The black bear is a classic symbol of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Black bears are the true icons of the park, plastered across tees and represented on local license plates. This is because approximately 1,500 black bears live in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which equals about two bears per square mile!
When planning your trip to this beautiful Tennessee/North Carolina National Park, you may have some questions regarding the black bears in the Smoky Mountains. I know I did when I visited for the first time eight years ago! Mostly, I just wanted to know where and when to see one and how to protect myself should I come into contact with one.
Whether you have a fear of bears and want to minimize your interactions with them or you are curious about bears and want to see them safely from a distance, I’m going to share everything you need to know about bears in the Smoky Mountains.
I will answer these questions (and more) in this blog post:
- How likely am I to see a bear in the Smoky Mountains?
- Where is the best place to see a bear in the Smoky Mountains?
- How do I practice bear safety when hiking and camping in the Smoky Mountains?
- What should I do if I see a bear in the Smoky Mountains?
And scroll to the FAQs at the bottom of this post for some rapid-fire answers to your burning Great Smoky Mountains bears questions! 🐻
Bears in the Smoky Mountains: Everything You Should Know
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How likely am I to see a bear in the Smoky Mountains?
Since there are 1,500 black bears in Great Smoky Mountains (equivalent to about two bears per square mile), the chances of seeing a bear are very high.
So when are bears most active in the Smokies? Bears are most active in the early morning and late afternoon hours (specifically, from 6 AM to 10 AM and 3 PM to 7 PM) in the spring and summer months. So if you are visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park between those hours and during those seasons, you are more likely to see a bear.
Bear sightings are the most rare in the winter season. Black bears in the Smoky Mountains do not truly hibernate; rather, they enter long periods of sleep in a den (i.e. hollow stumps, tree cavities) of their choosing. However, they are known to be briefly lulled from their “hibernation” if they are disturbed or if the temperature warms. So don’t be alarmed if you do see a bear in the winter months. ❄️
Where is the best place to see a bear in the Smoky Mountains?
You can see a black bear almost anywhere in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and you even might spy bears in Gatlinburg, but these four locations that I’m going to list below are where the most sightings have been!
Cades Cove is the best place to see bears in the Smoky Mountains. Spring and summer Cades Cove visitors will rarely drive/bike through the loop without spotting at least one black bear or cub.
You can access Cades Cove by driving or biking the 11-mile one-way scenic loop. It is an incredibly charming valley in the Smokies with picture-perfect cabins, serene waterfalls, fun hiking trails, and panoramic mountain views.
→ READ NEXT: Things You Need to Know Before Biking Cades Cove 🚲
The best time to spot Great Smoky Mountains bears in Cades Cove is early morning or late afternoon — 6 AM to 10 AM OR 3 PM to 7 PM.
My tips for spotting Cades Cove bears would be to arrive at the prime times (listed above), be patient and not rush through the area, venture onto the hiking trails in Cades Cove, and bring a pair of binoculars so that you can spy bears that might be off in the distance. (Never approach a bear or hop fences – keep your distance).
But my BEST TIP for spotting black bears in Cades Cove would be to bike the loop on a vehicle-free Wednesday in the summer. Since vehicles are prohibited from driving the loop these days, the valley is much, much quieter, and bears are known to mill around in the fields and hang out closer to the road. Trust me, I see several bears EVERY TIME I bike through Cades Cove on one of these vehicle-free Wednesdays.
→ READ NEXT: Ultimate Cades Cove Travel Guide 🚗
Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is another one of the best places to see bears in the Smoky Mountains.
This 5.5-mile one-way loop road starts and ends in Gatlinburg and can be accessed by vehicle. This route features picturesque waterfalls, fast-flowing mountain streams, well-preserved log cabins, and fun hiking trails.
Just like Cades Cove, the best time to see black bears on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is early morning or late afternoon – 6 AM to 10 AM OR 3 PM to 7 PM.
My tips for seeing a black bear on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail would be to arrive at the prime times (listed above), be patient and not rush through the area, and venture onto the hiking trails (Grotto Falls is the best! 💦)
NOTE: This road is closed in the winter. Buses, trailers, and RVs are never permitted on the motor nature trail.
Little River Road
The Little River Road runs from Townsend to the Sugarlands Visitor Center and is an excellent place to see black bears in the Smokies.
The road runs parallel to the Little River, so not only could you see wildlife, but it is also an incredibly scenic route to drive. The road is littered with waterfalls, hiking trails, river accesses, swimming holes, and picnic areas. It’s my favorite way to enter the National Park!
🚗 Want to be guided through the park? Check out this Smoky Mountains Self-Guided Audio Driving Tour on Get Your Guide! As you drive throughout the park at your own pace, the narrator will share interesting stories, tell you which viewpoints to stop at, give you insider tips, and much more!
Newfound Gap Road
Newfound Gap Road is the main park road that runs from the Sugarlands Visitor Center in Gatlinburg, Tennessee to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center in Cherokee, North Carolina.
This is not only a prime place to spot bears and other wildlife, but this road offers access to some of the most impressive overlooks and hiking trails in the entire park.
Black bears love the rivers, streams, and picnic areas, so you will often find them grazing in these areas along the road!
⚠️ REMEMBER: All visitors who will be parked in Great Smoky Mountains National Park for more than 15 minutes need to display a parking tag on their vehicle’s dashboard. Learn about that here. 🅿️
How do I practice bear safety and protect the bears when hiking and camping in the Smoky Mountains?
Practicing bear safety precautions is beneficial to you, the bears, and the park. Failing to follow important bear safety rules could endanger you and the bears. Alternatively, following these safety measures will help protect this incredibly precious species of black bears.
