Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment is now offering open enrollment for a summer course where participants can spend a week in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited national park in the United States.

The Natural History of the Great Smoky Mountains (course FIW 2984) explores the area's diverse natural history and ecology and runs Aug. 4-12 at the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont in Tennessee.

“Anyone interested in the natural history of the Great Smoky Mountains can take the course,” said Donald Linzey, instructor in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation and retired professor of biology at Wytheville Community College.

This is the 12th year he has taught the course.

Elementary and secondary school teachers, Master Naturalists, Virginia Tech employees, and others have joined Virginia Tech graduate and undergraduate students along with students from the University of Georgia and Purdue University. The three-credit course is offered by a consortium of the three universities.

This year’s students will have an unusual opportunity  to see and learn about the effects of the most significant forest fire in Tennessee in more than a century. The Chimney Tops 2 Fire in November and December 2016 burned more than 17,000 acres in the national park as well as in Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and other areas of Sevier County.

“Our students will be staying in an area not impacted by the fire, but will travel through areas that were damaged,” Linzey said.

The group will start at Linzey’s home in Gatlinburg, which is just 250 feet from the perimeter of the fire. The course will include discussion of the effect of the fire on wildlife habitat as well as analysis of air quality and its effect on wildlife.

Sessions are taught by National Park Service wildlife biologists, air quality experts, and historians, as well as Linzey and professors from the University of Georgia and Purdue University. Topics include wildlife management, vertebrates of the Smokies, black bear and wild hog research, history of the creation of the park, Cherokee history, high-country ecology, forest ecology, plant identification, freshwater invertebrates, and salamander biology.

Linzey will lead students to the summit of Clingmans Dome, the highest peak in the Smokies at 6,643 feet, where he is adept at finding the rare Jordan’s red-cheeked salamander.

Course instructor Donald Linzey has a stellar record of locating the rare Jordan’s red-cheeked salamander, whose entire range is within Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Photo by Michael Williams.

Virginia Tech students who have attended in past years highly recommend the course and share what they would tell prospective students:

  • “This was an amazing experience with beautiful sights and life-changing experiences.”
  • “Best class experience I have ever had and has helped facilitate new interest in wildlife conservation.”
  • “One of the best experiences ever, very educational, fun, great people. Want to come back.”
  • “If you want to truly experience nature, Tremont is a great place to do so.”
  • “If [students] don’t take this class, they are robbing themselves of an amazing experience. This is a life-changing class.”
  • “It’s amazing . . . I kept forgetting it was a class because it was so much fun.”

Linzey has been conducting research in Great Smoky Mountains National Park since 1964. He has written 12 books, including the textbook “Vertebrate Biology,” recognized as the most readable on the subject. His book “A Natural History Guide to Great Smoky Mountains National Park” is used as the text for this course.

He currently works with the National Park Service as the lead researcher investigating reports and evidence of mountain lions in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The cost for the course is $576 for lodging and meals in addition to tuition and fees for students seeking academic credit. Elementary and secondary school teachers are eligible for reduced tuition. Virginia citizens age 60 or older may be exempt from tuition and fees.

Natural History of the Great Smoky Mountains has been approved as a substitute for Wildlife Field Biology (FIW 2324) at Virginia Tech.

For more information on course content and logistics, contact Linzey at or 540-231-2290, or stop by his office in room 154 Cheatham Hall on the Virginia Tech campus. For details on course registration, call 540-231-3486 or email

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