synchronous fireflies smoky mountain events

Everything You Need to Know About the Synchronous Fireflies Smoky Mountains Event

Who would’ve ever thought people would make reservations to see blinking bugs? Come June, the synchronous fireflies at Great Smoky Mountains National Park bring a fresh glow to the night air.

Much like scaling Half Dome or climbing Angels Landing, you need to enter a lottery in the hopes of seeing synchronous fireflies. Only 1,000 people a night get to see the spectacle inside the park’s designated area.

Planning a trip to see the synchronous fireflies requires planning that starts in April. We’re going to tell you everything you need to know to get the best chances of seeing the spectacle, plus some backup locations and how this event impacts park access in June.

Synchronized Fireflies in Elkmont in Great Smoky Mountain National Park in Tennessee
Synchronous Fireflies in Elkmont | photo via Alisha Bube / Shutterstock

What Are Synchronous Fireflies?

Depending on where you are from, you might call them fireflies or lightning bugs. In fact, where I grew up, we called them lightning bugs, and I’m having a challenging time adapting while writing this article. Is anyone else reading this on “Team Lightning Bug”?

Their colorful bums light up the summer skies, blinking in what appear to be random and odd patterns. Only those patterns aren’t random at all.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park has 13 types of fireflies, with just one that can synchronize their blinks in the name of mating. Each species develops a pattern that allows females to spot the males of their kind. Then, the females blink back in return, and a love connection is made.

What makes these fireflies stand out is that the males flash a pattern and then pause in darkness, waiting for the flash of a female. As the evening wears on, the lights begin to flash in sync – thus synchronous fireflies. The lights pulse in cadence, and then darkness takes over before the next round rolls in.

Synchronous vs. Synchronized Fireflies

Some people wonder why the synchronous fireflies aren’t called synchronized fireflies.

Synchronized refers to things being matched or timed due to an external force imposing coordination, like synchronized swimmers.

Synchronous refers to things that are self-timed to operate in coordination internally due to natural forces, like the 24-hour internal human cycle, or in this case, the fireflies.

Here is a photograph of the world famous synchronous firefly, but as a larva. This species is so spectactular because all the males flash in the same general period and stop flashing at the same time.
Synchronous Firefly Larvae | photo via Josiah ‘Ant Man’ Kilburn / Shutterstock

When Does the Synchronous Firefly Display Happen?

Much like wildflower seasons, the synchronous firefly activity depends on the previous winter’s weather. Great Smoky Mountain National Park scientists know that it happens annually between mid-May through mid-June.

However, research to figure out the best peak season for the mating stars in early spring by scientists monitoring weather patterns. Since the lightning bugs fireflies live on the ground for 1-2 years before leaving the pupal cases, researchers inspect pupal development for signs the emergence is nearing.

It’s mid-spring before the dates of the annual viewing are released.

Getting a Spot in the Great Smoky Mountains Firefly Viewing Lottery

The park holds eight days for prime viewing, with 120 lottery tickets issued per night. Up to seven people can be in a passenger vehicle under that permit. Keep in mind the permit gives you access to parking, and you don’t need the regular parking pass for the park.

Keep an eye on the Great Smoky Mountains National Park website and social media accounts starting in mid-April and no later than April 20. In 2022 and 2023, the park gave three days notice before the lottery opened up.

All lottery reservations are made through Start by creating an account today so you’re ready to sign in when the lottery begins. You choose your preferred day and a backup day.

About two weeks later, you’ll be notified if your date or backup date was approved.

The application fee is $1, and if you are successful at getting a permit, you’ll be charged $24 for the event.

You can also book a campsite at Elkmont Campground, but those do sell out the last week in May and the first two weeks in June six months ahead of time. However, determined firefly seekers can also call the park daily to see if there are any cancellations.

Numerous ruins, such as the ones pictured here, can be found scattered throughout the Elkmont Historic District in Great Smokey Mountains National Park, Tennessee
Elkmont Historic District | photo via William Silver / Shutterstock

What to Expect at Synchronous Firefly Viewing

The viewing is held in the Elkmont Historic District, near the James Creek Trailhead. The most synchronous firefly activity happens between 9:30pm and midnight. However, the permit to park is valid from 6pm to 8pm. Nobody is allowed in after 8:15pm. Nobody else is allowed in this are during this special time at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Guests check in with rangers at the campground entry, and the person who won the lottery must be the one checking in the vehicle with a valid photo ID. Then, parking attendants guide the cars into the right parking spots, as some areas are off-limits.

One possible location for viewing is a cemetery, just in case being there at night might make you uncomfortable.

