Introduction to Jesse Pope


Jesse1He knows more than any one person ever has about the flora, fauna, climate, geology, geography and heritage of Grandfather Mountain. He lives to work hard, and he wants to learn new things. If he is not growing he is stagnating, so he is always pushing the envelope; always striving to become a better leader, a better educator, a better coach, a better father, a better husband, a better friend and a better person.

Jesse Pope came to Grandfather Mountain as a seasonal trail ranger just after graduating Lees-McRae College in 2002. By August his work ethic, knowledge and friendly personality led to the offer of a full-time job in the wildlife habitats. There his aptitude for teaching became evident as he volunteered to lead a majority of the school tours through the animal exhibits.

“Leading the school groups gave me the opportunity to speak with teachers and learn what they needed from a school outing and how Grandfather Mountain could help them do a better job teaching their curriculum,” said Pope. “Within a couple of years (Company Vice-President) Crae Morton asked me to draw up a job description for a staff naturalist.”


Pope explained the science of fall color on Good Morning America.

Pope hit the ground running as Grandfather’s first naturalist.  He enrolled Grandfather Mountain in the North Carolina Association of Environmental Education Centers and began working toward his own certification with the NC Office of Environmental Education. Before long, others were recognizing his strengths and he was asked to serve on the NCAEEC Board of Directors, even serving as its president in 2008.

Pope under bridge

Pope is a Wilderness First Responder certified in High Angle Rescue.

Meanwhile he devoted his personal time to helping to found High Country Audubon, serving on the Board of Avery County Habitat for Humanity and acting as assistant coach for the Avery Middle School wrestling team.  In 2006 he became a certified trainer for the North American Association of Environmental Educators and was asked to participate in reviewing the National Guidelines for Excellence in Environmental Education. In 2008 he began leading seminars for the Blue Ridge Discovery Weekend at Wildacres where he met and formed invaluable relationships with many of the top environmental educators in the Appalachians.

Grandfather's naturalists search the headwaters of the Watauga River for the Grandfather Mountain crayfish.

Pope and the Grandfather Mountain naturalists search the Watauga River for the Grandfather Mountain crayfish.

By 2009, Mountain management recognized that some one person needed to be keeping an eye on the big picture in overseeing the education and scientific research efforts on the mountain. Pope was named Director of Education and Natural Resources. No two days were ever alike as Pope was as likely to be leading a search and rescue mission into Grandfather’s backcountry as painting galax leaves with day-glow paint to make them worthless to poachers; rappelling down cliffs to survey rare plant colonies in the jagged rock outcroppings as capturing and tagging endangered flying squirrels; inoculating hemlock trees against invading adelgids as spelunking through Grandfather’s caves in search of rare bats; or belaying off the Swinging Bridge in a training exercise as snorkeling in mountain streams in search of the Grandfather crayfish.

Pope with an endangered Northern Flying Squirrel.

Lest boredom become an issue, in May of 2012 Pope entered the Masters program in Environmental Education at Montreat College.  In November of that same year the Southeast Tourism Society named Pope one of Forty for the Future: 40 leaders under the age of 40 who represented the future of the tourism industry in the Southeast.

In between all these activities, Pope fathered three children (five-year-old Spencer and two-year-old twins Trevor and Lily), traveled to Alaska and Peru on climate research expeditions, served on the Board of the Carolina Bird Club, earned certification as a Wilderness First Responder and was honored with the NC Audubon Society Bird-Lore Conservation Education Award.

Still anxious to grow professionally, in 2013 Pope accepted the post of Assistant Operations Manager.  At the right hand of Harris Prevost, the man who spent more than 30 years as Hugh Morton’s lieutenant in the running of the Grandfather Mountain travel attraction, Pope was fascinated and energized to learn the ins and outs of how the business of Grandfather Mountain worked.

By the time the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation began advertising for a new executive Director in the spring of 2015, Pope knew he was ready for the job.

“My understanding of the natural world and Hugh Morton’s vision allows me to present Grandfather Mountain in a way very few people will have the knowledge or ability to communicate,” Pope said. “I can promise no one will work harder to meet the needs of this organization than me.”

– by Insider Catherine Morton, Secretary of the GMSF Board of Directors

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  • I visited Grandfather Mountain with my 3 daughters. We had a wonderful time. The staff was very friendly. The young man who was providing enrichment for the animals was especially knowledgeable and patient as my children asked lots of questions. My daughter asked to adopt "Jane" as a result of our visit and the information she received. Grandfather is a beautiful place and we thoroughly enjoyed our visit.
    Gibsonville, NC
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