It may not be written down but everyone has that list of extra-special things to do before we kick the bucket. One item everyone needs on their bucket list is a visit to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in late May and/or early June to see the synchronous fireflies light up the forest. You may call them lightning bugs, but these glowing insects are not just the standard fireflies we all caught at dusk in the backyard and stuffed into mason jars. There are 19 different species of firefly, but the photinus carolinus is the only species in the world where the males all glow in sync with one another. Very few places in the world can boast they are home to these simultaneously flashing lightening bugs and Gatlinburg, Tennessee is considered to be one of the best locales for this very rare display.
Fireflies Illuminating Together
For a short two week courting period, male fireflies light up the dark early summer nights with bursts of bioluminescence, hoping to find their own special someone. Hundreds of thousands of these romantic beetles flash high in the air at the same time to attract the female’s attention from their low lying spots beneath the trees and among the grasses. It is mesmerizing as it appears the entire forest seems to ignite in perfect rhythm.
Best Places to See the Synchronous Fireflies
Visitors to the Great Smoky Mountains can see this spectacle best at the Elkmont Historic District of the Great Smoky National Park (GSMNP) just outside Gatlinburg, TN. When you set out on this spectacular nature adventure, we have a few tips to make sure you get the best experience:
Tips & Advice
- Cover your flashlight with red or blue cellophane.
- Use your flashlight only when walking to your viewing spot.
- Point your flashlight at the ground.
- Turn off your flashlight when you find your viewing spot.
- Pack a foldable chair or blanket for the viewing area.
- Do not catch the fireflies.
- Stay on the trail at all times.
- Pack out all of your garbage.
In order to protect the fragile ecosystem that supports these rare creatures, access to the Elkmont viewing area is limited and highly controlled. Shuttles from the Sugarlands Visitors Center provide the main access and the lucky folks camping at the Elkmont Campground run a close second. The permits from the National Park Service will be awarded using a lottery style system over the course of four days beginning on April 29, 2016. Parking permits for the Sugarlands Visitors Center parking area and access to the park shuttle up to the Elkmont viewing site will be available for up to 1800 vehicles over the eight day span of this once in a lifetime show. You may enter online at www.recreation.gov. Entrants will be notified by email, win or lose, on May 10, 2016.
A Few Things to Keep in Mind for Your Firefly Viewing
- Parking is provided at the Sugarlands Visitor Center, located two miles south of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, on Highway 441 the Newfound Gap Road.
- Parking passes are not transferable. The lottery winner must occupy the vehicle and present matching photo ID for the vehicle to be admitted.
- Regular Parking Pass – Vehicle up to 19’ and a maximum of 6 occupants
- Large Vehicle Pass – Bus/RV 19’ – 30’ and a maximum of 24 occupants
- Each parking pass is valid only for the specified date. An arrival time between 6:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. will be assigned.
- Lottery winners will be charged $1.50 for a parking pass. There are no refunds, transfers, rain checks or changes to the parking passes.
- The shuttle fee is $1 per person, roundtrip (cash only), and must be paid when boarding the trolley. Please bring exact change.
- The viewing area and shuttle stop is a natural, outdoor environment with no shelter. Though the event may be cancelled if inclement weather seems likely, participants should be prepared for the possibility of rain.
- Portable toilets will be provided at the site.
- Alcoholic beverages and pets are prohibited at park events.
Whether you choose to enter the lottery for the park and ride service or get a spot at the Elkmont Campground, this is a definite must do for adults and kids of all ages. Remember childhood wonders and the magic of lightening bugs in the gloaming. Mark your calendars and don’t miss out on this extraordinary show!