The American black bear is arguably the most famous resident of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Visitors are eager to see one. They aren’t elusive, and sometimes wander around or through Gatlinburg. Knowing bear etiquette and safety is important when visiting the Smokies – important for the visitors and the bears. And then enjoy seeing these incredible mammals – it’s always a thrill.
How about some black bear facts to start?
- In the Great Smokies and elsewhere in the Southern Appalachians, black bears are mostly black-colored, but the species’ fur may be brown, cinnamon, blonde, even (in a couple of specific Northwestern populations) blueish or even whitish.
- Most – up to 85% – of this bear’s diet is plant matter though they will eat meat if they can catch it.
- Black bears eat about 15 pounds of food a day.
- The average male weighs 150-300 pounds – reaching up to 660 pounds. The average female weighs 90 to 175 pounds. Cubs weigh 7 to 11 ounces at birth.
- Black bears can live for more than 30 years in the wild, but longevity in the wild averages 20 to 25 years.
- Bears in the Great Smokies will den during the winter to escape the cold weather. While some bears den in hollow stumps and tree cavities, these bears are unusual in that they often den high above ground in standing hollow trees. It is believed that these black bears do not enter a true hibernation, and they may leave their den for short periods of time if the weather is warm or if they are disturbed.
- During the winter denning period, pregnant black bears will give birth to cubs. Bears without cubs emerge in the early spring; mother bears and cubs emerge last usually in late March or early April.
- Biologists estimate that roughly 1,500 bears live in the park. That’s about 1-2 bears per square mile.
As you can see, the likelihood of seeing a bear in the Smokies is pretty good. So let’s look at some likely places and some etiquette:
The best advice for observing bears and avoiding an encounter with a bear that could escalate into an attack is to keep your distance and not surprising bears, according to the National Park Service. Most bears will avoid humans if they hear them coming. Pay attention to your surroundings and make a special effort to be noticeable if you are in an area with known bear activity or a good food source, such as berry bushes.
Once a bear has noticed you and is paying attention to you, additional strategies can help prevent the situation from escalating. Bear attacks are rare; most bears are only interested in protecting food, cubs, or their space. However, being mentally prepared can help you have the most effective reaction.
- 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!
- How else can you tell you’re too close? If a black bear changes its 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 nonfood object, such as a large rock, toward the bear while yelling. If you’re in a group, stand together in a larger group and yell together.
Here are more safety tip from the National Park Service:
- Identify yourself by talking calmly so the bear knows you are a human and not a prey animal. Remain still; stand your ground but slowly wave your arms. Help the bear recognize you as a human. It may come closer or stand on its hind legs to get a better look or smell. A standing bear is usually curious, not threatening.
- Stay calm and remember that most bears do not want to attack you; they usually just want to be left alone. Bears may bluff their way out of an encounter by charging and then turning away at the last second. Bears may also react defensively by wooﬁng, yawning, salivating, growling, snapping their jaws, and laying their ears back. Continue to talk to the bear in low tones; this will help you stay calmer, and it won’t be threatening to the bear. A scream or sudden movement may trigger an attack. Never imitate bear sounds or make a high-pitched squeal.
- Pick up small children immediately. Do not make any loud noises or screams—the bear may think it’s the sound of a prey animal. Slowly wave your arms above your head and tell the bear to back off. Do NOT run or make any sudden movements. Do not make any loud noises or screams—the bear may think it’s the sound of a prey animal.
- Hike and travel in groups. Groups of people are usually noisier and smellier than a single person. Therefore, bears often become aware of groups of people at greater distances, and because of their cumulative size, groups are also intimidating to bears.
- Make yourselves look as large as possible (for example, move to higher ground).
- Do NOT allow the bear access to your food. Getting your food will only encourage the bear and make the problem worse for others.
- Do NOT drop your pack as it can provide protection for your back and prevent a bear from accessing your food.
- If the bear is stationary, move away slowly and sideways; this allows you to keep an eye on the bear and avoid tripping. Moving sideways is also non-threatening to bears.
- Do NOT run, but if the bear follows, stop, and hold your ground. Bears can run as fast as a racehorse both uphill and down. Like dogs, they will chase ﬂeeing animals.
- Do NOT climb a tree. Black bears can climb trees.
- Leave the area or take a detour. If this is impossible, wait until the bear moves away. Always leave the bear an escape route.
- Be especially cautious if you see a female with cubs; never place yourself between a mother and her cub, and never attempt to approach them. The chances of an attack escalate greatly if she perceives you as a danger to her cubs.
If you are attacked by a black bear, DO NOT PLAY DEAD. Try to escape to a secure place such as a car or building. If escape is not possible, try to ﬁght back using any object available. Concentrate your kicks and blows on the bear’s face and muzzle.
If any bear attacks you in your tent, or stalks you and then attacks, do NOT play dead—ﬁght back! This kind of attack is very rare but can be serious because it often means the bear is looking for food and sees you as prey.
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, NEVER feed a bear. Also keep anything that smells like food sealed, locked up in your car or out of your belongings entirely.
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 must be tranquilized by park rangers when this happens. Sometimes, the bear cannot unlearn the behavior and must be euthanized. Always remember – a fed bear is a dead bear.
This is a warning and reminder from that National Park Service:
Warning: Bears are wild animals that are dangerous and unpredictable. Do not approach bears or allow them to approach you!
Willfully approaching within 50 yards (150 feet), or any distance that disturbs or displaces a bear, is illegal in the park. Violation of this federal regulation can result in fines and arrest. Use binoculars, telephoto lens, or a spotting scope to view the animals.
Check the “Bear Closures” and “Bear Warnings” section of the Temporary Closures page before planning a hike in the park.
What to do if you see a bear:
You finally spot that black bear – woohoo! 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. Keep your car doors locked.
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!
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. Keep your car doors locked. Bears might not have hands, but they can open a car door for a tasty treat!
Second, 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!
WHERE TO SEE BEARS IN THE SMOKY MOUNTAINS
Now that you know all the bear safety tips for the Smoky Mountains, let’s talk about where you can see them!
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. If seeing a bear is on your wish 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, 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 a narrow, winding 1-way road that offers good opportunities for bear sightings. 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 a historic building.
Now that you have the foundation for 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 always exciting.
Booking a secluded cabin in Gatlinburg with American Patriot Getaways gives you a chance to immerse yourself in nature. Booking one of our great Wears Valley area cabins will keep you close to Cades Cove.
Give our friendly Reservations team a call at 800-204-5169 for help in finding 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.
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