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Fireflies at night

Each year in the Great Smoky Mountains for a few magical nights in June, one of the 19 species of fireflies in the park – the Photinus carolinus – synchronize their flashing pattern during mating season. It’s a sight to behold.

What are they and how can you see them? We’ll tell you!

Scientists studying the synchronous firefly have determined that the males flash in unison as a way for the female to be certain she is responding to one of her kind. There are other firefly species flashing at night, and some of them are predatory. Therefore, she must be able to recognize males of her species.

Smoky Mountains National Park holds a lottery each year for viewing days in June in Elkmont, which has the magic formula of the right elevation and near water. Viewing dates are announced and the parking pass lottery opens here in late April.

Purchase Passes

Once the pass lottery begins and you are chosen, you will be able to purchase passes from Recreation.gov. For each of the seven evenings, there are 111 advance parking passes and 36 large vehicle passes (first-come, first-serve).

Each lottery applicant will receive a notification on whether a vehicle pass will be awarded sometime in May. If you are selected, you will be charged a $25.00 (per vehicle) fee for the pass by Recreation.gov and an additional $2 (cash only) fee per person while boarding the round-trip shuttle to the viewing area.

While exact dates haven’t been announced, the event occurs the last week of May or first week of June.  Folks entering the lottery are allowed to choose two nights that work best for their schedule.

What are fireflies?

Glowing Fireflies

Fireflies are beetles. Most of their lifecycle is spent in the larval stage (1-2 years). During this, they feed on snails, worms, and smaller insects in the leaf litter on the forest floor. Once they mature into the adult form, they only live for about 3-4 week. Their goal is mating, and the flash patterns are part of their mating display.

close up of bottom of fireflies

Each species has a characteristic pattern that helps male and female individuals recognize and find each other. Most species produce a greenish-yellow light. Males typically flash while they are flying, and females, which are usually stationary, flash in response.


The production of light by living organisms is called bioluminescence. “Fireflies combine the chemical luciferin and oxygen with the enzyme luciferase in their lanterns (part of their abdomens) to make light. The light produced is referred to as a “cold” light, with nearly 100% of the energy given off as light. In contrast, the energy produced by an incandescent light bulb is approximately 10% light and 90% heat.

Synchronous fireflies are one of only a couple species in North America whose individuals are known to synchronize their flashing light patterns.

It’s a bucket list kind of event, for sure!

If you don’t win the lottery for viewing in Elkmont, there are still places to see this magical event. Also, you can try and visit three days before and after the event and you may be surprised because the peak date is a best hypothesis not an exact date the lightning bugs will flash.

What to know

The magic formula is to try and find a place around the same elevation as Elkmont that is also near the water and gets very dark.  Synchronized fireflies have also been reported in Cades Cove, along Little River, and even in the vicinity of the Mt. LeConte Trailheads just outside of Gatlinburg.  You never know what you might see if you venture out into the forest at night.

On nights where the temperature is below 50 degrees, it’s possible there won’t be much to see. On nights where there has been rain or fog during the day, it’s also possible the light show will be less dramatic or absent altogether.

You may also catch a glimpse of the famous blue ghost firefly, which from afar, glow blue-white instead of flashing yellow-green. How cool and funky!

front of firefly close up

Trails to check

Cades Cove sits at 1,713feet and there are many trails to explore and go hunting for fireflies. Cades Cove is a broad, lush, green valley surrounded by mountains that is one of the most popular destinations in the Great Smoky Mountains. Here, visitors find some of the best opportunities for wildlife viewing in the park. White-tailed deer are frequently seen, and black bear, coyote, ground hog, turkey, raccoon, skunk, and other animal sightings also are possible. Along the loop road and the trails that originate in the cove are waterfalls, caverns, monuments, a grist mill and incredible natural life.

Located 27 miles from Gatlinburg and 9 miles from the lovely Townsend, TN., Cades Cove has plenty of trails – from short and gentle to more challenging. As of May 4, 2022, the 11-mile Cades Cove Loop Road will be closed to all vehicles on Wednesdays through Sept. 28 to provide for pedestrian and bicycle use – so it’s a GREAT day to plan a hike in this incredible place uninterrupted by cars traversing the loop.