As the saying goes, a fed bear is a dead bear. If you feed one of these bears, you could be responsible for its death. Because after a visitor feeds a bear, it is likely to continue its cycle of aggression and demand other visitor’s food. It’ll then be a threat to humans.
⚠️ So never feed a bear! ⚠️
Bear Safety Tips for Hiking 🥾
Always remain at least 50 yards from a bear. Coming any closer could cause a bear to change its behavior, become interested in you, and eventually pursue you.
Avoid surprising a bear by making lots of noise on the trail. Sing, shout, clap, and scream “heeeeelllloooo!” every once in a while to alert the bears and grant them the chance to flee before either of you lays eyes on the other.
Travel in groups of 3 or more if possible. The bigger the group you hike in, the more noise you’ll generate. More noise reduces the chances of surprise bear encounters. You don’t want to round a corner and frighten a bear. If you are hiking solo or with one buddy, make sure you are generating lots of extra noise.
Avoid hiking in the early mornings and late afternoons. This is only necessary if you want to minimize your chances of seeing a bear.
Be aware of your surroundings. Trails with running water, dense vegetation, frequent switchbacks, and even gusty winds and hammering rainfall, can all trigger bear surprises due to them not being able to hear you coming.
Carry bear spray as a precaution. Know how to discharge it before visiting!
Don’t litter. Even leaving a candy wrapper or apple core on the trail could cause a bear to pick up on the scent and follow you in search of a second helping.
→ READ NEXT: Bear Safety Tips for Hikers and Campers 🐻
Bear Safety Tips for Camping ⛺️
Properly store your food and garbage. This is necessary for camping in the frontcountry and in the backcountry. Before abandoning your campsite or going to sleep, your food, trash, and scented items should be stored in a bear canister or bear bag, at least 100 yards from your campsite.
Properly set up your campsite. Your sleeping area should be at least 100 yards from your bear storage and kitchen area. Refer to the chart below. ⤵️
→ READ NEXT: Bear Safety Tips for Hikers and Campers 🐻
What should I do if I see a bear in the Smoky Mountains?
First, I need to specify that bears are wild and unpredictable. They’re not naturally aggressive toward humans but the right concoction of human ignorance and bear aggression/hunger can produce a potentially negative situation.
While an average of 339 yearly negative bear attacks have been reported in the park over the last 10 years, bear attacks are rare. In fact, most bear attacks in the Smoky Mountains can be prevented by YOU! You can do this by following the bear safety tips in the previous section of this blog post.
Should you see a bear from a distance in the Smoky Mountains, here are some things you should do:
- Keep a close eye on the bear.
- Do not approach the bear.
- Do not provoke or feed the bear.
- Remain at least 50 yards (150 feet) away from the bear at all times.
⚠️ You will know you are too close if the bear changes its behavior. Examples: stops feeding, walks in a different direction, starts watching you, etc.
Should a bear start following or approaching you, the NPS recommends that you do the following:
- Change your direction.
- If the bear continues to follow you, stand your ground.
- If the bear gets closer to you, talk loudly or shout at it.
- Act aggressively to intimidate the bear.
- Act together as a group if you have companions. Make yourselves look as large as possible. Move to higher ground if you can.
- Throw non-food objects such as rocks or sticks at the bear.
- Only discharge your bear spray when the bear comes within 20 yards of you.
- Don’t run and don’t turn away from the bear.
- Don’t leave food for the bear; this encourages further problems.
- Don’t discharge a firearm; this can cause a safety hazard for other visitors.
If the bear’s behavior indicates that it is after your food:
- Separate yourself from the food.
- Slowly back away.
If the bear shows no interest in your food and you are physically attacked, you are likely in danger of being its prey, so you need to do the following:
- Fight back aggressively with any available object.
- Do NOT play dead!
⚠️ IMPORTANT: Report ALL bear encounters and attacks to park authorities as soon as you can!
Bears in the Smoky Mountains FAQs
Should I carry bear spray in the Smokies?
It is advised to carry bear spray in the Smoky Mountains. Know how to use it before your trip!
PRO TIP: Buy two cans of bear spray – one to practice with and one to use.
Best places to see bears in the Smokies?
Cades Cove, Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, Little River Road, and Newfound Gap Road are the best places to see bears in the Smoky Mountains.
How can I avoid seeing a bear if I don’t want to see one?
Chances are pretty high that you’ll see a bear in the Smoky Mountains at some point during your trip (especially if you will be there for several days), but if you want to minimize your chances of an encounter – near or far – I’d recommend that you do the following:
- Hike from 10 AM – 3 PM. Bears are less active during these hours.
- Avoid Cades Cove. This is where the most bear sightings occur in the entire park.
- Visit the park in the winter. With some exceptions, bears are usually in a deep sleep from late fall to early spring.
Best Time of Day and Year to See Black Bears in the Smokies
Spring and summer is the best time of year to see black bears in the Smokies. They don’t truly hibernate, but they do escape into their dens between late fall and early spring, which makes bear sightings in those months pretty rare.
The best times of day to see black bears in the Smokies are early morning (6 AM – 10 AM) and late afternoon (3 PM – 7 PM).
Other Great Smoky Mountains Travel Guides
Are you traveling to the Smokies soon? I’ve got guides that’ll help you plan your trip!
- Tennessee Vs. North Carolina: Which Side of the Smokies Is Better?
- Things You Need to Know to Bike Cades Cove
- Ultimate Cades Cove Travel Guide
- 5 Dog-Friendly Things to Do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
- Great Smoky Mountains Parking Tag: Everything You Need to Know
- How to Hike Mount LeConte in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
- Exactly How to See the Synchronous Fireflies in the Smokies
- 4 Ways to See the Synchronous Fireflies in the Smokies WITHOUT a Permit