How to Find Bears in Great Smoky Mountains

How to Find Black Bears in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Black Bear near Roaring Fork
Black Bear near Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail

When visitors are asked why they come to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park there are many common answers.

They come for the incomparable mountain views, the over eight hundred miles of hiking trails, the historic structures, the crystal clear streams, rivers and waterfalls and of course the wildlife…

Especially black bears!

Unfortunately many would-be bear spotters have unrealistic expectations when it come to seeing bears in the Smoky Mountains. Although current populations are at historically high numbers, black bears are reclusive and tend to avoid contact with humans. So the odds of actually seeing a bear during a casual visit are not very good.

The key to viewing bears is understanding their habits and knowing where to look for them. If you are visiting the park during the winter months, you will almost certainly NOT see a bear. During the cold winter months the bears are hibernating in their dens. They emerge in the early Spring but if they have newborn cubs they will rarely expose themselves.

The best time of year to see bears is in the fall months from late September through November. During this time period the bears gorge of the autumn mast crop to fatten up for their long winter nap. And bears have traditional feeding areas where there is plenty of acorns and nuts to feast upon.

Smoky Mountain Black Bear in the Roaring Fork area
Smoky Mountain Black Bear in the Cherokee Orchard at dusk

One such area is the Cherokee Orchard just outside the city limits of Gatlinburg Tennessee. Black bears frequent this area at dusk in September and October. They can be very difficult to spot as darkness sets in as their deep black fur provides perfect camouflage in the forest. Look for movement and listen for the noise of a large mammal walking over leaves and sticks.

The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is also a great place to spot bears. Once again, you must be vigilant and look for movement. It is amazing that an animal so large can easily blend into its surroundings.

Of course, Cades Cove is always a good place because one can scan a very large area at one time. I have seen many bears in Cades Cove, but only close up a few time. It’s much more likely to spot bears at a distance in the Cove.

Greenbrier is also a good place to see bears, though not as often as the places mentioned above. I enjoy Greenbrier because it is a quiet place situated along the Little Pigeon River and I love being there whether or not I see a bear.

The fun is in the hunt. Over the years I have seen hundreds of bears in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  About half of the time I am looking for them. But the other 50% of the time I am totally surprised to see them along the roadside or near a trail that I am hiking.

It is important to NEVER approach a black bear. They are large wild animals that can become very aggressive if threatened or provoked. Bears have attacked people in the park. Use caution at all times and always have an escape plan, keeping in mind that you cannot outrun a bear. The best protection is distance.


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