Nature Trail

Smoky Mountains Greenery

The Cades Cove Nature Trail is particularly beautiful in the spring when the dogwoods bloom and also in the fall when the sourwoods and maples turn a beautiful red” ­ NPS.gov.

On this trail, visitors can see what remains of what was once a thick chestnut grove in the 1800’s. Almost one third of the forest surrounding Cades Cove was made up of Chestnut trees at that time. Today the large trees growing along the Nature Trail are primarily oak, dogwood, sourwood, and pine trees.

Abrams Falls Trail is a five-mile roundtrip hike to Abrams Falls. Longer hikes to Thunderhead Mountain and Rocky Top on the famous Appalachian Trail also begin in the cove. Another great place to see fireflies might be along the water.

Smoky Mountains with Clouds

Mt. LeConte

Seeing the Smoky Mountains from above them is spectacular and hiking to Mt. LeConte is special fireflies or not. Hikers will gain nearly 4,000 feet in elevation by the time they get to Mt. LeConte.

Rainbow Falls Trail

The Rainbow Falls Trail is challenging if completed all the way to Mt LeConte. Allow an hour and a half to Rainbow Falls and four hours to Mt LeConte. Hikers will gain nearly 4,000 feet in elevation by the time they get to Mt. LeConte. The point of departure is at Cherokee Orchard Road – Turn at light #8 in Gatlinburg and follow the Airport Road 1 mile out of Gatlinburg into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The name will change from Airport Road to Cherokee Orchard Road.

About 2.5 miles after entering the Park, Cherokee Orchard Road approaches the Rainbow Falls parking area. You will find the trail head at one edge of the parking area. Features of interest include the 2.8-mile point when you arrive at Rainbow Falls. At the 6.6 mile-point you will come upon an Alum Cave Trail junction which leads left 0.1 mile to the LeConte Lodge. You can hike from Cades Cove too.

Norton Creek

Norton Creek is another location with a fireflies event – this year June 6-9. It’s a private event that requires reservations. Norton Creek Preserve, a 3000-acre tract adjacent to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, near Gatlinburg. Detailed directions will be sent to ticketholders before the event.

“From the comfort of a luxurious private reserve, enjoy food and drink surrounded by gorgeous natural scenery, and witness an incredible display of synchronous and blue ghost fireflies (and other glowing critters) guided by our knowledgeable staff. Four nights to choose from. This is an evening you won’t forget! All proceeds help us at Discover Life in America carry out our mission to understand and conserve the diversity of life in the Smokies.”

Some other private viewing options include:

JK Putnam

Blue Ridge Hiking Co.

What to expect and what to bring:

You may be outdoors between 3 and 6 hours waiting and watching, so you’re going to want to make sure to be comfortable.  It’s recommended you bring a blanket or some chairs to sit on during the viewing period. Also, because white lights can interrupt the flash patterns of the synchronized fireflies, your headlamp or flashlight should have a red or blue setting.  A flashlight covered with red or blue cellophane also will work. Make sure to also pack water and snacks, as well as rain ponchos and a map if you’re going out on your own to find fireflies. Charge your cell phone.

Taking bug spray is recommended. Since the event won’t get you back to your car until after 9:30 p.m., eating dinner beforehand and bringing snacks along is also recommended.

Light Show Etiquette

Flashlights disrupt the fireflies and impair people’s night vision. The light show is best when you:

You can also help protect the fireflies and their habitat:

Book your cabin!

Porch Swing overlooking the Smoky Mountains

Another way to look for synchronous fireflies is by booking a cabin in the forest. Find a quiet, secluded cabin – whether you want something without mountain roads, or something fully ensconced in the beauty of the mountains, a cozy bungalow or treehouse or a cabin with all the entertainment – movie theater, pool, big kitchen, games and lots of space, American Patriot Getaways has a cabin for you. https://patriotgetaways.com/pigeon-forge-secluded-cabins

Be sure you check out all our amazing featured deals so you can get the best price for your synchronized firefly vacation.

Book yourself a Gatlinburg Cabin with a hot tub so you’ll have the perfect place to unwind under the stars.  Be sure you check out all our amazing featured deals so you can get the best price for your synchronized firefly vacation.

Planning a trip to be in the Smoky Mountains?  Let us help with these useful vacation guides! Insider tips to help you plan the perfect Smoky Mountain vacation.

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