Synchronous Fireflies in Great Smoky Mountains June 2016

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Synchronous fireflies light up the night sky each year in early June in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. (Photo credit: Katrien Vermeire)

Synchronous Fireflies in Great Smoky Mountains June 2016

These aren’t your average backyard lightening bugs; these particular bioluminescent beetles (Photinus carolinus) perform an extraordinarily silent symphony of lights in the warm, dark forest evoking images of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s truly a sublime experience.

They’ll be here for a week or two in early June 2016. However, the event has become so popular, bringing over 12,000 visitors to Elkmont, that some advance planning is definitely required. Utilizing scientific data on daily temperatures, park scientists have announced that peak viewing time will be May 31 to June 7, 2016. Here are a few tips to help with your planning:

  • You can camp at Elkmont and have direct access to the trails where you can view the nightly light show. Campground reservations can be made up to six months in advance at www.recreation.gov. If you want to backpack, backcountry reservations are required and can be made at nps.gov up to 30 days in advance.
  • Non-campers have limited to no access to the Elkmont area during the 8-day viewing period; however, nightly trolley Shuttles from Sugarlands Visitor Center are available with a Parking Pass via a new lottery system to award the much sought-after passes.
  • The Shuttle Operating Dates will be from May 31 to June 7, 2016. The new lottery system will be open for applications from 12:00 noon on April 29 until 8:00 p.m. on May 2, 2016.  All entries, regardless of the time of application, will be submitted for the lottery drawing. Results for the lottery drawing will be available on May 10.
  • Visit www.recreation.gov during the specified time period to enter the Lottery. Parking passes may also be obtained by calling 877-444-6777, but National Park officials highly encourage the use of the online process.
  • Lottery applicants must apply for either a regular vehicle parking pass or a large vehicle parking pass. Regular vehicles are passenger vehicles up to 19 ft. in length with a maximum of 6 occupants. Large vehicles are RVs and mini-buses from 19-30 ft. in length with a maximum of 24 occupants.
  • Lottery applicants must choose two possible dates to attend the event over the 8-day viewing period.
  • There is no fee to enter the lottery this year. If selected the lottery winner will be charged a $1.50 reservation fee and awarded a parking pass. Parking passes are non-refundable, non-transferable, and good only for the date issued. There is a limit of one lottery application per household. All lottery applicants will be notified by e-mail on May 10. Arrival times to the Sugarlands Parking Lot will be assigned will be assigned to relieve traffic congestion.
  • Remember to bring a chair or blanket, rain gear, and a flashlight because it’ll be dark. Keep your flashlight covered with either blue or red cellophane, usually available at the check-in table. Visitors are not allowed to walk the Elkmont entrance road due to safety concerns. For up-to-date info from the National Park Service, please visit GSMNP Firefly Event.

Check out this great segment on CBS Sunday Morning about our fireflies!

HeySmokies! Firefly Backpacking Travelogue
On June 7, 2015 the HeySmokies team got packed and ready for the annual backcountry trek to view the synchronous fireflies. Clear weather was forecasted for the late spring morning in the Smoky Mountains. Backpacks were stuffed with modern gear that Jason Bourne might take on a secret mission. But our mission was no secret, in fact viewing the synchronous fireflies has become one of the most popular events in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
At the trailhead we met a park ranger who offered advice for the trip into the wild backcountry of the Smokies. “Always stay on the trail,” he said “and never approach or feed wildlife. Keep an eye peeled for wildflowers like mountain mint, and wild phlox. You never know what interesting wonders you may find.”
Turning up the trail, the rushing sound of the river’s clear water greeted us with a blast of fresh mountain air.  We set a pace and were off on a new adventure! After a few miles of hiking our backpacks were feeling extra full and bellies extra empty.  A perfect excuse for lunch! We dined al fresco beside a cascading waterfall plummeting into the river. The deep pool below the falls was home to rainbow trout who teased by darting in and out of shadows of submerged boulders. No trout dinner on the menu for us tonight though. Our team was well-provisioned.

Back on the trail with a full tank of gas, the next mile rolled lazily. Rounding a bend, a family of deer stepped out of the dense forest within reach. They paused with a curious look, sampled a few plants in the trail and then quietly slipped back into the forest. The youngest fawn lingered for a moment with a final glance. Moments later they silently disappeared from view as the thickness of rhododendron, mountain laurel, and dog hobble closed about. Moving forward we found they were munching on a tuft of watercress and spied a stand of mountain mint. Crushing a leaf between the fingers released fragrant essential oils.  Walking lightly on we hoped for another chance to glimpse the deer, but no such luck.
Soon at a major trail junction we met some other backpackers from Baltimore and Michigan who had camped near the junction and reported that the fireflies were amazing the previous night. The exciting news encouraged us to pick up our packs and continue on with slightly more than a half-mile to our destination. We forgot about our sore backs and feet as we imagined the light show awaiting us after sundown.
Reaching the campsite required one creek crossing before the end. Rather than risk getting them wet, we swapped our boots for sandals and took the plunge. The cold mountain river was a zinger after the long hot hike. It felt so nice we dropped our packs and had a quick soak. If you have never wiggled your toes in one of our mountain streams then you have not lived a complete life. After some time we were refreshed and ready, and our numb feet carried us on to camp.
Tent pitched, gear stowed and a delicious roasted chicken and black bean dinner later, we settled back for the awesome show. Towering mountain ridges surrounded us casting shadows in the recesses of the watershed. The sun arced low behind a western ridge as the final rays of day danced on the river. The forest grew quiet and the shadows crept forward. Darkness comes swiftly in the mountains and we were ready!
There in the stillness of twilight, the show began. Flickering and sprite-like, lights quickly surrounded us. First one, then hundreds, then thousands of tiny greenish, yellow luminaries swirled here and there throughout the forest. Unlike the fireflies at home, these lightening bugs did not rise above ten feet and concentrated at eye level. We guessed the males remain low to locate the females beckoning them on the forest floor. The darkness fell deeper as they began to synchronize. Their synchronization is similar to fans doing the wave at a sporting event or like jumping into hyperspace on the Millennium Falcon. The flashing lights washed up and down the river passing us on the wind. The outside world faded away and our immersion into wilderness was complete. The lights swirled and flowed, and over time began having a disorienting effect, almost giving a sense of flight or levitation to the viewer. With our feet on the ground, we watched the mating dance. Around 3:00 a.m. the half moon briefly arced over a southern ridge illuminating the scene and then slowly disappeared on its celestial track. The show resumed until the break of day.
Over breakfast and cowboy coffee we reminisced about the night as the fireflies retreated to their daylight haunts.  Time moves slowly in the backcountry, but all to soon we were lacing up the boots and shouldering our packs.  We were ready to begin our descent out of the mountains as the rain began to fall.
“Hope you make it back without any blisters!” someone chimed from a nearby camp. And then we were gone.We hiked back into the world and agreed our firefly tradition will remain a priority. As long as they keep flashing we will keep coming back. We encourage you to come and experience this sublime synchronicity for yourself! -Brad Knight

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