Where To See Bears In The Smokies

If you have traveled to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I’m sure on returning home you were asked the question: “Did you see any bears?” If you did, you were a lucky visitor whose experience made a notable memory. A bear sighting enjoyed with a child is even more exciting.

Bear feeding in creek next to hiking trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The park in North Carolina and Tennessee encompasses 800 square miles of which 95 percent are forested. So how do you narrow the search for a bear encounter? Think of what a bear must do every day and frequently — eat.

Summer is not only popular for travel, but also it is berry season. Berries, buds, leaves, and fresh sprouts are on the bear’s plate during this season. Many streams that meander through the Smokies are swimming with fish. Check maps and locate intersections of water with trails or roads.

With the park enduring nine million visitors per year, an immense amount of trash is left. Sad but true, the wildlife of the Smokies makes routine visits to dumpsters and trash containers for a snack. And just a reminder: don’t feed the bears!

Take A Hike
The park maintains approximately 850 miles of trails, and a black bear has a home range of eight to 10 miles. With a home range that vast, you understand the importance of targeting certain areas for a sighting. Though bears frequent areas that include heavy tourist traffic, they act without restraint in their natural habitat offering superb photographic opportunities.

A trail that provides all the ingredients of a bear observation is the Grotto Falls Trail, located in the north-central section of the park. Here’s how to get to it. Just south of Gatlinburg, Tenn., off of Route 441, is the one way Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. Halfway around the driving tour, approximately 3-1/2 miles, is the trailhead for the Grotto Falls Trail.

Grotto Falls Trail covers only 1.3 miles one way and rises 500 feet in elevation, making it an easy hike. But, from the parking lot to the Grotto waterfall, you encounter all the components to spot a black bear. Those include trash containers placed in the parking lot, aquatic treats from the mountain stream, and many plants to nibble on.

A summer 2003 hike on this trail provided the family and I with a collection of memorable photos of bear activity. The wife asked if I thought I could outrun a bear if a dangerous situation arose. I lovingly replied, “All I need to do is outrun you.” Seriously though, don’t give a bear any reason for a conflict. More on bear safety later.

A second trail worthy of a bear search is the Abrams Falls Trail, located in the western edge of the park. The trailhead is found by turning right off of the popular Cade’s Cove Loop Road, between sign posts #10 and #11. The Abrams Falls hike is longer than Grotto Falls, approximately 2-1/2 miles one way. The trail includes a bridge crossing over Abrams Creek. The creek is popular with fisherman, both human and Ursus americanus, a.k.a. black bear. Early morning or late afternoon offers the best timing for a sighting.

Drive-Bys
For adventurers with physical challenges, parents with infants, or non-hikers, many opportunities exist for bear observations. The two driving routes described earlier are perfect.

The Roaring Fork Motor Trail leads you through old growth forests, by streambeds and provides several stopping points with bear activity. The Cades Cove Loop Road pilots the tourist through many open meadows, highlighted with wood lots and water sources that combine for prime bear habitat. This route offers the traveler’s eyes much ground to cover in a small amount of time.

Safety First
As with all wildlife, bears can be unpredictable. Follow the advice from bear specialists, when a sighting presents itself, enjoy the sight, but never approach the animal. If a bear shows aggression, do not run. Slowly move away and don’t turn your back. If a bear follows you, you must act aggressively. Wave your arms while shouting. Make yourself look larger and more intimidating. Bear repellent sprays are available and would be wise to carry on your belt or in your pack when traveling through bear country.

Follow these tips and explore these sites for a safe, successful bear sighting. You’ll be able to answer the question the next time with, “Yes, we did see bears.”

For More Information
The park is open year-round. Visitor centers at Sugarlands, Oconaluftee, and Cades Cove are open all year, except Christmas Day.

For more information on trail information in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, call 865-436-1297 or information on park roads and facilities can be obtained by calling the Park’s main information number 865-436-1200

To get there by plane, the nearest major airport in Tennessee (McGhee-Tyson, TYS) is Alcoa, 45 miles west of Gatlinburg. North Carolina’s, Asheville Airport is 60 miles east of the park.

Several major highways lead to the park. The following routes provide access to the three main entrances. In Tennessee: 1) From Interstate-40 take Exit 407 (Sevierville) to TN Route 66 South, and continue to U.S. 441 South. Follow U.S. 441 to Park. 2.) From I-40 in Knoxville — Exit 386B U.S. Highway 129 South to Alcoa/Maryville. At Maryville proceed on U.S. 321 North through Townsend. Continue straight on TN Highway 73 into the park. In North Carolina: From I-40, take U.S. Route 19 West through Maggie Valley. Proceed to U.S. 441 North at Cherokee into the park. From Atlanta and points south: follow U.S. 441 and 23 North. U.S. 441 leads to the park.

Bear-Viewing Checklist
Binoculars
Spotting scope
Bear repelling spray
Maps
Packs
Resealable sandwich bags (to carry food scent free)

For an assortment of self-defense pepper sprays, click here.

For a fine assortment of optics, click here.

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