the sweet honey of peace.

We ended the day with a short hike to Black Balsam where we were rewarded with indescribable views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

(We are still unable to post pictures. We wish we could share some visuals with you now, and we will as soon as we can!)

Blue Ridge

“A Day in the Clouds”

Sunrise over the Black Mountains (named for the abundance of dark-colored spruce and fir trees at higher elevations).

Sunrise over the Black Mountains (named for the abundance of dark-colored spruce and fir trees at higher elevations).

Beep, beep, beep! 4:45am comes early, but when we’re chasing a sunrise, nothing can stop us. We drove to Ridge Junction Overlook, through the fog and clouds, and watched the sunrise. Since we’re lifelong learners, we had to explore the surrounding wildflowers, too.

Museum ornithologist John Gerwin holds a banded Hermit Thrush while the group learns how to determine the age based on the feathers and body conditions of the bird.

Museum ornithologist John Gerwin holds a banded Hermit Thrush while the group learns how to determine the age based on the feathers and body conditions of the bird.

Next, we joined John Gerwin, NCMNS ornithologist, to catch songbirds in mist nets. He taught us about banding, tracking migration patterns, and releasing birds. We have all improved our bird watching and listening skills.

John Gerwin releasing a bird.

John Gerwin releasing a bird.

The adventure continued as we traveled farther into the clouds. Our mission was to summit Mt. Mitchell, highest peak east of the Mississippi River. This alpine ecosystem greeted us with Frasier firs, wind, cold, and lots of rain. This didn’t stop us from exploring the surrounding forest and discovering some salamander, lichen, and spider species that were new to us

Eryn teaches us about her expert topic, the Fraser Fir Tree, and their importance to the unique, high elevation spruce-fir forests found at Mount Mitchell.

Eryn teaches us about her expert topic, the Fraser Fir Tree, and their importance to the unique, high elevation spruce-fir forests found at Mount Mitchell.

After we returned to the van and peeled off all of our wet layers, we spent the afternoon choosing our own adventure. We visited Setrock Creek Falls, searching for salamanders and crawfish. Fun fact: crawfish carry their young on their underside even after they’ve hatched. South Toe River provided us with very cold water for snorkeling and trout-watching. While drying his mist nets, John caught a chipping sparrow, providing us more opportunity to learn about this species. An evening campfire gave us additional time to reflect and enjoy each other’s company. As we approach the halfway point, we all agree that this has been an excellent experience, and we cannot wait to see what’s on the other side.