Each summer in the Smoky Mountains, there's a stunning light show that has nothing to do with fireworks. This incredible natural phenomenon is the work of the Elkmont fireflies, synchronous fireflies that reside within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Also known as "photinus carolinus", these lightning bugs flash in sync as a mating ritual.
To experience this extraordinary work of nature this summer, you need to plan in advance. About 800 to 1,000 people descend on the Smoky Mountains each year for the two-week window when these Tennessee fireflies glow in sync.
Last year, the annual lottery to distribute parking passes to lucky attendees was canceled due to COVID-19. Thankfully, the non-profit Discover Life in America partnered with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and photographer Radim Schreiber to film the incredible event.
This year, the National Park Service has a plan to allow folks to view the even in person once again. The public may apply for the limited viewing experience, but you'll need to act fast. The lottery for vehicle pass applications opens on Friday, April 30 at 10:00 a.m. and runs through Monday, May 3 at 11:59 p.m.
A total of 800 vehicle passes will be distributed for the eight-day event (100 per day) from June 1 through June 8.
What Are The Elkmont Fireflies?
The Elkmont fireflies are one of 19 species of fireflies in the Smoky Mountains. The male lightning bugs use their flashing pattern to attract females during the mating season.
Where to See Them in 2021:
The Sugarlands Visitor Center near Gatlinburg, Tennessee offers a perfect viewing opportunity. Located within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the visitor center provides parking passes via a lottery system. Due to high demand, not everyone will be selected. The lottery for vehicle passes typically opens every April.
Lottery applicants will be notified if they'll be awarded a parking pass. Lottery winners will be charged a $20 reservation fee to help cover the cost of supplies and park personnel.
The Cataloochee Valley Tour in Waynesville, North Carolina, offers a nighttime hike within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to a secret location that promises a spectacular view. Just remember to turn off your flashlight once you get to your viewing area.
When to See Them:
The fireflies put on their show for two weeks in late May and early June.
What to Bring:
You'll need to bring viewing supplies which include:
- red or blue cellophane to place over the bulb of your flashlight so as not to ruin the fireflies' glow
- a folding chair or blanket
- food and non-alcoholic drinks
This article was originally published in 2019. It was updated on April 29, 2021.