Where Can I See Wildlife in Great Smoky Mountains National Park?

Author:
Publish date:
A young elk buck peeks out from the forest on the edge of Cataloochee Valley in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

A young elk buck peeks out from the forest on the edge of Cataloochee Valley in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

There are 65 types of mammals in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but you won’t see all of them on your visit. The park’s dense forests that are home to more tree species than all of northern Europe, can make it difficult to spot animals. Commonly spotted animals along the roadside at night include red and gray foxes and coyotes. Here’s a guide to some of the park’s most beloved animals and where to see them.

Bats

Little brown bats in a cave.

Little brown bats in a cave. Photo by Keith Shannon/USFWS via Wikimedia Commons

The park is home to 11 species of bats, all of which eat insects exclusively. If you see a bat at night, it is most likely a big brown bat, eastern red bat or tri-colored bat. The park protects the largest colony of the federally endangered Indiana myotis in the state of Tennessee. Most of the park’s caves provide critical bat habitat, but people are not allowed to enter the caves as human disturbance can negatively impact bats. With a White-Nose syndrome, a fungus, killing bats that live in caves, the populations of bats in the park and across the nation are at great risk for possible extinction.

Bears

A black bear along the road in Cades Cove. Photo by Gloria Wadzinski

A black bear along the road in Cades Cove. 

Because there are just under 2,000 bears living in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the likelihood you will see a bear in the park is very high. The two best places to sight bears are in Cades Cove, which is on the western side of the park, and Cataloochee Valley, which is on the park’s east side. The best times to see the bears are in the early morning and at dusk, especially in the spring and summer.

Keep in mind, however, that the bears live throughout the park and federal law requires all visitors properly store their food in the trunk of their vehicle and place all garbage and food scraps in bear-proof trash cans and dumpsters.

Bobcats

Bobcat. Photo by Grant Ordelheide

Bobcat

A reclusive animal, park officials think bobcats are the only feline that lives in the park. Larger than a house cat, bobcats can have brown, beige or black markings. They mostly eat rabbits and hares, but can also eat birds and rodents. Because they are nocturnal, solitary and reclusive, consider yourself lucky if you spot one.

Elk

A female elk in a meadow in Cataloochee Valley. Photo by Gloria Wadzinski

A female elk in a meadow in Cataloochee Valley. 

While it may sound surprising, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is home to elk, an animal traditionally associated with the American West. The fact that they live in the park is no accident. In 2001, park officials re-introduced 25 elk to the park. The following year, it re-introduced 27 more. It had been 200 years since the last elk has been spotted in North Carolina and about 150 years since one was seen in Tennessee.

Elk are not deer and can weigh up to 700 pounds. They can be dangerous, especially if female elk have young elk, so visitors must keep at least 25 yards between themselves and elk.

Elk are most active in early morning and late evening and on cloudy days. To see elk in the park, head to Cataloochee in the southeastern section of the park.

Fireflies

Fireflies lit up at night.

Fireflies in the meadow

If you love fireflies, head to Elkmont in Great Smoky Mountains National Park for the synchronous firefly mating season. Synchronous fireflies are just one of 19 species of fireflies that live in the park. What makes them special? They are the only species in the nation that can synchronize their flashing light patterns, says the National Park Service.

White-tailed Deer

A newborn fawn sticks close to her mother in Cades Cove. Photo by Gloria Wadzinski

A newborn fawn sticks close to her mother in Cades Cove.

A common site in the park, you are more likely to spot these deer in open areas like Cades Cove and Cataloochee, white-tailed deer are much smaller than elk. In fact, they are the smallest deer in the North American deer family.

Related