Witnessing the Synchronous Fireflies in the Smoky Mountains is a BIG deal. While you can see this species of fireflies in many parts of the southern Appalachian Mountains, the synchronous fireflies in eastern Tennessee are known to put on the best “show.” After all, thousands of visitors flock from all over the country to see these beauties shine bright in Great Smoky Mountains National Park every year!
The eight-day Synchronous Fireflies event in Great Smoky Mountains occurs only once a year, usually in late May or early June. Because of its extreme popularity, a lottery system is implemented annually to limit vehicle traffic, enhance visitor experience, and reduce any potential negative impact on the fireflies and their mating display.
With over 20,000 people applying for the lottery annually, and under 1,000 vehicles getting approved for entry, it can feel nearly impossible to obtain the coveted firefly viewing permit.
Since it’s very difficult to snag a permit in this randomized lottery system, I am going to share with you four ways to see the synchronous fireflies in the Smokies WITHOUT a permit!
What Are Synchronous Fireflies?
Synchronous fireflies (photinus carolinus) are a 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 own 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.
FUN FACT: Synchronous fireflies are actually not flies or bugs. They’re beetles!
4 Ways To See The Synchronous Fireflies In The Smokies WITHOUT A Permit
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So how exactly can you see the synchronous fireflies in Great Smoky Mountains without a permit?! There are four ways!
1. Visit The Week Before Or After The Official Event
The first way you can see the synchronous fireflies in the Smokies without a permit is by visiting the park the week before or after the event. For example, the event was June 4-11 this year (2023), so visitors could roam freely throughout the Elkmont area (the location of the fireflies event) before June 4th and after June 11th.
While there is a professional team of entomologists in place to track the timing of the fireflies’ famous light display, natural phenomena like this one are variable and difficult to predict exactly. So you can sometimes get lucky and see the synchronous fireflies surrounding the peak event. No permit is necessary!
We secured reservations at Elkmont Campground two weeks before the official event began, and the blue ghost fireflies were already lighting up the area. It may not have been the “peak” synchronous firefly display, but it was still exciting to witness! I have also heard and read about many people getting to see the synchronous fireflies in the Smokies before and after the event.
2. Secure An Elkmont Campground Reservation
The second way you can see the synchronous fireflies in the Smokies without a permit is by securing a reservation at Elkmont Campground.
While you can begin reserving campsites at Elkmont six months in advance, you’ll probably want to wait until the firefly dates are announced before you secure your reservation. You could certainly book it earlier and try to guess the dates, but if you want to make sure you have a reservation during the official peak synchronous firefly display event, you’ll want to wait until the dates are revealed.
Synchronous firefly viewing dates are usually announced in late April. As soon as that happens, log on to recreation.gov and secure a campsite at Elkmont Campground for a date (or dates) in that window.
A valid Elkmont campsite reservation will get you into the firefly viewing area! Your campground reservation is your ticket.
PRO TIP: If you attempt to book a campsite at Elkmont during the peak viewing period and you find that all of the sites are reserved, don’t be discouraged. Check back later. Oftentimes, visitors will release their reservations for one reason or another, and previously-booked campsites will open up.
3. Volunteer For The Event
The third way you can see the synchronous fireflies in the Smokies without a permit is by volunteering for the event.
To become a volunteer, visit the park’s website to apply or stop by one of the park’s visitor centers to speak to a ranger directly. Speaking to a park ranger directly will give you a better chance at not only getting approved to volunteer in the park but could open up other, more exciting, opportunities for you – like the fireflies!
Watch the local news, follow the park’s social media accounts, and check the park’s website frequently so you can be the first to hear about volunteer opportunities in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Once you make that first connection with the park, a world of opportunities will open up to you! Get a head start now before the next firefly event comes around.
→ READ NEXT: Exactly How to See the Synchronous Fireflies (all the juicy details about the event from start to finish!)
4. Reserve A Backcountry Campsite
The fourth and final way you can see the synchronous fireflies in the Smokies without a permit is by obtaining a backcountry camping permit associated with the Jake’s Creek and Little River trailheads.
Backcountry campers who have a valid permit in the Elkmont area are allowed to park at the trailheads and view the fireflies.
General Backcountry Permit fees are $8 and can be obtained online or in person at the Backcountry Office located at Sugarlands Visitor Center up to 30 days in advance.
The Backcountry Office is open daily from 8 AM to 5 PM Eastern Time.
NOTE: Obtaining a backcountry camping permit does not exempt you from the parking tag requirement. Learn more about the Park It Forward parking tag program here.
The Synchronous Fireflies display in Great Smoky Mountains National Park is something that should be on everyone’s bucket list. As the event’s popularity continues to grow, and word of mouth spreads, you might see your opportunity to witness the fireflies slip further and further into the rearview mirror.
But with these four alternatives (arriving early or late, camping in Elkmont, volunteering, or backcountry camping) to fall back on, hopefully, you’ll be on your way to seeing the next Synchronous Fireflies event in the Smokies!
Curious about what to expect at the event? I wrote an entire guide that walks you through everything from where to park to the best spot to view the fireflies!