Seeing a black bear on your trip to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is an amazing and exciting experience that people are thrilled to share in their social media posts. It’s a “Bucket List” event for many people. With more than 1,600 black bears in the area, the chances of seeing a bear are high at any elevation or at your American Patriot Getaways cabin. Practicing bear safety when looking for or viewing bears is important for you AND the bear. We’ve got plenty of bear safety tips to keep everyone protected during an encounter.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the largest protected areas in the eastern United States where black bears can live in wild, natural surroundings.
Bears inhabit all elevations of the park. Though populations vary, biologists estimate about 1,900 bears live in the park. That’s about two bears per square mile.
Different Kinds of Bears
Black bears in the Smokies are black in color, but in other parts of the country they may be brown or cinnamon. They may be six feet in length and up to three feet high at the shoulder. During the summer months, a typical adult male bear weighs approximately 250 pounds while adult females are generally smaller and weigh slightly over 100 pounds. However, bears may double their weight by the fall. Bears over 600 pounds have been documented in the park. Bears can live 12-15 years or more, however bears that had access to human foods and garbage have a life expectancy of only half that time.
Bears, like humans, are omnivores. Plant materials such as berries and nuts make up approximately 85% of their diet. Insects and animal carrion provide valuable sources of protein for bears. Bears have color vision and a keen sense of smell. In addition, they are good tree climbers, can swim very well, and can run 30 miles per hour.
What To Watch For
As a rule of thumb, if you approach an animal so closely that it changes its behavior, you have approached too closely. Instead use binoculars, spotting scopes and cameras with telephoto lenses to enjoy wildlife. Watch for any modification in an animal’s behavior that indicates that you have approached too closely. Move away from the animal until you reach a distance at which the animal feels comfortable once again and resumes whatever activity it was engaged in before you approached.
Another way to test distance is to hold your arm out all the way and give a “thumbs up”, the bear should be completely covered by your thumb. If you can’t cover it with your thumb, you are too close!
What Do I Do If I See A Bear?
The National Park Service offers these tips for Bear Safety:
Bears in the park are wild and their behavior can be unpredictable. Although extremely rare, attacks on humans have occurred, inflicting serious injuries and death. Treat bear encounters with extreme caution! Learn what to do if you see a bear by watching this short video.
If you see a bear:
- Remain watchful.
- Do not approach it
- Do not allow the bear to approach you.
- If the bear is at a distance, feeding or walking by, and notices you but continues its natural behavior, no action is needed on your part. Proceed while continuing to observe the bear.
- If your presence causes the bear to change its behavior (stops feeding, changes its travel direction, watches you, etc.) you are too close.
- Being too close may promote aggressive behavior from the bear such as running toward you, making loud noises, or swatting the ground. The bear is demanding more space. Don’t run, but slowly back away, watching the bear. Increase the distance between you and the bear. The bear will probably do the same.
If a bear persistently follows or approaches you, without vocalizing, or paw swatting:
- Change your direction.
- If the bear continues to follow you, stand your ground.
- If the bear gets closer, 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 (for example, move to higher ground).
- Throw non-food objects such as rocks at the bear.
- Use a deterrent such as a stout stick.
- If you are carrying bear spray, begin to discharge it when the bear comes within 20 yards of you. Watch this video on how to safely use bear spray.
- 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 or other visitors.
If the bear’s behavior indicates that it is after your food and you are physically attacked:
- Separate yourself from the food.
- Slowly back away.
If the bear shows no interest in your food and you are physically attacked, the bear may consider you as prey:
- Fight back aggressively with any available object!
- Do not play dead!
Help protect others, report all bear incidents to a park ranger immediately. Above all, keep your distance from bears! (865)436-1200.
Bear Behavior For Bear Safety
Bears are most active during early morning and late evening hours in spring and summer. Mating usually takes place in July. Both female and male bears may have more than one mate during the summer.
Bears choose a denning site with the coming of cold weather. Dens are usually hollow stumps, tree cavities, or wherever there is shelter. Bears in the Smokies are unusual in that they often den high above the ground in standing hollow trees. Bears do not truly hibernate but enter long periods of sleep. They may leave the den for short periods if disturbed or during brief warming trends.
One to four cubs are born during the mother’s winter sleep, usually in late January or early February. Bears weigh eight ounces at birth. Females with newly born cubs usually emerge from their winter dens in late March or early April. Commonly born in pairs, the cubs will remain with the mother for about eighteen months or until she mates again.
