Eagles Soar in Sevier County, Tennessee
Majestic national symbol is at home in the Smokies
By Hope S. Philbrick
In our beautiful spacious skies, a soaring eagle represents the freedom, strength and grace all Americans hold dear as the vision for our country’s future.
Congress understood that when naming the bald eagle as our nation’s symbol in 1782. In the 235 years since that proclamation, no individual bald eagle has gained more fame than Challenger, a rescued bird now living in Sevier County, Tennessee.
If you’ve ever seen a bald eagle loop overhead during the national anthem at a sporting event, odds are that it was Challenger. He has performed more than 350 free flights at major events including presidential inaugurations, NFL pro-bowls, MLB World Series games, NCAA final four tournaments,and the Daytona 500. Challenger is a genuine celebrity whose image appears on specialty Tennessee license plates and coins issued by the U.S. Mint.
Meet Sevier County’s Hometown Hero, Challenger
When not busy making public appearances, Challenger is at home in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. He is cared for by the American Eagle Foundation, a nonprofit that partners with the Dollywood theme park in Pigeon Forge.
Like all of the birds of prey housed by the American Eagle Foundation, Challenger would not survive in the wild. But he has no physical disability. Challenger was born in Louisiana in 1989, knocked from his nest during a storm, and rescued by local people. Although his foster parents saved his life, since he was so young at that time he learned to depend on humans. Every time scientists attempted to release Challenger into the wild, he wouldn’t hunt like a typical eagle and would instead approach people to beg for food. After three release attempts it became clear that Challenger would not survive on his own and so he came to live at the American Eagle Foundation.
Challenger was trained to perform by the American Eagle Foundation as part of its mission to educate people about bald eagles and the importance of protecting them. While you might see Challenger at a major event anywhere across the nation, if you really want to meet him plan a trip to Sevier County.
To meet Challenger, schedule a free tour at the American Eagle Foundation headquarters, which is located just a few minutes away from Dollywood. Tours are offered Monday through Thursday mornings beginning at 9:30 a.m. and must be requested at least seven days in advance by filling out this online form.
Challenger is a star, but he isn’t the only eagle you can visit in Sevier County.
Visit The Smoky Mountain’s Eagle Mountain Sanctuary
The American Eagle Foundation houses a number of bald eagles in the Eagle Mountain Sanctuary at Dollywood. At 400,000 cubic feet, the Eagle Mountain Sanctuary is the largest exhibit of non-releasable bald eagles in the U.S. The netted area occupies a steep wooded hillside, providing visitors the chance to get an up-close look at these spectacular creatures. On signs and from their caretakers, you can also learn interesting facts about the birds, such as “balde” is an Olde English word meaning “white.” One highlight of visiting the sanctuary is the chance to see nesting pairs of eagles. Bald eagles mate for life and three couples currently share enclosures at Dollywood: Independence and Franklin, Eleanor and Mr. Roosevelt, and Isaiah and Mrs. Jefferson. (More breeding pairs reside at an off-park facility.)
You can visit the Eagle Mountain Sanctuary whenever Dollywood is open to observe bald eagles. For a more in-depth look at some of America’s birds of prey, take in a “Wings of America” show at Dollywood’s open-air theater. During a show you’ll get an up-close look at eagles, hawks, falcons, owls and vultures—some in dramatic free flights—along with informative insights from a professional handler. The Wings of America show at Dollywood runs from mid-March through the end of October.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
According to the American Eagle Foundation, there are currently about 15,000 pairs of bald eagles in the lower 48 states, up from about 450 pairs in the 1960s.
Though the National Park Service ranks bald eagle sightings in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park as unusual, it’s certainly possible to visit Sevier County and see one or more soaring above the majestic mountains.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the No. 1 most visited national park in the U.S. Explore this natural treasure by walking a trail, bicycling the Cades Cove Loop Road, horseback riding backcountry trails, or even driving Newfound Gap Road (US 441). Stop for a picnic, take a souvenir photo at an overlook, or peruse museums and gift shops at one of the National Park visitor centers. You can even set foot on the famed Appalachian Trail that threads 70 miles through the park; a two-mile stretch is accessible near the Newfound Gap parking lot.
[Read the full article on Visit Sevierville’s Official Tourism Website]