From your own backyard to the majestic Smoky Mountains and all across the country, the twinkling lights of summer are upon us. It’s the time of year when childlike wonder is evoked by the flickering glow of fireflies, and even grownups allow themselves to believe in a little bit of magic. There’s something uniquely captivating about those intermittent glints that are there one moment and gone then next. But have you ever seen a group of fireflies light up in unison?
An otherworldly phenomenon takes place once a year in certain parts of the world – and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park just so happens to be one of those enchanting spots. For a couple of delightful weeks every summer, you can get an exclusive peek at the rarely seen dance of synchronous fireflies that live in the Elkmont region of the park. Don’t miss out on the chance to get an up close look at this one-of-a-kind aberration of mountain magic.
What are Synchronous Fireflies?
Synchronous fireflies are lightning bugs (or more accurately, a unique species of beetles) that atune the flashing patterns of their lights to sync up with one another. This awe-inspiring phenomenon is actually a fascinating mating ritual, where the male fireflies flit about flashing their lights in an effort to impress the females. If the ladies like what they see, they’ll return a flash to let the males know they’re interested. It’s firefly flirting.
The peak firefly mating season lasts for only a couple of weeks, and can happen anywhere between the end of May to the beginning of June. Outside factors like temperature, rainfall, and soil moisture can affect the exact dates and even the fireflies themselves. For example, if temperatures drop below 50 degrees, the fireflies may decide not to perform their glittering light display.
Where to See Fireflies in the Smokies
This thrilling experience is one of the most exciting things to do near Maggie Valley. But with light pollution endangering more and more of the world’s firefly population, there is the risk that the annual mating ritual might not happen, which could unfortunately affect that continuation of this species. In order to protect the fireflies, the park puts a limit on the number of visitors who get to witness this magical phenomenon.
The park offers a lottery system to obtain the limited passes needed to attend the firefly viewing. The lottery usually opens in April, and applicants will be notified if they are chosen to receive a pass. Lottery winners are typically charged a reservation fee of $20 – $25, which helps to cover the cost of supplies and park personnel.
In 2020, the event was canceled because of the pandemic. But a live, virtual event was held and recorded on YouTube.com. (Firefly views start at the 14:15 mark.)
While the Elkmont region of the park is definitely the most popular area for firefly viewing, you can also catch a glimpse of them in many of the park’s open fields. Pick an area that’s lined with thick trees and is located near water for the best chance to spot them. There are also other options like private tours or even personal guides who take you camping. The Cataloochee Valley Tour just down the road in Waynesville offers a nighttime hike into the park for breathtaking views of the fireflies. No matter where you are, though, synchronize your watches because the grand light display begins around 10 pm and ends around midnight.
Firefly Viewing Tips:
Fireflies need total and complete darkness to mate, so the park strictly prohibits the use of any type of light that may disturb the fireflies. Make sure you:
- Cover your flashlight with red or blue cellophane
- Use your flashlight only when walking to your viewing spot
- Stay on designated trails or paved surfaces at all times
- Point your flashlight at the ground
- Turn off your flashlight when you find your viewing spot
- DO NOT try and catch the fireflies
Fascinating Firefly Facts:
Fireflies are neither a fly nor a bug. They’re actually beetles.
There are more than 2,000 species of fireflies around the world.
Fireflies are on every continent except Antarctica.
Each firefly species has its own special flash pattern—a code that lets individuals identify a mate of the same species.
Not all fireflies flash. Instead of light, these “dark” fireflies use smells like pheromones to communicate and find their mate.
Firefly femme fatales lure unsuspecting males of other species to their deaths.
The biggest fireflies can grow to be the size of your palm.
Visit the Gateway to the Smokies podcast, hosted by Meadowlark Motel owner, Joseph Franklyn McElroy to learn more about these incredible fireflies and so much more!
Visit the Gateway to the Smokies podcast, hosted by Meadowlark Motel owner, Joseph Franklyn McEroy, to learn more about fireflies, flowers, and food in the Smoky Mountains!