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Seeing a black bear on your trip to the Great Smoky Mountains is a bucket list experience for many.  With more than 1600 black bears in our area, your chances of seeing one are pretty high!  While it’s always exciting to see a black bear in the Smoky Mountains, everyone wants to be safe while doing so.  Luckily, we’ve got plenty of bear safety tips to keep you and your family – as well as Smoky himself –  protected during your encounter.  

black bear cub and mama bear, cades cove


The most important thing to remember when looking for black bears around Gatlinburg is they are wild animals!  According to the National Park Service, there are a few things you can do to keep wildlife safe during your viewing.  Always keep your distance from black bears, making sure to stay at least 150 feet away. Using binoculars or a telephoto lens to watch animals is always the safest method to make sure you are far enough away.  If you’re unsure if you are far enough away – use the “rule of thumb!” If you can hold your arm out all the way and give a “thumbs up”, the bear should be completely covered by your thumb. Can’t cover it with your thumb? You are too close!

The easiest way you can practice bear safety in the Smoky Mountains is by keeping your distance.  


We learned above that 150 feet is a good distance to keep from a bear.  How else can you tell you’re too close?  If a black bear changes their behavior, you more than likely are too close to that bear.  Behavior changes can include charging, swatting at the ground, and making loud noises.  

If you need to create more distance between a black bear and yourself, the number one rule is DON’T RUN.  Black bears can run upwards of 30 miles per hour.  Running can also encourage the bear to run after you.  It is recommended you back away or move sideways from the bear slowly.  Waving your arms in the air and yelling at the bear are also great ways to help maintain distance between yourself and the bear.  

Is the bear still coming toward you?  Throw a non food object, like a larger rock, toward the bear while yelling.  If you’re in a group, stand together in a larger group and yell together.  

black bear snacking on flowers in a field


As we read above, keeping your distance from bears is always important when it comes to bear safety.  But even more important is keeping wild black bears, well, WILD.  Never ever, no matter how cute and fun it may seem, feed a bear.  

Recently, some visitors in Cades Cove decided to feed a black bear some peanut butter.  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.  

What happens when a bear becomes food conditioned?  A black bear will begin more boldly approaching humans when it should not in efforts to get an easy meal.  Unfortunately, food conditioned bears have to be tranquilized by park rangers when this happens.  Sometimes, the bear cannot unlearn the behavior and has to be euthanized. 

Always remember – a fed bear is a dead bear.  


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. 


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 smelled 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 definitely 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 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!


A young black bear standing and grasping a tree.

Now that you know all the bear safety tips for the Smoky Mountains, let’s talk about where you can see them!  

Cades Cove

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 Fork 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.  


Living room with incredible views at Big Bear Lodge, a Gatlinburg rental cabin

Now that you know the pillars of bear safety, you’re ready to come to the Smoky Mountains and see a black bear!  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?  Be sure to check out all our Smoky Mountain Travel Guides.  

You can also follow us on Facebook and Instagram to keep up to date with all the latest area information.  Check us out on Pinterest for easy recipes to cook in your cabin, decor inspiration, and more!

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