Treasures abound in East Tennessee. Mountain vistas. Flowing streams. Fireflies lighting up a summer night. And the majesty of bald eagles in flight.
A primary reason that the Great Smoky Mountains hosts scores of our national symbol, the bald eagle, is due to the work of the American Eagle Foundation (AEF). The Foundation makes its home in this area and showcases dozens of these great birds in the Dollywood theme park’s Eagle Mountain Sanctuary, a 1.5 million cubic-foot natural outdoor aviary that is home to the largest presentation of non-releasable bald eagles in the country. It is truly a “wow” that needs to be seen on any trip to Dollywood.
I can honestly say that of all the things I truly love about Dollywood (and there is a long list!), this might be my favorite. Since 1991 when Eagle Mountain Sanctuary opened, it is on my must see list whenever I am at Dollywood. Just being able to watch these majestic eagles in a setting that recreates the birds’ natural habitat is a one-of-a-kind experience. And seeing children’s faces when they realize they are seeing what until now has only been a photo on a coin or part of a patriotic story – it never gets old for me to see the wonder in their eyes.
Ok, enough about what I love about this awesome eagle area – let me tell you more about this unique part of my favorite theme park. I think that’s one of the things that is so great about the collection of our national symbol – it’s in a place that literally millions of people visit every single year. They can see bald eagles up close, hear their unique call, see their huge nests in the giant aviary and watch them fly.
When you go to Dollywood, you can also learn more about the bald eagle and other feathered friends at the Wings of America show. I could watch this show every time I am there – I absolutely love to be entertained by the beauty and power of hawks, falcons, vultures, owls and eagles, and always learn something I didn’t know before. And the owls are especially adorable!
Something you might not know is that in addition to providing a home at Dollywood for this American symbol, the AEF has an eagle breeding and rehabilitation facility in Pigeon Forge which includes an eagle medical clinic and nursery (those aren’t open to the public). They have released more than 100 eagles since the 1980s, and since 1991, bald eaglets and golden eaglets have been hatched to parents that are permanent Dollywood residents. And many more birds have been rehabilitated and returned to their natural habitats in the wild. It just warms my heart to know there are people basically in my backyard with this type of commitment to saving our beautiful bald eagle.
The AEF also has lots of fun while telling the story of American’s national symbol with its most famous ambassador Challenger, who was rescued when five weeks old after being blown from his nest during a storm. Named in honor of the space shuttle crew, Challenger has performed free-flights during the national anthem at hundreds of events coast to coast—I bet you have seen him flying before the Super Bowl, at a World Series game and at college football games everywhere. Other than Dolly, I think Challenger has met more celebrities that anyone in East Tennessee!
As much I love Dollywood’s rides and crafts and shows and food and the fun my family has every time we are there, I think I love Dollywood most of all for helping take care of one of the symbols that represents this great country. Let freedom ring!
More about the American Eagle Foundation: This non-profit organization has permits from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency to possess, care for, exhibit, rehabilitate and breed birds of prey. The eagles at Dollywood are classified as non-releasable because of permanent disabling factors or other lawful reasons and can’t survive on their own in the wild. For more information, check out eagles.org.