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Eagles Soar in Sevier County, TN

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.

Eagles Soar in Sevier County, Tn

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.

Eagles Soar in Sevier County, Tn
Eagles Soar in Sevier County, Tn

Meet Sevierville Celebs, Lady Independence and Sir Hatcher

The best way to meet bald eagles is to visit Sevier County. In the meantime, however, whet your eagle-watching appetite by tuning into any of the live high-definition nest cams available on the American Eagle Foundation website. These nest cams are currently focused on captive and wild bald eagle nests in Tennessee, Florida and Washington D.C.

The newest live-stream is aimed at Lady Independence and Sir Hatcher, a pair of bald eagles that has nested in Sevierville for three years and has gained local notoriety in the process. The duo has raised nine eagle chicks in trees above the Charter Communications offices in Sevierville. But this season the couple surprised its fans by moving to a different tree on the opposite side of the property on West Main Street at the Spectrum Offices & Store in Sevierville. A new nest cam was installed in June aimed at this new nest location. Click here to open the new nest cam.

Nest cams let you check in on bald eagles from anywhere and also help the Foundation track its success with rehabilitated birds. Lady Independence was hatched and raised by Independence and Franklin at Dollywood; she was released into the wild in 2008 (wearing leg band identification) and recognized (thanks to that band) in 2014.

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.

Eagles Soar in Sevier County, Tn
Eagles Soar in Sevier County, Tn

Visit Sevierville

From private cabins near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to hotel rooms at resorts like including Wilderness at the Smokies, Tennessee’s largest indoor waterpark, overnight accommodation options abound in Sevierville. A true travel playground, Sevierville is so packed with attractions and rich with natural resources that there truly is something for everyone, at any age, every personality and interest.

Nestled in the foothills of the Smokies, Sevierville is home to famed bald eagles and another national treasure: Dolly Parton. A bronze statue of Dolly Parton, a tribute to the superstar by her hometown community, is located on the Sevier County Courthouse lawn in historic downtown Sevierville and is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. Learn more about the must-see statue at a special exhibit, 30: Celebrating Dolly in Bronze, on display through the end of the year at the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center.

For more information and trip planning ideas, contact the Sevierville, Tennessee Chamber of Commerce at 1-888-766-5948 or VisitSevierville.com.





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