Tremont’s Naturalist Certification Program: Discover the Great Smoky Mountains

You all know by now that I love the Great Smoky Mountains and that I’m obsessed with the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont. In fact, I’m a Junkie. I’ve written about their fabulous photography workshops (Exhibit A, Exhibit B, Exhibit C) and even highlighted why Tremont is so awesome for kids, but I’ve never taken you through the nuts and bolts of the Southern Appalachian Naturalist Certification Program that I completed back in May. So here you go…

Look at me, the SANCP grad.


In a nutshell, there are eight courses involved in earning this certification: Interpretation, Naturalist Skills, Birds, Plants, Reptiles & Amphibians, Aquatic Natural History, Southern Appalachian Ecology, and Mammals. The program is conducted in association with The University of Tennessee and upon completion, you receive non-credit Southern Appalachian Naturalist Certification from the university. This coursework can also be applied to the North Carolina Environmental Education Certification thanks to the a hard work of the fabulous Mary Dresser at Tremont. (High five, Mary!)

Each course is offered once per year so plan accordingly, especially if you’re hoping to complete it within a year. I managed to blast through in 15 months which was a lot of Val for the good folks of Tremont to take, trust me. Props to them for that. I still can’t believe they didn’t kick me out.

No better classroom to be had anywhere.
My soul-sister Karan getting very excited about dragonflies.

What to expect…

Half of the courses (Birds, Plants, Mammals, Ecology) begin on Friday evening and run through Sunday afternoon. Interpretation and Naturalist Skills operate on the same time frame but are put together in one weekend. Reptiles & Amphibians and Aquatic Natural History are the same length as well but are run back-to-back during one week in the summer. It makes for an intense, but fulfilling week.

Usually you will have reading to do in advance which helps set the stage for what you’ll learn when you’re there. Each course is a mixture of classroom instruction and field work. You’ll need to be prepared to be outside in all kinds of weather… which shouldn’t be difficult for all you budding naturalists.

In each course you’ll be asked to research a critter and give an oral profile to the rest of you classmates. Don’t let that intimidate you. It’s very low-key and you’re given the framework for what you should include. You’ll also have a short assessment at the end of each course just to make sure you were paying attention. Again, no worries here, this isn’t the Bar Exam so relax and enjoy the learning process.

Mac Post showing us how easy it is to do a species profile.
Rain or shine, field work awaits…
Sue Charles and Sterling the Rock Pigeon having far too much fun in class.


I had the pleasure of soaking up the awesome of a great many Tremont naturalists during my time in the program and Tremont attracts some top-notch talent. Across the board, these knowledgable folks are extremely good at what they do, their passion is contagious, and they’re just a lot of fun. In addition to Tremont staffers, they bring in experts from the area to flesh out the material and expertise offered to the students. Let me tell you, hanging out with tracking expert Wanda Deward in the Mammals class was just about as groovy as it gets. They also have previous graduates return to assist which makes for a very nice instructor-to-student ratio and means you’re never lacking for someone to answer a question.

Jeremy Lloyd showing us the way.
Tiffany Beachy’s energy and enthusiasm is contagious.


The Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont is a not-for-profit educational institute operating out of buildings constructed during the Johnson administration and who’s main clientele are school groups. Basically, the digs aren’t swanky but you’re a wannabe naturalist so roll with it.

I’ve talked about dorm life before but yes, most of the students stay in the dorm… and it is a dorm. You’ll be in a community-living situation so bring ear plugs and whatever else you need to make your time here comfortable. The bunk mattresses are thin but if all the beds are not in use, you can borrow a mattress from another bunk and double them up. It helps. If you’re looking for a little more fresh air, you have the option of staying in Tremont’s tents. Same bunk/mattress style, just outside in a canvas tent instead of the dorm.

Meals are served family-style in the dining hall but depending on field work, you may find yourself packing a sack lunch or dinner. The great kitchen staff always offers a vegetarian option for the non-carnivores in the crowd.

The Tremont dorm and bunks.
Dinner time at Tremont

Advanced Studies…

There’s no need to rest on your laurels after you complete your certification. Tremont offers advanced courses to help you hone your skills. And it’s a great excuse to keep coming back to Tremont which will feel like coming home by the time you’ve made it through the entire program.

You’ll get to know your assigned species very well. I’ve become quite fond of the ones I’ve gotten to know more in-depth, even this stinky little guy.
We even get treated to some impromptu entertainment on occasion.
I took many of my classes with long-time director Ken Voorhis. An excellent teacher and naturalist, he’s now moved on to do great work in Yellowstone.

Why it’s awesome…

In all cases, the courses are whirlwind adventures in which you try to absorb a tremendous amount of information in a short time. Obviously in 120 hours of coursework you don’t know all there is to know. This certification process just lays the groundwork for you to get out into the Smokies and practice your newly discovered naturalist skills.

I’ve got more pictures of from my time in this program than I can possibly share here so please hop on over to my Southern Appalachian Naturalist Certification Flickr set for the full monty.

The fabulous Mary Dresser learning about fish species in the Little River.
The Friendship Circle is certainly a great place to connect with fellow naturalists.

For more info, head over to the Southern Appalachian Naturalist Certification Program page…

And now for your moment of green…

The beginning of a fabulous journey in the Smokies…


  1. Great letter Val. Very informative. You are remarkable.

  2. That’s awesome, ValinRealLife. Always livin’ large, that’s you! Congratulations!

    1. Ha, thanks Steve. I don’t know about the living large part though. Just living & trying to make the best of it. 🙂

  3. Sign me up! This is great Val, you are an inspiration! Keep the faith!

    1. Thanks Ken. Hope you’re doing well in Yellowstone. Glad to have had the chance to take a good chunk of my SANCP classes with you. I probably should award you some sort of medal for putting up with me.

  4. Val- you knock my socks off! It has been so much fun having you as part of our programs. See you soon I hope!? John

    1. It’s getting chilly, put your socks back on! 🙂 I’ve had a great time at Tremont. I’ll always be back for the photo workshops and whatever advanced classes I can get to. Cheers!

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