A Bear Story

The last time I visited the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, my husband and I observed some curious human behavior. We were traveling the loop in Cades Cove when we saw a crowd of people getting out of their cars. Some among them were closely approaching a black bear to take photographs. Alan looked at me uncomfortably and asked, “Does this remind you of anything?” I laughed and stuck my head out the sunroof and said to whomever would listen. “My husband followed a bear to take it’s picture and almost got mauled!” When the pronouncement received only minor attention, we drove on.

I’ve often wondered what possesses otherwise cautious city dwellers to stalk claw footed, spiked tooth, bears for nothing more than a 4×5 photo. My curiosity began the first time I ever came came to the Smoky Mountains National Park twenty years ago.

Black Bear in the GSMNPAlan and I were newlyweds, and he had come home early from work with the idea: It’s a beautiful day, lets go to the Smokies! It was our first time. By evening, we were glowing from the long wonderful drive up Hwy. 19, and we sat by a stream eating fried chicken, honey, and biscuits  We were deep in that “OOH, look at this”, and “AHH look at that” phase of our love affair with the Great Smokies.

All at once I remembered seeing something on TV about the dangers of feeding bears in national parks. Being a real scaredy-cat by nature, I asked Alan about it. “Oh, you’ll be lucky if you ever see a bear.” he said confidently. “They’re afraid of people.” Great! I thought. Aren’t animals more dangerous when they’re afraid?

A couple of minutes went by when I noticed a very black stump about 20 feet back in the forest and across the creek. As I looked closer, little eyes, and then a nose began to appear. My eyes widened. I took one look at Alan, and said sternly, “There’s a bear!” To his bewilderment, I got up and quickly walked some distance to the car.

Oh, no! The doors were locked! I turned around. Alan stood up for the first time, and looked at me in utter amazement. “What’s the matter?” he called.

“There’s a bear right accross the stream!” I yelled back. Alan stared at me for a moment, and then broke out laughing.

What kind of reaction is that? I wondered? Who was this nut I married, and was laughing himself silly? Hadn’t I warned him with all solemnity that danger lurked close by?

At last, Alan turned around and saw I was right. There was a bear. Rather than panic, as I had done, he simply picked up our food, walked back to the car and unlocked it. Thank goodness for that! We both got in. Safe at last!

While I was telling him how frightened I was, he was assuring me I was overreacting. He began fumbling for his camera and film. “What are you doing?” I asked.

“I’m going to get some pictures of the bear and her cub.” Alan said blithely.

“You’re what?” I looked across the stream to see the bear was indeed a mother with her cub. They were sniffing their way through the picnic area especially around the trash cans. “Are you nuts?” I asked Alan as he reached for the door handle. “You’re not leaving me out here!”

Alan got out of the car and began striding down the road toward the bears. Instantly, I envisioned myself as a young widow and quickly leaped from the car to protect my new husband. Exactly how I was going to do that was unclear. As we walked toward the roaming bears, I alternated between acting brave and warning of impending doom.

Meanwhile, Mama bear and her cub had attracted the attention of an older couple who were driving into the area. They stopped their car just as the bear began walking in our general direction. Impulsively, I climbed on top of the couple’s car, saying, “I hope you don’t mind!”

“No, not at all.” the old man said. Incredibly, he was somewhat amused. He turned his attention back to the bear, and my husband’s boudacious charge. The mother bear and cub disappeared into the edge of the forest. Alan held his forefinger in the air and said excitedly, “I’ll be just be a minute!” Then he too disappeared.

Very quickly, Alan saw his chance for the perfect picture! Excitedly, he framed the “perfect” scene: the cub with it’s paws on the side of a tree and looking right into the camera! Experiencing a bit of tourist nervana, Alan thought, How cooperative! In an instant his delusion of cooperation was shattered by a heart-stopping roar, and the sight of mama bear headed right for him! Alan froze, and mama bear stopped only a few feet from his stunned stare. Luckily, she was only bluffing in an effort to scare off the intruder. Mission accomplished! In shock, Alan retreated a safe distance.

