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How to See Synchronous Fireflies in the Smoky Mountains

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How to see Synchronous Fireflies in the Smoky Mountains
As a native Tennessean, there was one thing that was always on my bucket list and that was to see the synchronous fireflies in the Smokies. I also just assumed I’d never be able to get there because it’s a highly competitive lottery process through the National Park Service, and to be honest, I never bothered trying.

And then two years ago, as it turned out I was already going to be in Gatlinburg that very week, so I threw my name in the hat and voila, I was chosen!

But even after I got the official email, I had a lot of questions leading up to the actual experience, and if you’re planning to go—the lottery opens up today!—I’m sure you do, as well. I’ll try to tackle them below.

How to see Synchronous Fireflies in the Smoky Mountains

The Smoky Mountain firefly lottery process​


The synchronous fireflies (Photinus carolinus) are one of at least 19 species of fireflies that live in the Smokies, but what makes them so special is they’re one of just a few species in the world known to synchronize their flash patterns. This only happens a couple weeks every year in May or June during their reproductive period, so the firefly lottery process isn’t ever opened until mid-spring once those dates are known.

How to see Synchronous Fireflies in the Smoky Mountains

Every year, the national Park system announces the lottery dates in April. This year, they open up today (April 26) and close at 11:59pm EST on Monday (April 29). You have to put a credit card down, and you’ll be charged $1 for an application fee by Recreation.gov.

In mid-May, all lottery applicants will be notified if their application was successful or unsuccessful. If you’re picked, you’ll be assigned a day to see the fireflies during the window of June 3 and 10.

How to see the Synchronous Fireflies in the Smoky Mountains

If you’re selected, the same card will be automatically charged $24 for a parking pass. This fee is per car and helps cover the cost of viewing supplies and staff needed to manage the viewing at Elkmont Campground. The ticket also includes a unique QR code you’ll have to scan to be admitted to the campground.


Although I was a lucky recipient of a lottery pass, the rest of my family—no fewer than six members—applied for the lottery, and none of them were chosen. A total of 1120 car reservations is distributed for the eight-day event, which amounts to just 140 per day, and each vehicle is supposed to have a maximum occupancy of seven people (more on that below).

How to see Synchronous Fireflies in the Smoky Mountains

While you can find synchronous fireflies in other parks of Great Smoky Mountain National Park—and even in other neighboring towns like Oak Ridge—Elkmont Campground is one of the only organized viewings in an area where they’re known to congregate. To minimize the impact to the environment and maximize the experience for those lucky enough to have it, the National Park Service limits these numbers.

During this eight-day managed period, Little River and Jakes Creek Trailheads are closed at night to all but permitted vehicles who get a lottery ticket, as well as foot traffic from registered campers in Elkmont Campground.

Synchronous-Fireflies-Smokies-18.jpg

Parking passes are not transferable—you’ll have to present a matching ID to the ticket name to be admitted—so please only enter the lottery if you know you’ll be able to attend then as it’s a coveted ticket. Each parking pass is valid only for your assigned date. You can find out more information about synchronous fireflies in the Smokies here.

The firefly experience​


We had no idea what to expect or when to get there because the details we received before the synchronous fireflies event were a little bit vague. There were also eight of us, and my lottery tickets specifically said for a car of seven. I was really hoping that Charlotte, who was four at the time, wouldn’t count as a full human, and to be honest, they did not even look in our car so it was a lot of worrying for naught.

Synchronous Fireflies in the Smokies

You’ll drive to the intersection near the Elkmont Campground Kiosk, and a parking attendant will guide you to your space. Parking is the Jakes Creek Trailhead Parking lot, the Appalachian Clubhouse Parking lot and along the exit roadway. Attendees must always stay on designated trails or paved surfaces.

You have to arrive at the Elkmont viewing area between 6 and 8pm, and no one is allowed in past 8:15pm. You also can’t come back in if you leave. There are portable toilets, but alcohol is not allowed. Bring snacks and water, though.

This is a dark-sky kind of event, and any light emanating from any source (a headlamp, flashlight, phone) can interfere, not to mention disrupt the fireflies’ behavior. Great Smoky Mountain National Park encourages those attending to bring their own low-powered red lighting, and the parking attendant will also give you these red-light bags to cover your phones with.

How to see Synchronous Fireflies in the Smoky Mountains

The one big thing I’ll warn you about seeing the synchronous fireflies is this is a late-night experience. Sunset in the Smokies in June is close to 9pm, and it doesn’t get really dark until an hour past that.

We arrived around 6pm and left at 10pm, and the fireflies were just starting to come out in full force. Take camping chairs because it’s a lot of sitting around, sleep in that morning and plan on staying late.

How to see Synchronous Fireflies in the Smoky Mountains

Where to stay to see the smoky mountain fireflies​


There are so many hotels, motels, inns and rental houses throughout Pigeon Forge, Sevierville and Gatlinburg. We were there for a family reunion, so I had rented a 13-bedroom house in downtown Gatlinburg right off of Cherokee Orchard. It took us about 30 minutes to get to the firefly site.

where to stay to see synchronous fireflies

For the Smokies, I recommend looking for a vacation rental via VRBO as it seems to have better inventory than Airbnb. And for the fireflies, specifically, the closer you can get to the Elkmont Campground, the shorter your drive will be. Here are a few contenders:


If you’re going for a longer trip to see Dollywood, which I highly recommend, or do other Smoky Mountains recreation, there are some cool hotels worth looking into like the Wayback Hotel, which would be my pick for adult couples traveling without kids, or Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort or Margaritaville at the Island.

How to see Synchronous Fireflies in the Smoky Mountains

Other questions about the synchronous fireflies in the Smokies​

How do you photograph the synchronous fireflies?​


Even taking our Canon camera and a tripod, it was extremely hard getting photos of the synchronous fireflies, particularly since we didn’t stay until super late. If you’re just working with an iPhone, I suggest taking a phone tripod like this one and setting your phone on long exposure, though also know your phone will have to be in the red transparent bag. And go in realizing that your photos are likely not going to turn out like the real thing, so this might be one of those things you just experience and commit to memory instead.

How to photograph Synchronous Fireflies in the Smoky Mountains

What age is good for synchronous fireflies?​


There’s a lot of sitting around and waiting, so this isn’t a great activity for super little ones. Charlotte and her cousin Mason, who was six years old at the time, got a little bit restless waiting—and we didn’t even stay until the peak firefly event either. But they loved the lead up to it in which we scampered around the rocks of the Little River.

How to see Synchronous Fireflies in the Smoky Mountains

Is it worth traveling to see the fireflies?​


As many of us experienced with the solar eclipse of 2017 and then again of 2024, mother nature is just plain awesome. If you can see a natural phenomenon like this, take the opportunity.

Is this event accessible to those in wheelchairs?​


There are a few ADA parking passes available each day, but the terrain can be very uneven and rough, so this event is a tough one for those with mobility challenges.

How to see Synchronous Fireflies in the Smoky Mountains

What else should I visit while I’m in the Smoky Mountains?​


Glad you asked! I have plenty of guides to keep you in the mountains for a week or longer:

Wildflowers in the Smokies: Where to See Them in Townsend
 
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