What is the Best Time of Day to See Smoky Mountain Animals?

While bears can be seen all throughout the day, the best time for viewing most animals is at dawn and dusk. This includes elk, coyotes, bobcats, and more. They are most active at this time because it’s when they typically feed.

Do Black Bears Hibernate in Winter?

None of the large animals in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park hibernate in the winter.

While bears aren’t true hibernators, they do sleep for the vast majority of the colder months. Because they only leave their dens for very brief periods of time, a black bear sighting is rare between December and March.

If you have your heart set on seeing a bear, winter is not the best time for your vacation. Thankfully during those colder months, you will still be able to see elk, coyotes, bobcats, and more.

5 Awesome Animal Encounters in the Smoky Mountains

Below you’ll find all the best animal adventures in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Whether you are in Tennessee or North Carolina, there are plenty of wonderful options. Some are self-guided, while others are ranger-led. Most of the activities are completely free!

1. Viewing the Wild Bears in Cades Cove

Black Bears Smoky Mountain Animals

Cades Cove is a picturesque 11-mile driving loop carved through the peaks and valleys of southern Appalachia. In addition to miles of the forested area at this location, the park service has created large expanses of open fields along the loop.

Black bears and other popular animals tend to blend into the forest trees, so these open spaces create a unique viewing experience unmatched by any other location in the park.

Though the length in miles is fairly short, due to the popularity of this attraction, it can sometimes take up to 4 hours to drive the entire loop. If you want to avoid crowds, consider coming in the early morning or evening hours. There is no bad time of day for spotting bears in Cades Cove. But of course, there are no guarantees.

2. Viewing the Wild Elk at the Oconalufee Visitors Center

Oconaluftee Elk

The Oconaluftee Visitors Center is one of the best places to snap photos of wild elk. There is a large clearing to the right of the main building that seems to attract herds daily. The best time of day to see elk is in the early morning or evening hours, but they can be present at any time of day.

You can also catch a glimpse of the elk in the forests and rivers surrounding the visitor’s center.

3. Tagging Monarch Butterflies at Tremont

Monarch Butterfly

Monarch tagging is one of the most unique and popular annual events in the Smoky Mountains. Prior to beginning, the staff at Tremont will give you a quick lesson on how to gently catch the butterflies and add the tagging stickers.

The annual tagging events are spread out over a few weeks in the fall. There is no charge to participate! How cool is that?

Tremont also offers tons of other animal encounters throughout the year, including searching for salamanders and other amphibians. These programs do have a small fee.

4. Viewing the Synchronous Fireflies in Elkmont

smoky mountain synchronous fireflies

This is the single most popular annual event in all of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The event used to be free, but as it grew it began to overwhelm park staff and negatively affect the fireflies. There is now a $20 fee per parking pass. Passes are limited and distributed via a lottery system.

Synchronous fireflies only exist in a handful of places throughout the world. Though some smaller pockets of synchronous fireflies are present along the east coast, the Elkmont section of the Smokies is home to the largest population of synchronous fireflies in the entire United States.

Due to the strict attendance limitations now in place, this is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience you don’t want to miss!

5. Viewing the Wild Elk in Cataloochee

In addition to being a hub for wild elk sightings, the Cataloochee section of Great Smoky Mountains National Park is home to a variety of historic buildings, world-class hiking trails, picnic areas, camping, and more!

It is also very close to Maggie Valley and Waynesville, which both offer a wide variety of activities, restaurants, and shopping.

The solution you need