Many naturalists claim the black bear is the strongest animal for its size in North America. Knowing this, and being, no doubt, discerning, you won’t repeat Alan’s mistake by chasing one down for a photo op. Hopefully you will be lucky enough and cautious enough to enjoy the park bears from a reasonable distance. Should one get too close, however, it is helful to know that bears have very poor eyesight and loud noises often scare them away. Also, it is helpful to know a campground bear is more likely to be dangerous because they can be enboldened by the desire for food and a history of having been fed by unsuspecting tourists.

Finally, if you are very unlucky indeed, and do run across the rare bear that shows a persistent interest in you, long-time hiking enthusiast, Charles Blair, suggests throwing rocks and, if all else fails, abandoning your food and climbing a tree.

Keep these things in mind and both you and the bears will survive your trip to the Great Smokies National Park!


Classification:  Animalia – Chordata -0Mammalia – Artiodactyla – Ruminantia – Cervidae – Cervinae – Cervus – Canadensis

The elk is the largest mammal in the Smokies.  For thousands of years the elk roamed the valleys of the Smokies and though they were hunted by the Native Americans for food, they lived in large herds in the Southern Appalachians.  With European Settlers, the herds began to be hunted and the land that the elk called home started to shrink.  By the late 1800s, the elk herds were gone and the whitetail deer began to take their place in the mountain ecosystem.

In 2001, the Park Service decided to reintroduce the elk to the area.  They picked two areas in the National Park – Cataloochee and the Oconaluftee area .  The elk reintroduction were an experimental project that has really taken off and the elk herds in these areas are starting to thrive.  Much like the deer herds, the young and the cows roam in herds while the bulls tend toward a solitary life.

ElkThe elk is a big animal.  Much bigger than the deer that are in Cades Cove, the elk are much more aggressive and therefore much more dangerous.  That being said, they are amazing to watch.  Elk are grazing animals, they are large grazing animals, so eating take s up a majority of their day.  Eating grass and other plants in the National Park.  One of the features that is most prominent in the elk are the antlers.  Only the bulls have antlers and they grow throughout the year and are shed during the later winter.  Each season, as the elk get older they shed their antlers and the next season the antlers grow back bigger and more awe-inspiring.

Where to See Elk in the Smokies:

  • Cataloochee – The Cataloochee valley became the perfect place to release some of the first elk in the National Park.  Enclosed and protected, with large fields of grass and plenty of forest cover for the elk to play in, Cataloochee gives the elk an amazing backdrop.  It is possible to sees dozens of elk roaming through the fields in Cataloochee during the spring and fall.
  • Oconaluftte Area – Oconaluftee is the location of the Oconaluftee Visitor’s Center on the Cherokee side of the Smokies.  Elk were released here in late 2001 and the elk have chosen to hang around.  Usually in the afternoons, around dusk, you will see elk come out to graze in the fields around the visitors center.
  • The Rut – During the fall (August to early winter) the elk herds start a mating dance called the rut.  During the rut you will see bull elk sparring and battling for cows and you will get to hear the elk bugle.  The bugling of the elk is one f the items that needs to be on  your ‘to do’ list when you come to the Smokies in the fall.

Black Bear

Classification:  Animalia – Chordata – Mammalia – Carnivora – Ursidae – Ursus – Americanus

The black Bear has long been the emblem of the Smoky Mountains.  These large mammals roam the full elevation of the Smoky Mountains looking for food and places to sleep during the winter months.  They are one of the most sought after animals to spot in the Smokies and people often determine the success of a trip to the mountains by how many bears they see during the National Park visits.

The American Black Bear has made its home in the Smokies for thousands of years.  These omnivorous creatures live off the land, follow the spring growth of plants and insects out of the higher elevations in the early spring and then higher up during the summer months where it is cooler.  In the fall, as the trees burst forth with fruit and nuts, the bears take to the trees in the valleys looking to put on pounds for their hibernation.