Plan for a late night, as the best viewing happens between 11pm and midnight.

What to Bring to Synchronous Fireflies Viewing

I love that the more I research this for the latest information, the more I come across lightning bugs vs. firefly battles on Reddit.

The best ways to make the most out of your trip fall into two categories – things you can’t control and things you can.

First, synchronous fireflies are best viewed during warm, humid evenings when they are most active; rainy conditions are generally not ideal for optimal viewing. Incoming severe weather could cause the event to be canceled on any given night. Plus, temperatures that drop below 50° F will chill out the light activity.

Given that you have to try for the lottery far in advance, you are at the mercy of the weather.

Second, you can control what you bring, and you might be surprised how much it impacts your experience and the activity of the fireflies.

  • Flashlights or Headlamps with Red Filters: Red light is less likely to disturb fireflies compared to white light, so using flashlights or headlamps with red filters can help you navigate in the dark without disrupting the fireflies’ natural behavior.
  • Blanket or Folding Chairs: If you plan to sit and observe the fireflies for an extended period, consider bringing a blanket or portable folding chairs for seating.
  • Bug Spray: Mosquitoes and other insects might be present, so bringing bug spray can help make your viewing experience more comfortable.
  • Comfortable Clothing and Shoes: Dress appropriately for the weather and wear comfortable shoes suitable for walking on trails or uneven terrain. Don’t walk off the trails, even to avoid puddles or mud, as it can scare off the fireflies.
  • Garbage Bag: Pack it in, pack it out. All trash must be removed from the park when you leave.

You Didn’t Get a Synchronous Firefly Permit. Now What?

Whether you didn’t get a pass or want to skip the crowds altogether, you do have a few more options to consider.

Tours are available from various companies in cities around the park, taking you to “secret” viewing spots.

Also, when the dates for the permit-only viewing are announced, plan to visit the day before or the day after. Since the fireflies aren’t synchronized, they don’t know about the guided tours and parking permits. They don’t stop performing outside of the eight-day window the park deems the most active.

Cades Cove is known to have some of the same and other species of fireflies. The downside is that the loop closes at dusk, but you can usually stay a few minutes longer just to enjoy the show. Just don’t try to stay there until midnight.

Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest in Nantahala National Forest attracts synchronous fireflies big time, and there’s no lottery. Plan for an hour drive from Cherokee and two hours from Gatlinburg. Get there early to see the old-growth forest with trees up to 100 feet tall and 20 feet around.

Finally, check out Catacloochee Valley, where synchronous fireflies and blue ghost fireflies are found.

WAIT? A BLUE FIREFLY: The blue ghost firefly is a rare, bioluminescent insect found in parts of this region. The males give off a distinct bluish-white glow as they fly through the forest at night, looking for females on the ground to flash reply signals. Their ghostly blue flickers floating through dark mountain forests provide an eerie, magical sight for lucky hikers after dusk

Additional Things to Do Nearby

Late May and early June offer a great opportunity to see wildflowers at the higher elevations. Places like Gregory Bald above Cades Cove are known for the flame azaleas that brighten up the landscape.

In 2024, Dollywood’s newest attraction, the Dolly Parton Experience, will replace the Chasing Rainbows Museum with an immersive experience of the beloved local celebrity’s life.

Take some time to explore the secret spots of the Smokies we’ve rounded up, or explore Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. The North Carolina cities of Bryson City, Cherokee, and Maggie Valley will offer respite from the busy summer crowds on the Tennesse side, too. Don’t forget to track down your favorite waterfall, too, and you might see one of the many versions of fireflies there at night.

Is Seeing Synchronous Fireflies Worth It?

Where it can really hit home is through learning about the firefly life cycle. They live 1-2 years on the ground, eating slugs and snails. When they become adults, they stop eating and start blinking. Males blink their identities to females, who are waiting nearby to find the right pattern. Then they mate. The female drops about 100 eggs into the ground, and within four weeks, all of the adults die.

Witnessing thousands of fireflies flashing in unison is a truly magical sight and a rare natural phenomenon. It can be a fun and unique outing for families with children.

Beyond the obvious novelty of seeing the synchronous fireflies, there’s also the authenticity of the experience that just can’t be captured as quickly as a selfie. I tell you that so you don’t stress all night trying for the perfect shot. Unless you’re adept at long–exposure photos and want to bring a tripod with you into the darkness, enjoy the moment.

Finally, it turns out the firefly/lightning bug is neither a fly nor a bug. It’s a beetle. So we’re all wrong, and you can call it whatever you want!

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