Located just a few minutes from the hustle and bustle of downtown Gatlinburg and its millions of summertime visitors is an incredible natural phenomenon known as synchronous fireflies. This breathtaking show put on by nature resembles a psychedelic combination of stars falling and fireworks exploding – It is an immersive experience you will never forget.
The tens-of-thousands of lightning bugs gather in swarms and flash in harmony as the entire forest alternates between light and darkness. Right here in the Smoky Mountains, near the Elkmont campground, is the largest population of synchronous fireflies in the Western Hemisphere.
Fireflies Or Lightning Bugs? Beetles.
While people commonly call these amazing creatures fireflies or lightning bugs, they are actually small flying beetles with an abdomen that lights up. There are over 2,000 species of the bioluminescent beetles in the world with 125 in North America alone and 19 species found within the Smoky Mountains National Park.
Although it takes the lightning bugs one to two years to mature from larvae into adults, the lifespan of an adult is extremely short. Adult fireflies only live two to three weeks and don’t eat any more meals once they are an adult.
Why Do They Flash?
The distinct flashing pattern of the synchronous fireflies is difficult to describe and nearly impossible to photograph or catch on film. The pattern includes five to eight bursts of light in a short time period followed by complete darkness for approximately five seconds. The light they emit, which produces no heat, is due to a chemical reaction of luciferin and oxygen and is used to attract a mate.
Best Time To View Synchronous Fireflies
Note: The 2016 dates have been announced! The dates for the 2016 firefly event will be Tuesday, May 31st through Tuesday, June 7th.
Although it is impossible to predict far in advance, the synchronous fireflies typically appear between late May and mid June. The dates are announced by the Smoky Mountains National Park on the official page in late spring each year.
Getting Tickets For Synchronous Fireflies In The Smoky Mountains
In late April each year, the Smoky Mountains National Park announces the viewing dates as well as the date the parking passes will go on sale – these passes always sell out fast so be ready!
Once the passes go on sale, you will be able to purchase them from Recreation.gov. For each of the seven evenings, there are 111 advance parking passes (first-come, first-serve), 36 large vehicle passes (first-come, first-serve), and 85 day before parking passes sold (on sale the day prior.
What To Expect
The parking pass that you purchased will allow one vehicle to park at the Sugarlands Visitor Center (must have pass). After parking your vehicle, you and your group will ride the trolley to the Elkmont campground area. The trolley, which accepts only cash, will cost an additional $1 per person for the round-trip ride to Elkmont.
Since flashlights disrupt the fireflies and are an annoyance to other visitors, the Rangers and National Park require that the lens is covered in red or blue cellophane and that the flashlights are only used to navigate to and from the viewing area.
The entire trip will last between three and six hours. Once you are seated, get comfortable and expect activity of synchronized fireflies to start up around dusk. However, if the moon is bright, expect this to delay the start of the show by 30 minutes or more. We highly recommend bringing some small chairs or a blanket to sit on.
Alternate Viewing Spots:
If you are not fortunate enough to score parking passes for the main event at Elkmont, don’t be too surprised. Unfortunately, only approximately 1,000 fortunate people per evening get to visit the Elkmont area while the lightning bugs are at their peak. However, all is not lost. The synchronous fireflies can also be found at the backend of Cades Cove (near the Abrams Falls trailhead) or at Catalooche Valley.
- Check the official National Park page frequently until the 2017 dates are announced. This announcement is normally made in late April. The parking passes almost always sell out on the first day.
- On cool nights (below 50º Fahrenheit) and on misty evening following rain, the flashing may be greatly reduced or altogether absent.
- Since the first shuttle back to the parking area is typically 9:30 pm (or later), it is a good idea to eat dinner before going.
- It is highly recommended to bring bug spray and chairs or a blanket to sit on.
*Photos and review produced by our on staff journalists who are in no way affiliated with the brand reviewed on this page.