Black Bear
Black Bear in Cades Cove

Black bears are quadrupeds that have the ability to stand on their hind legs for short periods of times.  Most black bears in the Smokies average about 300 pounds with larger bears topping out between 500 and 600 pounds.  Though the black bear can be cinnamon colored or even white, the Smoky Mountain black bears are exclusively black.  Female black bears start to have their first litters between the ages of 3-5.  Black bear usually have 2 cubs to a litter and they are born in January or February of the year, during the hibernation period.

And speaking of hibernation… Black bears are no longer considered to be true hibernators.  Black bears reduce their metabolic rate during the winter months when food is scarce and the weather conditions are harsh.  During October and November, the bears start to bed down, choosing caves, logs and other hidden and secluded areas that are protected and well covered for their long winter’s sleep.  As their metabolic rate slows down, their bodies also go through some chemical changes that allow them to recycle their waste products, suppress their appetite and sleep for long periods of time.  During the hibernation period they will occasionally wake up but, for the most part they ‘nap’ through the cold months waiting for the spring thaw.

If one of your goals is to see a Black Bear while you are in the Smoky Mountains, then there are a few options:

  • Cades Cove – Get up early.  Be one of the first cars through the gates and you might get several bear encounters while you are cruising around the loop road.  By early, you need to be there before dawn waiting for the rangers to open the gate.
  • Clingman’s Dome – During summer, head to Clingman’s Dome.  There have been many sightings of black bears during the summer in recent years at this highest point in the Smokies.
  • Watch for Large Crowds – While the sighting of a deer will stop traffic, the sighting of a black bear will bring everything to a halt.  If you are stuck really far back in the traffic jam and you are wondering why the cars aren’t moving – it might be a bear.

Wildlife in the Smokies

From tiny bugs to the mighty elk, the animals in the Smokies come in all shapes and all sizes.  The diversity extends to all manner of critters.  The protection that these animals are afforded inside the national park allow you to get closer than you will be able to in most places around the country.

There are rules and regulations concerning your interaction but it comes down to one concept:  You are in the animals house, be a thoughtful visitor.

  • Do not feed the animals.
  • Do not tease or harm the animals.
  • In the case of elk and black bear, you must stay 50 yards or more from these larger mammals.  They are big animals and they can hurt you.  The rule of thumb is: if you are close enough that your proximity changes the behavior of the elk or bear then you are too close.

Black BearBlack Bear – This is the symbolic animal of the Smokies.  Found in all parts of the National Park, this animals provides hours of entertainment for people that have the good fortune to see one.  Be sure to give the bear plenty of room and enjoy them from a distance.  During the springs, if you are out early enough, Cades Cove is the best place to see lots of bears.  During the fall of the year, aiming for early evening in Cades Cove will probably allow you to see the bears feeding out of the trees.

Synchronous Fireflies – One of the most interesting things that you will find in the Smoky Mountains are the synchronous fireflies in the Elkmont area.  For some reason (scientists are not sure why) the fireflies in this area of the national park begin to blink in unison with each other.  There is only one other place on the planet (Thailand) where this phenomenon occurs.

ElkElk – This has been the most successful reintroduction into the Smokies.  The elk were brought back into this area in 2001 and now there are thriving herds of elk in both the Cherokee area and the Cataloochee value.  Elk are the largest mammal (and therefore animal) in the National Park.  During the rut – their mating season – you can spend an entire day listening to these majestic animals as the bulls court the cows.

Whitetail DeerWhitetail Deer – For the hunter or just the lover of wildlife, the chance to see a whitetail deer up close and personal is breathtaking.  In the Smokies, the best place to see deer is in Cades Cove.  The deer use the fields in the cove to graze and it is usual to see tens of them during one trip around the loop road.  During the spring you will even get to see fauns frolicking in the forests, while later in the year you can see the spikes challenging each other in the fields.