Ask anyone what animal they want to see the most in the Smokies and they’ll undoubtedly say a black bear. In fact, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has approximately 1600 black bears roaming around at any given time! While your odds of seeing a bear sound good, this really only equates to 1-2 bears per square mile of park. Tip the scales in your favor and check out the best places you can see bears in the Smoky Mountains.
What Kind of Bears Will You See?
The bears you see in Gatlinburg are the American black bear (ursus americanus). These bears are omnivores, which means they eat meat and plants. The average male black bear is around 250 pounds and the average female is around 110 pounds. Although they may seem small, bears can nearly double their weight in the fall months because of how much food they eat! It is important to remember that even though black bears may seem small and harmless, they are still wild animals. It’s important to never feed a black bear human food even though they may seem hungry. While their name implies a black color, they can also vary. Black bears can be black, bluish-gray, a cinnamon color, and sometimes even white! While they are mostly black, it is possible for them to have brown or tan markings in their fur along their chests and claws as well.
When is the Best Time to See Bears?
Black bears in Gatlinburg are corpuscular animals, which means they are most active at dawn and at dusk. Being an early riser definitely has advantages in the Smoky Mountains. If you want to increase your chances of seeing a bear, you need to be up and moving before the sunshine.
As far as hibernation goes, black bears in the Smoky Mountains do not ever truly hibernate. They will settle down in their den for a period of time during the winter months, but may get up if there is a warm spell. Female black bears give birth to their cubs in the winter months, and they can birth up to 4 cubs at a time. Mama bear and her babies will emerge from their den in March or April.
Mating season for black bears is in the summer time.
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!
Whenever a bear stops whatever activity it is performing when you see it, you are too close. If a bear begins to wander toward you, back up slowly while yelling at the bear. Assuming you are in a group, get closer together to make yourselves appear larger. Never run away from a black bear, as they can run at speeds faster than 30 miles per hour to chase. Do not ever play dead with a black bear. Never throw food at, or leave food for, a black bear.
While black bears around Gatlinburg are generally very docile, it is possible, although rare, for them to attack humans.
Where to Go?
A favorite destination of locals and tourists alike, Cades Cove is the top place we recommend to see a black bear. This gorgeous 11 mile loop road is a perfect day trip from your Gatlinburg ca
bin rental. While there is a lot to see and do in Cades Cove, simply driving the loop road is a great way to view wildlife. Since the loop makes a circle around a series of large meadows, spotting wildlife is easy!
The best way to spot a bear in Cades Cove isn’t by looking just in the meadows, though. Bears in the Smoky Mountains often make their dens in trees. So, if you want to see one – look up!
A lesser known, butstill scenic, drive you can take closer to Gatlinburg is the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. This 5.5 mile one-way loop is shorter than Cades Cove, too! Don’t let the proximity to town fool you though. This is still a great place to see black bears. While taking the drive searching for the most famous animal in the Smokies, there are plenty of opportunities to get out and stretch your legs. Rainbow Falls, Grotto Falls, and several historic homesites make for a beautiful early morning or late afternoon trip on your vacation.
Driving to Newfound Gap
Starting at the Sugarland Visitor Center and driving up an elevation of approximately 3,000 feet is Newfound Gap Road. This road, also known as highway 441, climbs from the Tennessee side of the Smoky Mountains up to the North Carolina state line. This classic way to see the mountains may be more heavily trafficked than the other two drives we listed, but should not be underestimated. In recent years, bears have been spotted along this road. The best place to see a bear along this route can be heavily debated, but near the Chimney’s Picnic area is always a good bet. The best part of taking a scenic drive to see a black bear is you can view a bear from the safety of your own vehicle.
3 Bears Gift Shop
Strike out on attempting to see a bear in the wild? You can always check out Three Bears General Store in Pigeon Forge. This large gift shop boasts an arcade, old time photos, a spa, candy kitchen, and a bear habitat. For $3.25 per person (kids under 2 are FREE), you can see their rescued bears. Since these bears are in capitivity, they are allowed to be fed special bear food, and you can do so for $1.25.
Make a Game Out of It!
You’re bound to see other critters too when you’re out looking for black bears in Gatlinburg and the Smoky Mountains. Why not check out our post on how to play Wildlife Bingo on your search? Your search for the best place to see bears in the Smoky Mountains will more than likely show you an abundance of our animals. Some you might also see include elk, deer, fox, hawks, turkey, and salamanders!
Book Your Stay
If you’re ready to see some bears, it’s time to book a trip to the mountains! American Patriot Getaways offers cabins in Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and even the Wears Valley area to be even closer to Cades Cove. By booking a cabin stay, you’ll truly be a little closer to nature and experience all the Smokies have to offer.
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