Fireflies definitely bring out the kid in us. And you'll find some rare species in the Blue Ridge and the Great Smoky Mountains, but they only come out for a short visit! Fireflies (also called lightning bugs) are beetles. They take one to two years to mature from larvae but will live as adults for only about 21 days. While in the larval stage, the insects feed on snails and smaller insects. Once they transform into their adult form, they do not eat. Their light patterns are part of their romantic mating display.
Great Smoky Mountains (Dates TBA April 22, 2020)
Synchronous fireflies (Photinus carolinus) are one of at least 19 species of fireflies that live in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. They are the only species in America whose individuals can synchronize their flashing light patterns. The Great Smoky Mountains is one of the few places in the world to see the synchronous fireflies, and people flock here from all over the country to see them for a couple of weeks in late May or early June. The season varies a little depending on weather conditions. Crowds gather at Elkmont to view. You can either camp there or take a shuttle from the Sugarlands Visitor Center in Gatlinburg (read more below).
Firefly Shuttle: Parking passes for shuttle transportation to view the synchronous fireflies at Elkmont will be distributed via a lottery system (details below). Since 2006, access to the Elkmont area has been limited to shuttle service from Sugarlands Visitor Center in Gatlinburg during eight days of predicted peak activity to reduce traffic congestion and provide a safe viewing experience that minimizes disturbance to these unique fireflies during their two-week mating period. Watch for lottery dates in late April.
The Smoky Mtns Firefly Lottery Process 2020:
- Sign up for the lottery on April 24-28, 2020 ($1 fee).
- A total of 1,800 vehicle passes are available: 1768 regular parking passes (225 per day) with a maximum of six occupants, and 32 large-vehicle parking passes (four per day) for one large vehicle (RV, mini-bus, etc) with a maximum of 24 occupants.
- The lottery system uses a randomized computer drawing to select applications.
- All lottery applicants will be notified by e-mail as to whether they did or did not win a parking pass.
- If selected, the lottery winner will be charged a $24 reservation fee and awarded a parking pass to park at Sugarlands Visitor Center with access to the shuttle service to Elkmont (an extra $2/person cash at boarding) that begins at 7 PM.
- Parking passes are non-refundable, non-transferable, and good only for the date issued. There is a limit of one lottery application per household per season.
- Tour dates will be announced on April 22, 2020. Get updated info and lottery reservations on the Recreation.gov website.
Synchronous Firefly Guided Tours in NC
On the North Carolina side of the Smoky Mountains, you can also take a Synchronous Firefly Night Walk with Cataloochee Valley Tours in Waynesville on May 25-June 12, 2020 (dates may change a little depending on when fireflies appear this year). You'll be outfitted with a safety vest and flashlight for your walk in the dark of night to their secret viewing locations in small groups. Homemade cookies and milk provided if you behave. Tours last 8:30 PM until Midnight (weather permitting) and cost $150/person. Tours will sell out quickly. Reservations begin in February. Go to the Cataloochee Tours website for reservations. They also have Blue Ghost Firefly tours on May 18-24, 2020.
Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest
Another recently discovered spot to watch synchronized fireflies is deep in the Nantahala National Forest at Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest in Graham County. They typically appear between late May and mid-June. Watch them from dusk until about 11 PM. If the moon is bright, the show will be delayed 30 minutes or so. On cool nights (below 50 degrees) and on misty evenings following rain, the flashing may be greatly reduced or altogether absent. Arrive before sunset and bring a flashlight covered with blue or red cellophane in order to retain your night vision. Walk up the trail to a bench and watch the woods light up. You can also watch the blue ghost fireflies here in June. Read more about Joyce Kilmer Forest.
Blue Ghost Fireflies
For just a couple of weeks a year, the enchanting blue ghost fireflies (Phausis reticulate) make their appearance in several valley areas near Asheville. They are different from other fireflies since their light stays on constantly and they fly just above the forest floor. It's a romantic story! According to Brevard College Professor Dr. Jennifer Frick-Ruppert, "the males are small with black elytra and brownish wings, about 1/4-inch in length and delicate. Females are flightless and grub-like. They do not flash. Instead, they glow constantly with a dim bluish-white light, drifting silently just inches off the ground. With hundreds of thousands of these fireflies meandering aglow over the dark forest floor, the ground itself seems eerily adrift."
Cradle of Forestry Blue Ghost Tours
May 19-June 6, 2020: In Search of the Blue Ghosts guided night tour at Cradle of Forestry in Pisgah National Forest. 7:30-10:30 PM. $22/Adult, $11/Youth 4-12. Get more info & register online.
Blue Ghost or Synchronous Guided Tours from Asheville
May 20-31, 2020: Asheville Hiking Tours offers Blue Ghost or Synchronous Firefly Tours that depart from Asheville, Sunday through Thursdays, meet at 7 PM and return by midnight. No tours on Friday and Saturday. A naturalist drives your small group to a special spot in Pisgah National Forest for an easy 1.2-mile walk. Includes a scenic evening drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway. $115/person. Go to their website for info and tickets.
Photos by the very talented Spencer Black from Asheville!