There are two kinds of people in this world – those who call them “fireflies” and those who know them only as “lightning bugs.” I grew up in East Tennessee and will always be a lightning bug girl, but because we have one of the most unique displays that Mother Nature has to offer right here in our backyard, the “Elkmont Fireflies” have become part of my family’s regular vocabulary.
Synchronous fireflies are one of at least 19 species of fireflies that live in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and one of only a few species in the world known to synchronize their flash patterns. Their reproductive display occurs for a couple of weeks every year, and is typically in late May or early June in the Elkmont area of the park. I think it is so cool that we live so close to something this incredibly unique. If you haven’t been to see them yet, I insist that you make every effort to try it this year!
During the 8-day event, the road into Elkmont Campground is closed to cars and pedestrians, so unless you’re camping there, you have to park at the Sugarlands Visitor Center and ride a trolley to the viewing area (about 6.5 miles away). The process of obtaining a parking pass and making plans for your trip requires some preparation and I’m going to share some of my family’s tried-and-true tips to make your first experience as easy and fun as possible.
Last year, Great Smoky Mountains National Park officials announced that parking passes for shuttle transportation will be distributed via a lottery system. I have always been able to obtain passes in the past (which was on a first-come, first-served system) even though they did sell out in seconds, so this part was all new to me. Last year, despite my best efforts, we were not lucky enough to receive a pass and were super bummed. We’ll be trying again this year and crossing all of our fingers and toes!
Below are the important 2017 dates you need to know:
Tuesday, April 25: Dates for the 8-day shuttle operating period will be announced.
Friday, April 28, at 12 noon: Lottery for vehicle passes opens. You may apply at any time during the three-day open period. A total of 1,800 vehicle passes will be available. You must apply for either a regular parking pass or a large-vehicle parking pass, and then may choose two possible dates. There is no fee to enter the lottery.
Lottery applications may also be submitted by calling 1-877-444-6777, but only while the lottery is open from April 28 – May 1. The call center will complete an application for the caller and results will be mailed on May 10.
Monday, May 1, at 8pm: Lottery for vehicles passes closes.
Wednesday, May 10: All lottery applicants will be notified that their application was successful (and that they are awarded a vehicle pass) or unsuccessful (and that they were not awarded a vehicle pass). If selected, you will be charged a $2.75 reservation fee (up from $1.50 last year). The parking pass permits visitors to park at Sugarlands Visitor Center and allows occupants access to shuttle service to Elkmont. Passes are non-refundable, non-transferable (they check your driver’s license at the parking lot, to ensure that it matches the name on your pass), and good only for the date issued. There is a limit of one lottery application per household per season.
Things to Know
- The National Park Service estimates when the two-week event will occur and usually predict that it will take place in the first half of June. This year’s dates will be officially announced on Tuesday, April 25th.
- The viewing is free but unless you’re camping at Elkmont, you cannot get to the viewing area without a parking pass. And this year, you’ll have to be one of the lucky ones chosen from the lottery to purchase one.
- The trolley ride is $1 per person round-trip, so don’t forget to bring some cash! The trolley will drop you off at the entrance to the viewing area and there you’ll get red cellophane covers for your flashlights and information sheets on the event. This is also where the port-a-potties are located. There are no “real” bathrooms nearby and there is nowhere to purchase food or drinks so be sure to bring everything you think you’ll need!
- We bring folding chairs for each of us and a picnic blanket. I pack a cooler with sandwiches and drinks and we have dinner after we get settled into our spot. Bug spray is a must! We bring flashlights (with red cellophane covering the light that will be provided to you at the base of the trail) to use as we pack up – but any kind of distracting light will ruin the show and for the most part you’ll be in complete darkness throughout the night.
- There is a walking trail that runs directly through the viewing area and people set up their chairs on either side. The Little River runs along the left side of the trail and on the right side are deeper woods. Every year we have major family discussions when trying to decide on a spot to plant our chairs and as we wait for the trolley back we inevitably decide that the more amazing show is happening on the other side. But really, there is no bad spot. There are some super-spooky abandoned cabins throughout the area (which my husband and son love to explore, while my daughter and I prefer to avoid any potential lumberjack-ghost encounters).
- My kids are older so we enjoy the waiting time between when we arrive and when the show begins (sunset at this time of year is usually around 9pm). But with younger kids you’ll want to take that downtime into consideration and may want to board the trolley closer to sunset. Early arrival = your choice of viewing spots. Late arrival = less opportunity for boredom, whining, etc.
- I won’t lie – there is a wait for the trolley ride back to the parking lot. Some people experience the show for a few minutes and are ready to leave. We usually stay at least an hour after the lights begin and lots of folks stay later, but you will inevitably find a line on the trail to board the trolleys no matter when you decide to head back. Again, it’s something to consider if you have younger kids but the good news is that the fireflies will still be showing off while you wait, so you’ll at least be entertained while you wait!
- When the show begins, you’ll know it. You wait and watch the woods around you darken, wondering if it will ever begin, when suddenly you see a familiar flash. You may think (like I did), “Wait – I see this every night in my yard!” But the flashes begin to multiply…and all at once they sync up, flashing together five, six, seven times before taking a pause and then starting up again. It’s totally mesmerizing and once they’re all doing their thing you’ll realize that you’re in the middle of something really, really special.
Do you plan on making the trip for the first time this year? Are you a veteran firefly-watcher and have some tips to add? I hope to see you there – may the odds be ever in your favor!
Hi! I’m Raven, an East TN native and UT grad. I could color in a good coloring book for hours, I love to find and paint “well-loved” furniture and I just adore pretty things. In my 14 years of marriage to David, I have experienced just about every work/home balance possible and currently work full-time in a fantastic position that allows me the flexibility to (try to) make it all work. Having tweens/teens is a lot like having a newborn – everything is new again, there are lots of opinions, and there is definitely no official guidebook. I’ll be sharing our stories from this phase of life and look forward to connecting with other moms who are in this super-fun/emotional/totally-nutso stage, too.