Bear Safety Isn’t Just For Humans, It’s For The Bears Too
NO FEEDING BEARS AND KEEP FOOD AWAY FROM THEM
Keeping your distance from bears is always important when it comes to bear safety. Just as important is keeping wild black bears, well, WILD. Never ever, no matter how cute and fun it may seem, feed a bear.
When bears learn humans provide food, they lose their fear of people. It is critical for humans to never approach or feed bears for their safety, as well as ours.
When a bear becomes conditioned to humans,it will begin more boldly approaching humans when it should not in efforts to get an easy meal. Unfortunately, food conditioned bears must be tranquilized by park rangers when this happens. Sometimes, the bear cannot unlearn the behavior and must be euthanized.
For these reasons, park rangers issue citations for littering, feeding bears, and for improper food storage. These citations can result in fines of up to $5,000 and jail sentences lasting up to six months. Visitors are urged to view all wildlife at a safe distance and to never throw food or garbage on the ground or leave it unattended. Garbage Kills Bears!
WHEN YOU SEE A BEAR AND ARE AT A SAFE DISTANCE, ENJOY!
You finally spot that black bear – congratulations! So, now we know not to get too close and to not feed the bear. What do you do if you see one? The number one thing you can do if you’re properly distanced from a bear is to enjoy the experience. Don’t forget to take a photo – or 10!
If you’re driving, pull off the road and park your vehicle to let other cars pass. Don’t block traffic to catch a glimpse of a wild animal. Don’t get out of your car to get closer either.
SEEING A BEAR AT YOUR SMOKY MOUNTAIN CABIN
Because bears don’t exactly stay just inside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, they sometimes can be seen out in town. Maybe you’ll even see a bear from your Smoky Mountains cabin! That’s exciting too.
So, how can you practice bear safety at your cabin? First, never leave food or trash inside of your vehicles. Bears have an extraordinary sense of smell. You might not realize those granola bar wrappers smell quite so delicious. By keeping your car trash-and food-free, you’re protecting your property AND the bears.
Pro tip: Keep your car doors locked. Bears might not have hands like we do, but they can open a car door for a tasty treat!
Secondly, keep your trash locked up. If your cabin has a bear-proof trash container, make sure to properly latch it each time you take trash out. If your cabin doesn’t have a cage protecting the trash, give the office a call to arrange for someone to come get that trash to keep our furry friends and keep your family safe.
Finally, while the fresh mountain air might be tempting, consider keeping your doors and windows closed. Your big family dinner smells just as delicious to a bear as it does to you!
WHERE TO SEE BEARS IN THE SMOKY MOUNTAINS
Now that you know the bear safety tips for the Smoky Mountains, let’s talk about where you can see them!
Because many animals are most active at night, it can be advantageous to look for wildlife during morning and evening. It’s also a good idea to carry binoculars. Some people like to sit quietly beside a trail to see what wildlife will come out of hiding. And don’t forget to scan the trees—many animals spend their days among the branches.
Check the “Bear Closures” and “Bear Warnings” section of the Temporary Closures page before setting out on a hike.
Going to Cades Cove is a rite of passage for many Smokies visitors and locals. Spending the whole day immersed in nature with your family is a great way to take a break from the everyday hustle and bustle. Fortunately, if seeing a bear is on your bucket list, you’ve got a great chance to see one in Cades Cove. This stunning 11-mile nature loop takes you around a vast meadow. While travelling the road, take a look inward for a glimpse at deer, fox, raccoons, and our most famous friend.
Roaring Ford Motor Nature Trail
Located close to Gatlinburg, the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is almost a miniature version of Cades Cove. The narrow, winding 1-way road may be adjacent to town, but that doesn’t mean anything to a black bear. Drive slowly and take the opportunity to pull off the road and stretch your legs on one of the Mount LeConte hiking trails or at an historic building.
As you may know, bears hibernate in the winter. According to bear.org, black bears hibernate for up to 7.5 months a year. It can really vary based on how available food is but generally black bears will go into hibernation sometime around September – October and remain dormant through April. You can learn more about hibernation here.
READY TO PRACTICE WHAT YOU’VE LEARNED? BOOK A CABIN TODAY!
Whether it’s your first bear sighting or your fiftieth, getting a glimpse of one is exciting to be sure. Booking a secluded cabin in Gatlinburg with American Patriot Getaways gives you a chance to really be immersed in nature. You can easily search for cabins by availability date on our website. If you have questions, give our friendly Reservations team a call at 800-204-5169. They can help you find a cabin of any size to fit any budget for your trip.
Looking for more things to do on your trip to Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge or Sevierville? Be sure to check out all our Smoky Mountain Travel Guides.
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