If you’re wondering whether you might glimpse some wildlife during your visit to the Great Smoky Mountains, the answer is a resound “Yes!” The area holds a diverse population of wildlife, including over 66 species of mammals, with just one being the American Black Bear. With over 1,500 bears rambling around Great Smoky Mountains National Park, there is an excellent chance you will get to see at least one, if you visit the right places at the right times. However, do exercise caution. While the animal is usually one of the shyest creates in all of nature’s creation, the black bear can be dangerous if surprised, protecting cubs or a food source, or if it has lost its fear of humans.
Cades Cove: Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Black bears are most easily spotted in open areas and valleys throughout Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and the surrounding areas. One of the best places to spot black bears in the Smoky Mountains is in and around Cades Cove, due to the high density of mast-producing trees and blackberry, blueberry and huckleberry bushes, some of the bear’s main food sources in the late summer and fall.
There is a one-way, eleven mile road winding through the cove that allows visitors to travel the area at a leisurely pace with plenty of stopping points along the route. Despite the short drive, the loop can easily be a day-long adventure, depending on how many stops you want to make. There are several interpretive signs along the route and you can take advantage of the short nature-walk trails and more remote hiking trails.
While bears can often be seen from the comfort of your vehicle, the best bet for seeing a bear is to park the car and hike the trails. Like all wildlife, bears are most active at dawn and dusk, when they take advantage of the cooler temperatures. Hikers who move quietly, while keeping their eyes open, are most likely to spot bears. Since most bears rely heavily on berries, nuts, roots, insects and fish, concentrate your search under trees, overgrown areas where the brush seems a little thicker and along streams, rivers and shorelines.
Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
Roaring Fork is another good location to look for bears. Here bears are often found just wandering across or along the road where nuts and berries are abundant. The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is set just outside Gatlinburg, at the top of Airport Road. Black bears are normally plentiful in the area and this is usually where where the bears that find their way into the city, on rare occasions, come from. This beautiful drive from Gatlinburg and back can be done in under an hour, but considering the beauty of the area you will probably want to make a day of it.
Little River Road
Little River Road is a very scenic stretch of highway skirting the Little River. Running 18-miles between the Cades Cove entrance in Townsend and Gatlinburg at the Sugarlands Visitor Center, Little River Road offers many bear-spotting opportunities.