When it comes to making memories that last a life time, viewing synchronous fireflies should be high on your list. This stunning display of natural beauty only occurs a few places in the entire world, and the Smoky Mountains is one of the best!
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Where are Synchronous Fireflies Found Throughout the United States?
Synchronous Fireflies are found in various concentrations throughout the eastern United States, from Georgia all the way north to Pennsylvania. The largest population of these fireflies is found in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Because the concentration of Smoky Mountain fireflies is so high, this area provides a stunning light show, unmatched by any other location in the United States.
What Makes Synchronous Fireflies Light in Unison?
While no one knows for sure what drives this species of firefly to flash their lights as a collective group, we do know these flashes of light are used as part of their mating ritual.
During these mating displays, the male fireflies flash their lights high in the air as they compete to attract females, who stay closer to ground. The females respond by flashing their lights too, although their lights are not quiet as bright as the males.
The species of synchronous fireflies found in the Smoky Mountains,
Photinus carolinus,will flash their lights 5-6 times before taking an few second break.
When Are the Best Dates for viewing?
The dates vary each year. The park releases the viewing dates in late April. The dates span over a 2 week period and can run anywhere from late May to early June.
Smoky Mountain Fireflies in Elkmont
With the highest number of fireflies in the park, the Elkmont area is the top viewing location for fireflies in the entire Smoky Mountains. The secret is out though and over the last 10 years, the crowds have become unmanageable. This has forced GSMNP to implement a lottery system for entrance.
The lottery opens in late April each year, in preparation for the viewing dates in early June. Each home, not person, is only allowed to enter the drawing 1 time.
If selected you are provided with a viewing date and a parking pass good for 1 vehicle that holds up to 8 passengers. Those with larger vehicles will have to apply for a special passenger vehicle pass, which is only offered in a very limited quantity. From the parking lot, you will be shuttled over to the viewing location.
It is important to note, that you must attend on the date that is selected or you. Also, the park does not permit any drop-offs at the viewing location. For example, if you weren’t lucky enough to be chosen for a parking pass, you can’t get your neighbor to drive you up there and drop you off. The rangers will send you packing.
When is the Lottery Held?
Lottery dates vary from year to year. The 2019 dates are as follows:
- 1st Day to Enter Lottery: April 26th, 2019 at 8 a.m.
- Last Day to Enter Lottery: April 29th, 2019 at 8 p.m.
- Lottery Winners Will be Notified: May 10th, 2019
This information is crucial and is subject to change, so please view the lottery website to double check the dates as the time approaches. This is also where you can enter the lottery and see the viewing dates, once they are released.
What is the Cost?
If you are selected as a lottery winner, your credit card will be charged a $25 fee for the parking pass. This helps to cover the costs associated with running this event including maintaining the lottery website and paying park personnel. Parking is located at Sugarlands Visitor Center.
On the day of the viewing, you must also pay $2 per person before boarding the shuttle. This cost goes towards the operation and maintenance of the shuttles.
What Are My Options If I Don’t Win a Parking Pass?
In this situation, you actually have a couple of choices. Although not as ideal as Elkmont, there are other areas of the park that offer pretty good views of the fireflies. Check them out below.
Your other option if you don’t win a parking pass is to try visiting Elkmont 1-2 days before or after the main event. You might be pleasantly surprised to already/still find fireflies in action! Becasue these are wild animals, it is literally impossible for anyone to know precisely when the fireflies will begin their mating season. Use this to your advantage.
Additional Viewing Locations
Many locals and visitors report being able to see smaller groups of synchronous fireflies at Cades Cove. While GSMNP is open 24/7, the Cades Cove driving loop is gated off after dark, which means you will have to walk in on foot.
Although many people do enter Cades Cove after dark throughout the year, it’s important to note that the park’s predatory animals hunt in the evening and night-time hours. This includes coyotes, bear, and even venomous snakes. Enter at your own risk.
Fireflies at Norton Creek
This yearly event in Gatlinburg is not associated with Great Smoky Mountains National Park in any way; however it is another guaranteed way to see the famous fireflies.
Unfortunately the tickets, which do include food and drink, come with a hefty price tag of $150/per person. For this a once in a life time event, maybe it’s worth the splurge!
Like Cades Cove, the total number of fireflies is slightly lower here, but Cataloochee Valley is still an excellent spot for viewing Smoky Mountain fireflies. In addition to synchronous fireflies, you can also view rare Blue Ghost fireflies in this location.
The tours in this location are handled by a private company, Cataloochee Valley Tours. While totally family-friendly, these tour tickets cost over $100 per person. Yikes! If cost is a concern for you, you may want to choose one of the other options.
Congaree National Park, South Carolina
This lesser known national park is located just outside of Columbia, NC and about 2 hours from Charleston. Just like in the Smokies, the park service manages the firefly viewing, which takes place annually during a 2 week period. The viewing window will be sometime between mid-May and mid-June each year.
Oak Ridge Wildlife Management Area
Oak Ridge, located northwest of Knoxville, is actually home to another species of synchronous firefly known as the Snappy Syncs. While the Smoky Mountain synchronous fireflies described above will blink 5-6 times before breaking, Snappy Syncs will actually blink 30 + times in a row. Amazing!
Most of the Wildlife Management Area where these fireflies thrive is actually off limits to the public, but you can occasionally find them along local greenway trails.
One of the best places to see these fireflies it at Molly Branch, a privately owned viewing location.
Important Info for All Viewing Locations
- Bring a camp chair or blanket for sitting
- Bring a flashlight to help you walk.
- Make sure the light of your flashlight is covered in red or blue cellophane, to avoid disturbing the fireflies.
- Take all of your trash and belongings with you when you go.
- Don’t handle or catch the fireflies.
- Don’t spray bug-repellent in the viewing area.
- Don’t use flash photography.