Here in the Great Smoky Mountains we are surrounded by unparalleled beauty. Rivers and forests. Hiking and camping. Bears. Deer. And Wildlife. Oh my! But as if that is not enough, once a year, we are invited to witness a rare phenomenon that is seen in only a few places in the WORLD – The Elkmont Synchronous Fireflies!
Synchronous fireflies are one of only a few species in the world known to synchronize their flash patterns as part of their reproductive process. This display only lasts for a few weeks out of the year (usually in late May or early June) and we are privileged to have a group of them living right here in the Elkmont area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
As you can imagine, this rare display draws a lot of people, so the Park has created a special event for viewing the fireflies which limits traffic and ensures the best viewing experience for anyone who attends. During the 8-day event, June 7th – 14th 2018, the road into Elkmont Campground is closed to cars and pedestrians in the evenings. Instead they provide parking and trolley service from the Sugarlands Visitor Center.
However, getting a ticket to park here requires a bit of preparation.
For the last few years the Park Service has used a lottery system to allow only 1,800 cars to park at the Visitor’s Center during the 8-day event (225 per day). This provides an equitable opportunity for interested visitors to obtain a pass for this limited, yet high-demand event.
It goes like this: You apply on their page during the three-day application period, choosing two possible dates that you would like to attend. About a week later you will receive notice whether your application was accepted or not. If you were accepted you will pay a $20 reservation fee. On the day you are scheduled for, you will show your ID and your parking pass at the Sugarlands Visitor Center. Then you will board a trolley for Elkmont to view this incredible display!
Keep reading for important dates and helpful tips from experienced buggies!
– Lottery for Parking Passes Opens FRIDAY, April 27th at 12:00 Noon
There will be a link on their official page HERE. 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. The viewing dates will be June 7th-14th.
Lottery applications may also be submitted by calling 1-877-444-6777, but only while the lottery is open from April 27 – April 30th at 8pm. The call center will complete an application for the caller and results will be mailed on May 9th.
– Lottery Closes April 30th at 8:00pm
– Results Announced May 9th
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 $20. 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 are good only for the date issued. There is a limit of one lottery application per household per season.
– See the Fireflies June 7th-14th
You will go on the date you selected on your application. The first trolley leaves Sugarlands visitors center at 7pm. Sunset is closer to 9pm. The fireflies begin their show closer to dark. Visitors should expect to return to their car 3-6 hours after arriving at Sugarlands.
The trolley ride is $2 per person round-trip, exact change required. 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.
Port-a-potties are located at the entrance to the viewing area. 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!
BYOS: Bring-Your-Own-Seat. Folding chairs and blankets are great.
There is no food available. The event begins at dark (think 9pm), so you’ll want to have dinner before you go or while you wait. A lot of families bring coolers and make a picnic of it. Please note: alcohol and pets are prohibited. Please clean up after yourself!
Can you hear me now? Reminder…there is no cell service in Elkmont! So you’ll have to post your selfies later. (Also, it will be dark…so there won’t be a lot of opportunities for pictures anyways. Be prepared to unplug and enjoy!)
Rain Rain Go Away. There is no cover on the trail. The event page explains that they will cancel in the event of hazardous weather, but you will need to be prepared for rain!
What else to bring: Bug spray is a must! A light jacket in case you get cool at night. Travel poncho in case of rain. Flashlights (you will receive red cellophane to cover the light that will be provided to you at the base of the trail) to use as you walk and pack up. Any kind of distracting light will ruin the show for everyone, so plan to be in darkness throughout the night. You might keep this in mind if you have younger children.
The Area: 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. There is no bad spot. There are some super-spooky abandoned cabins throughout the area that are fun to explore!
Timing is Key: Sunset at this time of year is usually around 9pm, so there is a wait-time between when you board the trolley and when the show actually starts. Older kids seem to enjoy exploring and picnicking while they wait, but if you have younger kids, you’ll want to take that downtime into consideration. You may want to board the trolley closer to sunset. Early arrival = your choice of viewing spots. Late arrival = less opportunity for boredom, whining, etc.
There WILL be 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. Others stay well into the night. Just know that you will inevitably find a line on the trail to board the trolleys no matter when you decide to head back. The good news is that the fireflies will still be showing off, 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.” – Raven, one of our former contributors is a ESF pro!