Smoky Mountains, TN - Sevierville, Pigeon Forge & Gatlinburg - Vacation Travel Guide

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<< < February 2019 > >>
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Smoky Mountains Area Features

The Wild Smoky Mountains

The biggest draw to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is of course, nature. The beautiful vistas, clean mountain air and abundance of visible wildlife make the region a top destination for visitors who enjoy the great outdoors. The creatures, plants and settings that are found here contribute to the uniqueness of the area and can be seen while driving or hiking through the park. Here are a few of our favorites that we encourage you to keep an eye out for…

Black Bears

The unofficial mascots of the Smoky Mountains are the resident black bears. In the forested landscape there are easily over 1,500 bears—and despite their name, not all of them are actually black. Their fur can include shades of light to dark brown. Over the years, much has been learned about these intriguing creatures and their lifestyle. They are highly intelligent animals that can weigh approximately 400 pounds and stand nearly six feet tall. Many visitors are surprised to see them in trees, but the bears are quite adept at climbing and seeking sanctuary in the branches. Black bears are accomplished scavengers and their diets consist mainly of acorns, berries, seeds, insects, and nuts. Each day, they are required to eat 3-5 pounds of food in order to sustain them through their winter hibernation. While not usually aggressive, black bears can be dangerous if cornered. Therefore, approaching bears, feeding them or leaving food unattended is a crime. Please be sure to properly pack all food and dispose of scraps to do your part to protect these magnificent forest dwellers.


As the largest animal in the park, the stately elk with its massive antlers is an awe-inspiring sight. And it is big—with a weight between 500 and 700 pounds and a height that can reach 6 feet. Fortunately for today’s visitors, this large mammal was reintroduced to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2001 after suffering catastrophic losses due to overhunting during the last two centuries. Since then, the park’s elk herd has grown slowly but steadily from 52 animals to about 200. The bull (male) elk’s antlers go through various stages throughout the year. In the spring, the newly growing projections are covered with a red “velvet.” In the summer, as the antlers reach full-size, the velvet actually works to cool the animal. It then begins to peel off in August before September and October’s “rutting” season. During this time in the early fall, the elk’s antlers are used to spar with other bulls and attract the female cows. You’ll likely be able to hear their bellowing calls that echo through the hills. The best place to view the elk is in the valley of Cataloochee, but for their safety, please note that it is illegal to disturb them or to be within 150 feet of them. These majestic animals still need our protection.


A most spectacular show takes place in the summer, courtesy of the synchronous fireflies (also called lightning bugs) of the Smoky Mountains. Millions of them come together in late May and early June and blink their lights in unison. Nowhere else in America is this witnessed and though it is related to the fireflies’ mating rituals, it is unclear as to why this phenomenon occurs. For their protection, The Great Smoky Mountains National Park controls the number of visitors who wish to see them through a parking pass lottery at the Sugarlands Visitor Center. With an awarded pass, spectators will board a shuttle bound for the Elkmont area within the park for the best viewing possible. Visit to learn about the process, find the dates of the 2018 “show,” and register for a chance to see these spectacular insects.


Throughout much of the year, the Smoky Mountains are in bloom. Whether on shrubs, stems or trees, colorful beauties can be seen throughout the park. In late winter, just before the warmer spring temperatures, ephemeral flowers such as bleeding hearts, columbines, crested dwarf irises, painted trillium and others appear before giving way to summer’s flowers. In fact, the 67th Annual Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage will take place April 24-28, 2018. At this event, nearly 150 programs will take place not only on wildflowers, but also on birding, bats, bears and more. Guided tours will showcase natural displays and educate attendees on plants such as dwarf ginseng, violets, moss, mushrooms, ferns, and even chestnut trees. In the summer, magnolia trees with their fragrant blooms appear, as do dogwood trees and the famous flame azaleas. At this time, visitors will also surely see wildflowers including coneflowers, black-eyed Susans, and the 10-foot-tall Joe-Pye weed. The blooming season continues into the fall and early winter with the unique yellow petals of the witch hazel plant—a useful plant that has a variety of medicinal and beauty applications!


Anyone who loves birding will adore a trip to the Great Smoky Mountains where over 200 species of birds can be observed in their natural habitats. The topography and season dictate what birds will be seen where, and students of bird songs will have an even better chance of seeing unique birds by following their music. In the thick forests, bird watchers may glimpse harder-to-find specimens such as the black and white downy woodpecker, the purple finch and the rose-breasted grosbeak. However, at least a few of the more common birds including the Carolina or black-capped chickadees, warblers, thrush and sparrows, will surely be seen on any birding expedition. In wide-open fields, wild turkeys, killdeer with their uniquely ringed necks or red-tailed hawks may be seen grazing for insects on the ground or flying overhead. At dusk, keep your eyes peeled for owls. The great horned owl and the eastern screech-owl can sometimes be seen hunting for prey in the evening hours. You may hear their calls at night but don’t expect a shrill noise from the small screech-owl. It actually has a soft trill-like sound with occasional squeaks. These are just a few of our feathered friends that can be seen in the Great Smoky Mountains. Be sure to bring your binoculars with you to witness as many as possible!


With the abundance of rivers and streams in the Smokies come animals that also love the water. The North American river otter is one such creature. These playful and undeniably cute mammals live along the riverbanks in social groups. They hunt for fish and other aquatic creatures in the water with incredible speed (their tails propel them). Upon catching their prey, the otters will roll over and back-float to eat it. Like the elk, the otter population in the Great Smoky Mountains had declined to startlingly low numbers. The animal was reintroduced with great success in the 1990s and is currently flourishing. Lucky hikers who are near waterways in the park may be able to glimpse these animals as they frolic in the water near their homes.


Waterfalls are often considered to be the most beautiful natural features in the Great Smoky Mountains. There are over 100 of these majestic natural wonders in the park that are formed from the usual 85 inches of annual rainfall on the peaks of the mountains. Some of the most popular waterfalls involve extensive hikes, but they are certainly worth the effort. Rainbow Falls near Roaring Fork is famous for the spectrum of colors that is seen in its mist. Nearby is Grotto Falls, where visitors can walk behind the waterfall. Abrams Falls in Cades Cove showcases the force of gravity in its powerful waters. Serious hikers may enjoy taking an 8-mile round-trip hike to the largest falls in the Smokies, the 100-foot-tall, Ramsey Cascades. If you’re not up for hiking, a few falls can be seen while driving through the park such as Meigs Falls west of Sugarlands Visitor Center, and the Place of a Thousand Drips at stop #15 on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. It is worth the journey to see these gorgeous spectacles. Many people find themselves in a state of peace and serenity while watching the forces of nature at work.

The park strives to continue preserving natural settings and protecting the multitudes of plants, animals, birds, amphibians, insects and reptiles that call the Great Smoky Mountains their home. While enjoying this national treasure, please be careful not to disturb the animals or the environment. We can all help continue the park’s good work in maintaining the flora, fauna, and landscapes for many generations to come.

Ask a Ranger

Can I bring my dog along on my hike in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park?
For the safety of your pet as well as for the wildlife, dogs are not permitted on almost all of the trails in the park. Their presence, scent and sound will likely disturb the local species and hinder their breeding or feeding regimens. Dogs can also unintentionally infect the resident wild animals with diseases that are not currently known to them. Plus, you certainly don’t want to place your dog in harm’s way. Your pet could be considered a threat (or worse—dinner) to indigenous predatory animals. There are, however, two trails that are dog friendly: the Gatlinburg Trail and the Oconaluftee River Trail. Otherwise, feel free to visit forests and public lands outside the national park where you can relax or exercise with your pet.

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