Every year around late May to early June, the synchronous fireflies put on a spectacular show in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. With a lottery system in place, limiting the number of visitors who are allowed entry, it can be a bit confusing and overwhelming to understand how to apply, when to apply, what to expect, and what to know.
As someone who has worked the Smokies Synchronous Fireflies event, I am here to help you with all of that!
In this guide, I will share with you exactly how to see the synchronous fireflies in the Smokies. You’ll learn everything about the lottery system and how to apply, where the best spot to view the fireflies is, and what to expect during the entire experience from start to finish.
Exactly How To See The Synchronous Fireflies In The Smokies
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What Are Synchronous Fireflies?
Fireflies (also called lightning bugs) are actually beetles! They live most of their life feeding on snails, worms, and other smaller insects on the forest floor. The remainder of their life (only about 3-4 weeks) is spent in the adult form.
Synchronous fireflies are a special species of fireflies that flash synchronously as part of their mating display. They are one of only a couple of species in North America that do this.
The synchronous firefly’s mating display occurs for about 2-3 weeks every year. The timing is based on temperature and soil moisture. In the display, the fireflies flash brightly in unison with their bioluminescent, greenish-yellow glow. The males flash in unison so that the females know they are responding to one of their kind.
The synchronous firefly’s flash pattern is a series of 5-8 flashes followed by an 8-second pause. At peak mating season, you’ll start to see the magic in the forest when it grows dark. As more males start joining in and synchronizing their display, the forest quivers with thousands of flashing lights.
The Fireflies Lottery
The application process to see the synchronous fireflies in the Smokies is a lottery system. This means that after the application window has closed, winners will be randomly chosen.
Important Dates To Watch For
In the spring, Great Smoky Mountains National Park staff will reveal a series of important dates:
- Date #1: Firefly event viewing dates announcement
- Date #2: Lottery opening
- Date #3: Lottery closing
- Date #4: All lottery applicants will be notified if their application was successful/unsuccessful.
- Date #5: Official fireflies event viewing dates
On Date #1, you will know exactly which dates the firefly viewing will be occurring. It is at this time that you can look at your schedule, prep for a potential trip, and/or reserve a campground site at Elkmont.
On Date #2, you can begin applying for the synchronous fireflies lottery at the time stated.
On Date #3, the lottery closes. No more applicants will be accepted after the time stated.
On Date #4, all lottery applicants will be notified if their application was successful/unsuccessful.
Dates #5 are the official firefly event viewing dates.
How To Apply For The Fireflies Lottery
The window for lottery applications is usually just a few days. It doesn’t matter what day of the application window you apply on – winners are randomly chosen.
Note that there is a limit of one lottery application per household per season.
During your application:
- You will choose two dates that you would like to attend – your preferred choice and an alternate choice.
- You will be charged a $1 application fee. This fee applies whether or not you win. You will not be refunded this amount even if you aren’t selected.
How Are Winners Chosen And Awarded Reservations?
Winners are chosen by a randomized computer drawing.
If you are successful, you will automatically be given reservations and a parking pass. A $24.00 reservation fee will be charged to the same credit or debit card used for the application fee. This fee covers the cost of awarding the reservation, as well as on-site portable restrooms, supplies, and nightly personnel costs for managing the viewing opportunity.
If you are unsuccessful, you will still be notified but you won’t be awarded a parking pass.
Reservations are non-refundable, non-transferable, and good only for the date issued.
Who’s Allowed Into The Event?
To enter into the synchronous fireflies event, you must have one of the following:
- A vehicle reservation/permit for the date you’re entering.
- A valid camping reservation for Elkmont Campground.
- A valid backcountry camping permit.
Visitors who do not meet this criterion are not allowed to walk or ride bicycles on the Elkmont entrance road or Jakes Creek Road after 4 PM due to safety concerns.
Overnight parking at Little River Trailhead, Jakes Creek Trailhead, or the Appalachian Clubhouse is not allowed without a valid backcountry permit for backcountry campsites associated with these trailheads.
The Synchronous Fireflies Experience
On your vehicle reservation/permit, you will be given a start and end time that you can arrive. Make sure to arrive during those hours because you will not be allowed to enter the area after the parking window has closed.
You will proceed to the Elkmont area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
🗺️ Here are some directions on how to get there:
From Sugarlands visitor center (right outside of Gatlinburg), head about 5 miles until you see a sign for Elkmont Campground. Turn left onto that road – Elkmont Road.
Proceed about a mile and a half until you get to a fork. The road splits to the campground (and campground office) on the right and to the hiking trails and the fireflies event on the left. Go left! (You’ll know where you’re supposed to go because there will be signs and a large tent with staff beside/beneath it).
At the entrance station, you must present your vehicle reservation/pass and photo I.D. that matches the name on the reservation. Each vehicle is allowed to have seven people maximum.
Once you make it past the entrance station, you will be directed to where to park. There is parking at the Little River Trail, Jake’s Creek Trail, Appalachian Clubhouse, and along the exit road.
Staff will direct you to which lot you are supposed to park in.
My recommendation would be to get there as early as possible to secure a closer parking spot! Visitors who arrive first will get access to the parking spaces that are closest to the trailheads while those who arrive last will have to park along the exit road and walk about a quarter to half a mile to the trailheads.
