20th Anniversary of Trails & Trilliums

by Beth Riner, Messenger Staff Writer

The roots of Trails & Trilliums go back more than two decades when Margaret Matens, then the newly hired public relations director of St. Andrew’s-Sewanee (SAS), decided to revive a spring parent event.

Matens combined forces with Priscilla Fort, president of the St. Andrew’s-Sewanee Parent Club, to brainstorm what they could do.

“Miriam Keener of Sequatchie Cove Farm had started growing native plants,” Matens recalled. “At that time, nobody was growing native plants. I asked Miriam, who was a parent at the school, to bring up some of her plants, so we could have a native plant sale. We called it Trails & Trilliums.

“That was the very first one,” she said. “We had the plant sale, hikes, and children’s activities. It was at SAS for seven years, and it just got bigger every year. We kept thinking of new things — we started getting people to come in to be speakers.”

The festival’s emphasis on nature and the environment drew the interest of the Friends of South Cumberland — many of its members including naturalists Harry Yeatman, Mary Priestley, Bran Potter and Mack Pritchard became featured festival speakers.

“With Jim Harmon, who was running the Monteagle Inn at the time, we started an event called Wine & Wildflowers — which we still do — it was an evening reception with wine and cheese that people loved,” she said.

In 2007 at Wine & Wildflowers, Yeatman, a University of the South professor, received the first Yeatman Environmental Education Award, which since has been awarded annually to an outstanding nature educator. A Trails & Trilliums Tribute Award was added to honor organizations that promote the stewardship of nature.

One important aspect of those early days to Matens, who is a certified wildlife rehabber, was the focus on children’s activities whether it was hayrides, nature talks, or a wildlife petting zoo.

“I do a lot of education with my wildlife,” she said. “I run a nature program with my critters in the summer at a girl’s camp — that’s one reason that I wanted to be sure that we had children’s activities. That’s been part of our mission all along — connecting children with nature. We were able to do a lot of fun outdoor things with the kids — that still has remained a big part of Trails & Trilliums.”

When Matens retired in 2010, SAS’s new headmaster decided to discontinue the festival.

“When the Friends found out, they decided they would like to pick it up,” said Matens, who’d already agreed to serve on the Friends’ board. “It didn’t miss a beat. Once it became a vehicle for the park, it gave us a different slant on things.”

The guided hikes shifted from Shakerag to Fiery Gizzard.

“What’s interesting to me is that a lot of people want to go on guided hikes,” she said. “They don’t want to go out by themselves — they just don’t feel comfortable. Besides which, when you have Bran Potter leading the hike, you’re learning as you go. You’re getting to go on the hike, not worrying about getting lost, and then you have this wonderful teacher — that’s probably been everybody’s favorite part.”

The festival’s homebase shifted to the Monteagle Sunday School Assembly, where it flourished during its time there, attracting nearly 600 visitors a weekend and raising $17,000.

A 2018 move to the South Cumberland State Park Welcome Center off Highway 41 in an effort to link the festival more closely to the park proved disastrous because of bad weather and lack of infrastructure. The following year, the festival moved to DuBose Conference Center, where it remained through 2022. When rumors of DuBose’s closing began circulating, festival organizers looked for a new site.

“We decided to do it at Beersheba Springs Assembly, and that was the year they divided South Cumberland State Park into two and made Savage Gulf the newest state park,” Matens said, noting it was purely coincidental but also perfect.

Organizers worried that the distance might affect attendance, but many visitors opted to stay in the rooms at the retreat center.

“Then it was even more fun,” Matens said. “Everybody’s eating breakfast in the dining hall and visiting — it actually really changed the event when you have those three days of camaraderie. I think last year people were incredibly enthusiastic about the location — they just loved it.”

Another recent change was rebranding.

“We used to call it a festival,” Matens said. “Two years ago, we changed it to being a nature rally. It is more really what it is about — it’s for people who love to be outside, and I think the other wonderful thing about it is all these people who still want to learn. It also helps you connect with this place. When you go out on a walk and you know something about the geology that’s under your feet and the wildflowers that you’re seeing and all those things, it just enriches your appreciation of this beautiful place.”

Trails & Trilliums Naturalist Rally, is April 19-21. For registration and more information go to


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