Smoky Mountain Lights

Written By Cece Owens

The Lampyridae are a family of insects in the beetle order Coleoptera. They are winged soft-bodied beetles, commonly called fireflies or lightning bugs for their conspicuous use of bioluminescence during twilight to attract mates or prey.

Did you know that Tennessee is one of the only places in the world that is home to a rare type of firefly? They light up together, completely in sync with each other. Synchronous fireflies (Photinus carolinus) are one of at least 19 species of fireflies that live in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. They are the only species in America whose individuals can synchronize their flashing light patterns. Once fireflies reach the age for which they can fly around and light up, they only live for about 21 days. That means the phenomenon that happens in Tennessee is only viewable for about three weeks per year.

The largest population of these synchronous fireflies in the Western Hemisphere is right here, close to home at Elkmont Campground. Every year, in late May and early June, the Elkmont fireflies (sometimes also referenced to as Sugarlands Visitor Center fireflies) light up the sky. Located eight miles from Gatlinburg, Tennessee, Elkmont Campground is the largest and busiest campground in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. At an elevation of 2,150 feet, the area enjoys a moderate climate, characterized by mild winters and hot, humid summers.

For the last few years the National Park Service has used a lottery system to allow only 1,800 cars to park at the Sugarlands Visitor Center during the 8-day event (225 per day). The lottery works like this: You apply on their page during the three-day application period, choosing two possible dates that you would like to attend. About a week later you will receive notice whether your application was accepted or not. If you were accepted you will pay a $20 reservation fee. On the day you are scheduled for, you will show your ID and your parking pass at the Sugarlands Visitor Center. Then you will board a trolley for Elkmont Campground.

If you are not fortunate enough to score parking passes for the main event at Elkmont, don’t be discouraged. Consider visiting within three days either side of the event when passes are not required. The synchronous fireflies can also be found at the backend of Cades Cove (near the Abrams Falls trailhead) or at Cataloochee Valley. It also appears in recent years that the famous fireflies are showing up in surrounding locations, so as the time approaches stay in touch with your local media outlets or the internet to learn about other locations.

Most of us have memories of running around outside on summer nights to watch and catch the fireflies lighting up around us. The synchronous fireflies event is a memory of a lifetime. If you want to experienced it make plans this year to light up your life.

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