Here are the parking lots you will be parking at:
- Little River Trail
- Jake’s Creek Trail
- Appalachian Clubhouse
- Along the park exit road
What To Do Before Dark
If you arrive at the front end of the event, and the fireflies won’t be out for a few more hours, I’d highly encourage you to walk around and explore the Elkmont area and hiking trails!
Below are three things you can do while you’re waiting for dusk to arrive and the fireflies to appear.
1. Explore Daisy Town
Daisy Town is located between Jake’s Creek parking area and Appalachian Clubhouse.
Daisy Town was once a vacation resort for prominent men from the Knoxville area. Today, these cabins have been renovated and restored for visitors to be able to walk through.
2. Hike the Trails
The event takes place on the Little River and Jake’s Creek trails, so what better way to “kill some time” than to go hiking on these trails?
While you hike, you can enjoy the views, get your blood pumping before you sit down for the rest of the evening, and scope out a great spot to watch the fireflies.
3. Enjoy a Picnic
Venture onto one of the trails and enjoy a picnic dinner while you wait for the forest to grow dark!
Where To See The Synchronous Fireflies
The highest concentration of synchronous fireflies is visible from the Elkmont area of Great Smoky Mountains, which is why the event takes place there every year. But the question I got asked the most at the event is “Where is the best spot to view the fireflies?”
The Little River Trail is known to have the highest concentration and most spectacular display of synchronous fireflies (and the infamous blue ghosts!), so this is where I recommend visitors go. But you can technically view them from anywhere in Elkmont, so don’t feel like you have to rush to this one particular trail.
When you get there, the staff will let you know exactly where the highest concentration of them has been spotted recently so that you can have the best viewing experience possible.
If you have the ability to walk further along the hiking trails, I’d do that. The further you hike onto the trails, the fewer people you will run into. But remember, you will have to walk back out in the dark, so don’t walk further in than you’re capable of walking back out!
What To Do If You See A Bear
Bears come out at night. With a high volume of visitors making noise, bears will usually keep their distance.
But when the fireflies come out for the display, visitors usually lower their voices to hushes and whispers, and lights are only shining intermittently, so bears feel as though they can roam more freely.
If you see a bear, here’s what you can do:
- Don’t panic.
- Make lots of noise.
- Get your neighbors to join you by shouting, “hey bear!” until he saunters away.
Volunteers, staff, and law enforcement park rangers are scattered all over this event, so there is constant communication about bears. Your loud voices and shouting will alert the staff, and the staff will then proceed to shoo away the bear.
Tips For The Event
Bring A Headlamp Or Flashlight
You’ll definitely want to bring your own light source! I’d recommend bringing a headlamp because it’s a hands-free device. A flashlight is a good option if you don’t have a headlamp.
If you bring a headlamp, make sure you are familiar with the settings and know how to flick on the red light. You aren’t allowed to use the white light setting unless you are in a dangerous situation, your safety is compromised, or you see/hear a bear.
If you bring a flashlight, cover it in red cellophane. If you don’t have a red light flashlight or red cellophane to cover your regular flashlight, staff will be handing out red cellophane at the event entrance.
Bring Chairs Or A Blanket
Lightweight backpacking chairs and lightweight camp blankets are the most ideal to bring. I witnessed many visitors hauling massive camp chairs along with oversized coolers and blankets, and they were really struggling to hike the trails with their arms so full of heavy gear.
Bring A Picnic Dinner
I’d recommend getting to the event as early as possible and claiming a spot along the trail to not only enjoy the fireflies show but to eat a meal while you wait for it to get dark.
REMEMBER: Pack all of your trash out. Don’t leave scraps, wrappers, or any other food or trash on the trails. Not only will you be littering and possibly damaging fragile landscapes, but you will also be attracting bears and encouraging aggressive wildlife behavior.
Etiquette For The Event
Make Sure Your Vehicle Headlights Aren’t Facing The Trails
As cars pulled into the parking lots, I was reminding visitors to face their headlights away from the trails. This way, if you leave before the event is officially over, you won’t be shining your bright vehicle lights on the fireflies’ display.
Keep Your Lights Off Unless Walking
When it gets dark, keep your lights to a minimum.
Turn your phone on the dimmest setting possible, and only use your headlamp or flashlight when you’re walking to your viewing spot or leaving.
Only use the red setting on your headlamp or flashlight, or cover your white-light flashlight with red cellophane.
Point your flashlights and headlamps at the ground so as not to disturb other viewers or the fireflies.
Only use white light if you feel as though your safety is compromised. For example, if you think you see/hear a bear, you may shine it to be able to see further into the forest.
Protect The Fireflies And Their Habitat
Protect the fireflies and their natural habitat by not catching the fireflies, staying on the trail at all times, and packing out all of your garbage.
What To Do If You Didn’t Get A Permit
Didn’t get a firefly permit? Fear not! I have written an article that details four ways you can see the synchronous fireflies in the Smokies WITHOUT a permit! Give it a read.
Enjoy the Elkmont synchronous fireflies at Great Smoky Mountains National Park!