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smoky mountains wildlife

If you’re trying to get away from it all, there are few better escapes than the Smoky Mountains.

Complete with stunning landscapes and easy access to the many attractions in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, the Smokies have everything you could want in a vacation destination.

And that includes wildlife. From flying squirrels to owls to elk to black bears, the Smoky Mountains wildlife is diverse and plentiful.

But wild animals are a skittish bunch, and if you don’t know where to look, you might travel from Cades Cove to Andrews Bald without spotting anything.

In this article, we’ll look at the best tips for spying the most beautiful and elusive Smoky Mountains wildlife.

Location Is Everything

To see animals, you have to go where the animals are. And they’re not at Dollywood.

The best place to see Smoky Mountains wildlife is Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This is a national park that serves as a sanctuary for hundreds of species of mammals, birds, amphibians, fish, and reptiles.

At over 800 square miles of protected land, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the largest protected bear habitat east of the Mississippi. While the population fluctuates, biologists estimate there is an average of two black bears per square mile.

black bear snacking on flowers in a field

Cades Cove is one of the most popular sections of the park for wildlife viewing. This is because it is not as densely forested as the rest of the park.  An expansive meadow is framed by the 11-mile loop road.

Cades Cove also features a long winding road passing through it so you can see Smoky Mountains wildlife from the safety and comfort of your car. Make sure to be a courteous driver and pull off the main roadway to view wildlife! It is not uncommon for visitors to see bears, foxes, deer, and squirrels foraging for food as they drive through Cades Cove.

Cataloochee Valley is another popular wildlife viewing spot. At dusk and dawn, large groups of elk, deer, and wild turkey come to the valley to graze.

Smoky Mountains Wildlife Habits

While wild animals aren’t completely predictable, they are some habits that can help guide your watching.

First, keep in mind that most animals take shelter in the hottest part of the day. A 3 p.m. wildlife expedition would likely be disappointing.

Instead, plan your trips for morning and evening when it is cooler. This is when most larger animals, such as black bears and elk come out to feed. Many Smoky Mountain critters are most active at dawn and dusk.

Smoky Mountains Mammals

wildlife bingoBlack bears spend most of their waking hours foraging for berries and nuts. Keep an eye on bush-covered hillsides.

While there are only a handful of elk in the park, deer are very numerous. Deer can most often be seen at morning and dusk grazing in grassy areas.

They are also known to come out after rainstorms. A glimpse of a herd of deer grazing on a foggy afternoon is a sight you will never forget!

Flocks of wild turkey are also a common site. They can be spotted at every elevation throughout the park and travel in large groups, so keep a look out.

Cades Cove is also home to herds of wild boars which can often be found rooting around for food.

Many species of Smoky Mountains wildlife are exclusively nocturnal, so they are a more difficult to spot. Bobcats, bats, skunks, and coyotes only come out at night, so you may only catch a passing glance of them at dawn or dusk.

While smaller animals can be harder to find through the park’s dense forest, they are a rewarding find.


Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a paradise for birdwatchers. Hundreds of bird species pass through the region, filling the treetops and rivers.

Some common species in the lower elevations are the Downy Woodpecker, Eastern Screech-Owl, Belted Kingfisher, Carolina Chickadee, and Carolina Wren.

The higher elevations are more similar to the forests in Canada, and is the southernmost breeding range of the Black-capped Chickadee, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Blackburnian and Canada warblers, Veery, and Winter Wren.

While many species of owls make their home in the park, peregrine falcons, ospreys, and even bald eagles have been spotted occasionally. Keep your eyes open!

Creepy Crawlers

A salamander in a spring in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The wetter portions of the Smoky Mountains are also a great place to spot amphibians and reptiles.

The Park has sometimes been called the Salamander Capital of the World. With over thirty distinct species of salamanders squirming along the riverbanks and through the mud, the nickname is well-deserved.

There is also a huge variety of frogs, toads, snakes, and turtles making their home in the forest floor of the park. It may take some sneaking around and turning rocks, but the patient explorer is sure to be rewarded.

A Fisherman’s Paradise

If you’re a fishing fanatic, the park’s 2900 miles of streams and rivers support over fifty native fish species.

Warm, slow moving streams in the low elevations have created an ideal environment for a diverse aquatic ecosystem.  These streams are dominated by smallmouth bass, rock bass, shiners, minnows, suckers, and darters.

The higher elevations with the faster moving and cooler water is where you’ll find trout.  The native brook trout thrives up high, and you’ll find non-native rainbow and brown trout downstream.

Don’t Get Too Close!

It should be common sense, but enough people ignore this advice that it bears repeating. Give the animals space!

Smoky Mountains wildlife is staggeringly beautiful, but it is to be appreciated from a distance.


Black bears are far less dangerous than their grizzly cousins. But a black bear that has learned to associate humans with food can be annoying at best. In the worst case, they can be deadly.

They are bears, after all.

No matter how cute that little black bear is, he’ll be able to survive without your sandwich.

If you’re camping in the park, make sure that you keep your food far out of their reach.

Despite their elegant appearance, elk can be very aggressive. Elk tip the scales around seven hundred pounds and carry a nasty pair of antlers. That’s not a combination you want to experience.

As part of its conservation efforts, the park even has policies restricting human proximity to elk. If you willfully get too close, you can face fines or even arrest.

Do yourself and the animals a favor and maintain a healthy distance.

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The Smoky Mountains are a great beautiful destination for the traveler trying to get away. Now you know the best places to unwind in the beauty of the neighboring National Park, but finding a good place to stay in Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge can be difficult.

Let Great American Patriot Getaways help you find a better stay. Beat the motel and choose between hundreds of beautiful cabin getaways.

Give our Reservations staff a call at 800-204-5169 or check out our website.  No matter your group size or budget, American Patriot Getaways has a cabin for you!

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