See the Magical Synchronous Fireflies Event in the Great Smoky Mountains

Ever wanted to meet Tinker Bell? How about Smoky Mountain fairies — aka synchronous fireflies? Okay, we might be stretching a tiny bit here…but if you’ve never seen these incredible fairy-like creatures perform in person, you can’t pass judgment. Enchanting to say the least, the synchronous fireflies in the Smokies are kind of a big deal, illuminating the night forest in unison! You even need to win the annual firefly lottery to view them up close in Elkmont (details below).

Coordinated by Mother Nature herself, this brilliant, family-friendly firefly show occurs annually around the end of May to the middle of June in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP). Start your summer with a trip to Pigeon Forge or Gatlinburg, Tennessee, to view nature in a whole new light and take home a spectacular experience of synchronicity you’ll not soon forget!

The Synchronous Firefly Show

Unlike your average backyard lightning bugs that seem to flicker at random in an attempt to thwart your catching efforts or discredit your firefly spotting skills, the Smoky Mountain synchronous firefly (Photinus carolinus) captivates us all with a dazzling show. Similar to their cousins, the blue ghost fireflies in North Carolina, tens of thousands of these synchronized fireflies flash in harmony as part of their mating ritual.

Flash Patterns
Like clockwork, starting at dusk (typically around 9:00 p.m.), unless the moon is particularly bright, the male fireflies swarm and flash 4-8 times in the air before going dark for a short period (up to 1 minute). During this time, the female fireflies respond to the mating display with lighter, and much softer, flashes lower to the ground before the males continue their synchronized light display.

Soulmate Search
With their sole purpose to find a mate, the synchronous fireflies’ sincere efforts continue their mating display each night for approximately 2 weeks, creating a limited window to see this natural phenomenon — aka a sensational synchronous show! At any point during the showtimes, females will choose the male of their dreams.

Final Scene
While 1,000s of adult fireflies do perish after this annual firefly event completes, they leave this world in style, bringing forth the next generation of synchronous performers!

Synchronous Firefly Facts

A rare species known to synchronize their flashes, the synchronous firefly of the Smokies — aka Elkmont fireflies or Sugarland Visitor Center fireflies — is one of 19 species of fireflies in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. And the largest population of synchronous fireflies in the Western Hemisphere can be found near the Elkmont Campground, just a short drive from downtown Gatlinburg!

Did YOU Know?

  • Meadows are not their favorite place; they prefer cove forests!
  • “I’m not actually a fly, nor do I produce fire. I’m a beetle with a bioluminescent booty!”
  • Their abdominal organ (specifically the lantern) produces light via bioluminescence, produced from a chemical reaction of luciferin and oxygen that emits little to no heat, unlike most light sources.
  • Photinus carolinus is the first North American firefly found to synchronize its flashes.
  • Synchronous fireflies mature for 1-2 years, then live as adults for roughly 21 days (3-4 weeks).
  • Temperature and soil moisture help predict when their flashes of synchrony will take place. If it’s too cold (below 50°F) or wet, the synchronous show won’t go on…

Great Smoky Mountains Firefly Show!

Enter the 2024 Firefly Lottery

Due to the increasing number of firefly viewers visiting the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to see the synchronous firefly show each year, the park service instituted a lottery system in 2006. Although 21,000 entered, only 1,800 were allowed into the park during the peak synchronous firefly viewing season back in 2018.

What does this mean for YOU? Well, the first step towards seeing the synchronous firefly show is to enter the GSMNP firefly lottery with a $1 application fee. You’ll choose a preferred and alternate date you’d like to attend the whimsical firefly event. And only one application is allowed per household. There are 100 parking passes per viewing day up for grabs, so about 1,000 people get to see the fireflies each night of the 8-day event!

Entering the firefly lottery earlier or later will not affect your chances of winning. Just be sure to enter before the cut-off! All applicants will be notified if they won or lost the firefly lottery when the results are released.

Firefly Lottery 2024 Dates 
Lottery opens Friday, April 26, 2024, at 10 A.M. EDT and closes on Monday, April 29, 2024 at 11:59 P.M. EDT. 

