The Light Show in the Smokies


Lightening Bugs. Fireflies. Glow worms. Whatever you know them by, flying bugs that glow and flicker in the night are magical.

For a brief period of time in June, deep in the woods, fireflies by the thousands put on their synchronized light show for visitors to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Synchronized fireflies are beautiful. They really begin to flash when it is fully dark (around 9:30 this time of year) and continue for hours. You see twinkling “lights” everywhere, an expansive array of five to six flashes by each of the soaring males and then nothing for several seconds before repeating; time to let the females respond from their ground-level, dormant positions.

Fireflies are not flies at all, they are actually Coleoptera – beetles. Among the 2,000 species worldwide, we have 125 in the U.S. and several of those are found within the Park. Each species have individual characteristics for their bioluminescence and how they flash or glow.

Not every type of firefly flashes. One of my favorites is the “Blue Ghost” (Phausis reticulata) that seems to float through the night sky leaving a bluish trail of light in its wake. This striking phenomenon is thought to be the explanation behind many of the mountain ghost legends.

Smoky Mountain Field School

The University of Tennessee, in conjunction with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Service, sponsor the Smokey Mountain Field School. Every year, from May through October, the Field School offers dozens of special, interactive programs in the Park. It’s always a great way to do something for the first time and learn the science behind what you experience. We took advantage of their annual trek to see the fireflies with UT instructor, Wanda DeWaard, who is an outdoor educator and interpretive guide.

The Smoky Mountains Park is the nation’s most visited national park and the only Park created from private property. It is 800 square miles and has a number of entrances.  To get to the fireflies, you have to enter the Park at the Sugarlands entrance south of Gatlinburg, TN. Once you enter, you drive about 4.5 miles to the Elkmont entrance. During peak firefly season, the Park Service has a trolley to take visitors from Sugarlands to the Elkmont area.  They also provide you with the red cellophane to cover your flashlight, so you won’t interfere with wildlife.

As is typical of Field School events, we had an eclectic group of well-educated cohorts, including an interesting entomologist, 14 in all.

A cottage in Elmont.

A cottage in Elkmont.

Daisy Town

On our way to see the fireflies, we meandered through the area, walking among the tall Tulip Poplars and hemlocks, learning about the history, fauna and flora of the area from our expert guide.

Elkmont was made up of three small towns.  As previously mentioned, the Park was created from privately owned land and the residents of Elkmont fought hard to keep leases on their land – some extending into the 1990s. Daisy Town was built in the 1920s as vacation homes, on land stripped of trees by the lumber efforts of the day. Ergo, the daisy field. Today, a few of the abandoned cottages are being restored by the Park Service and will eventually be used for visiting artists and scientists as well as available for rental.

The neighborhood’s claim to fame happened decades ago, when a big car drove into the area.  Local kids were all excited to see who was in this big car.  It turned out to be a guy named Walt Disney.  He was extremely interested in one of the charming little cottages nestled in the woods. No one really understood why, until the movie Snow White was released and they immediately recognized the little cottage.  Sadly, that cottage later burned.

Walking paths were good quality, nice and wide and followed the old railroad grade (used in the logging days), along the Little River.

We spend much of our lives trying to replicate what nature offers.  Twinkling lights are enchanting (I wonder if Walt saw them).

I found the firefly spectacular impossible to capture with photos . . .

I found the firefly spectacular impossible to capture with photos . . .

Two Interesting Facts:

  1. It takes 45 minutes from dusk to complete darkness; it takes human eyesight 45 minutes to adjust from a lit room to darkness.
  2. If you count a cricket’s chirp for 15 seconds and add 40 – you will know the temperature (F).



In my earlier blog comparing Branson. MO to Gatlinburg, I really should have specifically said Pigeon Forge, which is located just outside Gatlinburg. Locals definitely make the distinction.  The little town of Gatlinburg has actually worked hard to keep some of its original charm with zoning regs, a trolley system to mitigate traffic, and I am glad to see the craft loop thriving.  But in my mind, Gatlinburg will forever be frozen in time with those great sorority spring formals.




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