April 26, 2024 | vehicle pass lottery opens 

April 29, 2024 | vehicle pass lottery closes

Mid May | Lottery winners and losers will be notified 

June 3 – 10 | Firefly Viewing!

What Happens If YOU Win the Firefly Lottery

Lottery winners will be charged a $24 reservation fee for parking confirmation, firefly viewing supplies, and personnel costs. Be sure to plan for 3-6 hours for the event: to reach the site, enjoy the show, and return to the parking area. To help save time, stay at a local Gatlinburg cabin or downtown condo so you can pop into the national park within minutes. 

Parking Passes
Parking passes are neither refundable nor transferable, and the winner must be present in the vehicle with a photo ID. Each parking pass allows up to 7 people to enter the event (in accordance with how many people your vehicle lawfully seats). 

Where to Park
On your appointed date, you’ll check in at the intersection near the Elkmont Campground kiosk and head to your flat, paved parking spot, as directed by the parking attendants. Do note there are a limited number of ADA parking spaces available on a first-come, first-served basis.

Shuttle Service
You can hike designated trails or take the shuttle to the Elkmont viewing area — near the Jakes Creek and Little River trailheads — within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. There’s a $2 cash fee per person for a round-trip ticket to board the shuttle at the Sugarlands Visitor Center (located on US-441, about 2 miles south of Gatlinburg).

Good to Know

  • Remember to eat before you go and only bring water (alcohol is prohibited).
  • Bring chairs or blankets and find a good spot to enjoy the evening’s entertainment.
  • Put on bug spray before entering the area…there are more than fireflies in these parts.
  • Pack a rain poncho just in case and note if inclement weather occurs, the event could be canceled. 
  • Yes, portable toilets will be available! Bring hand sanitizer.

Other Ways to See the Elkmont Fireflies

If you don’t win this year’s firefly lottery, better luck next year — OR try another route! While contacting the national park for more tickets or passes won’t do you any good, you can try a different strategy to see the synchronous fireflies in the Smokies. After all, they’re not limited to just one area! 

Early/Late Viewing
Instead of trying to see the firefly synchrony during the planned event, visit the Elkmont area 3+ days before or 3+ days after the predicted firefly show (when passes aren’t required). You might not see the height of the synchronized flashes, but it’s likely you’ll spot some synchronous fireflies warming up or trickling down. 

Camping Trip
Plan a camping trip in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park around the synchronous firefly season. You can book a hassle-free camping adventure or work with local guides to make the most of your time in the mountains and up your chances of spotting synchronous fireflies in the Smokies.

Firefly Light Show Etiquette 

Help protect the synchronous fireflies, their habitat, and their magical light display by following rules set by the National Park Service. For a great experience, simply practice firefly etiquette! 

  1. Cover your flashlight with cellophane (red or blue).
  2. Keep your flashlight off when viewing.
  3. Point your flashlight to the ground when walking.
  4. Make no attempts to catch the fireflies.
  5. Never leave the designated trails.
  6. Remain as quiet as possible, speaking with hushed tones.
  7. Be sure to take everything you brought into the park home.

Spot Synchronous Fireflies from YOUR Cabin!

After staying up late for the sparkly show, you’ll greatly appreciate the comforts of your own Gatlinburg cabin rental in the Great Smoky Mountains. Soak in the bubbly hot tub, unwind with a cold one in the rocking chairs, shoot pool with friends, and chat about the night’s performance on the sofas. Enjoy midnight munchies from the fully equipped kitchen, tuck the kiddos into the bunk beds, bathe in the indoor jetted tub, and drift to dreamland in a king-size bed.

Even if you don’t win the GSMNP lotto, who knows? Maybe you’ll spot synchronous fireflies (ahem, fairies) from your Pigeon Forge, Sevierville, or Gatlinburg cabin! After all, they’re not limited to one area. In fact, there are multiple reports of synchronous firefly sightings elsewhere in and around the Smokies each year…maybe yours will be the next! 

Plan your Smoky Mountain getaway today and marvel at the synchronous firefly phenomenon — fingers crossed!

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