Bears in Gatlinburg: 7 best places and tips to see a bear

A black bear in the Smoky Mountains

In the Smoky Mountains, it's estimated that there are about two bears per square mile (photo by Gagat55/shutterstock.com)

Category:
9 Comments

Disclosure: This site is sponsored by ads and affiliate programs. We may earn money from the companies mentioned in this post. As an Amazon, Tripster and CJ Affiliate we may earn from qualifying purchases.

What’s the number 1 question from visitors to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park?

Is that bathroom locked? No, but I like that you’re thinking. 

No. The most popular question is: Where is the best place to see a bear in the Smoky Mountains?

Honestly, we don’t know. If we did, you’d have bear sighting services lining up in every pancake palace and go-kart track in Sevier County selling tours to people from Nova Scotia with an odd specificity for geographic boundaries.

In fact, if we knew where the bears were gonna be, we’d be there ourselves looking at the bears. We wouldn’t tell you because then you’d be between us and the bears and our Instagram feeds aren’t gonna populate themselves. 

A black bear tries to gain access to a bird feeder
Black bears are likely found where they can find food. They eat berries, fruits nuts and insects (photo by rima15/stock.adobe.com)

Are there bears in Gatlinburg, Tennessee?

There are black bears around Gatlinburg. The Smokies are home to many different kinds of native wildlife, including snakes, bobcats, skunks and more. But black bears are the most popular for sightings.

The bears in the Smokies are black, but black bears can also appear to be brown or cinnamon in color.

The American Black Bear is the third-largest bear, outsized by the grizzly bear and polar bears.

Black bears can often be seen trying to find food scraps and garbage. However, it’s very important that you do not feed them or offer access to food.

Remember, this is bear country. Park officials note that you should always stay at least 150 feet away from a bear at all times. It is illegal to willfully approach a bear at a distance that disturbs the bear.

With that being said, it’s okay to want to spot one.

My tips? Don’t try too hard. Allow yourself to be surprised. Most of the times I’ve seen a bear in the wild, the phrase “Holy crap, there’s a bear,” has been heavily involved.

Occasionally, it’s said with awe and reverence – those times are when I’m safely in my car.  Other times, it’s said with shock and fear – those times are when the bear comes walking along the trail or into the picnic area and I am unhappily exposed.

Still, if you have your heart set on seeing a bear, here are some tips on how to increase your odds. Ladies and gentlemen, the bear necessities. Tips on where to see bears in Gatlinburg: 

1. Pay for it

I know of only one way to guarantee you’ll see a bear on vacation: Pay for it.

Go to Zoo Knoxville. They have a very nice bear enclosure with a couple of bears who like to scratch their backs and bear around.

There have been a lot of investments in the zoo over the last three decades, and it’s a great medium-sized zoo.

The Red Panda exhibit alone is worth the price of admission. Take an afternoon, see the animals, grab some dinner and you can spend the rest of your vacation seeing the sights without an ursine obsession.

Sure, there are other places you can see bears in captivity in the Smokies, but Zoo Knoxville might be worth your trip.

If you want to stay in Gatlinburg proper, consider checking out the Ober Gatlinburg wildlife encounter. It’s small, but it’s affordable.

Two black bear cubs climb a tree
Young black bear cubs play in Great Smoky Mountains National Park (photo by Ben McMurtray/shutterstock.com)

2. Go early and stay late

When is the best time of day to find a bear?

Early in the morning and late at night.

This is true for most animals in the park, actually, but for bears as well. You’re far more likely to see animals on the move in the early morning or at the gloaming, away-from-the-heat time of day.

They typically stay away from the largest of crowds. 

Remember, bear activity is usually lower in the winter. Bears in the Smokies do not hibernate as we traditionally think. They do, however, enter long periods of sleep in their winter dens.

Usually, this is when cubs are born, around late January or early February.

3. Seek out the open areas

Cades Cove is famous for seeing all types of wildlife, including raccoons, deer and turkey.

The Cove is a wonderful place for viewing wildlife, bears in particular, as you can actually see over a large area that isn’t covered in dense foliage.

Scan the tree lines as well as the treetops. Many a visitor to the Cove has driven right past a bear in the forest and didn’t see it in the shadows.

It’s a good idea to bring binoculars, especially in the Cove so you can view the wildlife from a safe distance.

Bear cub in trees
Be sure to look up when trying to spot a bear (photo by Alaina O’Neal/TheSmokies.com)

4. Watch the people

If you see a bunch of gawkers, join in and gawk until you see what they’re looking at.

Maybe it will be a deer or a turkey, but often big groups mean a bear or elk is nearby. Remember to keep your distance. It’s not only smart, it’s the law. 

It’s not uncommon to see a black bear darting around downtown Gatlinburg. Whenever there’s a crowd, there’s a good chance there’s a bear.

5. Try Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail

This narrow, winding one-way road located just beyond the Rainbow Falls Trailhead is closed in winter and isn’t fit for large buses, trailers or motorhomes.

The 5.5 mile one-way loop makes for a pleasant, leisurely side trip and offers rushing streams, forest and historic buildings. The slow pace of driving allows passengers a better opportunity to scan the forest for wildlife, including bears. 

There are plenty of berries and nuts along this area, which makes it popular for them.

Read Also: Best scenic drives in the Smoky Mountains: Our top 5 ranked

6. Sit and wait

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park website says some people like to sit quietly by a trail and wait for wildlife to come out of hiding, like a crane standing still in the water until the fish think it’s a tree.

This seems like bad advice.

Sure, I imagine there are a few for whom the idea of a perfect vacation is sitting in the woods for eight hours hoping a bear walks by. But honest-to-God, I’d fall asleep beside the trail only to be awakened by an over-enthusiastic Canadian hiker giving me mouth-to-mouth because they thought I’d had a heart attack. 

A black bear through trees and leaves
For the safety of black bears and yourself, never willingly approach them in the wild. A black bear is typically not interested in humans (photo by Jillian/stock.adobe.com)

7. Don’t be dumb

This one isn’t how to spot a bear. It’s about ruining everyone else’s good time trying to spot a bear.

Throw away trash appropriately. Don’t leave food out. Don’t approach a bear or its cubs. Let them be.

Acclimation to humans is not good for bears, and bears that haven’t been acclimated to humans are bad for humans.

Give bears their proper space. Respect nature. Respect wildlife. Have a good time and don’t be stupid.

Safety tips

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the largest protected areas where black bears can live in the wild in the eastern United States.

The National Park Service estimates that about 1,500 live in the park. That’s about two bears per square mile.

Guests may carry bear spray, but only discharge it if and when a bear comes within 20 yards of you.

Also, lock your car doors. This one is more about the safety of your car. Bears are notorious for checking cars for food in the Smokies.

Read Also: What do you do if you see a black bear?

Would you add any tips to the list? Have you seen a bear when visiting Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge? Let us know in the comments.

View the web story version of this article here.

Disclaimer: While we do our best to bring you the most up-to-date information, attractions or prices mentioned in this article may vary by season and are subject to change. Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any mentioned business, and have not been reviewed or endorsed these entities. Contact us at [email protected] for questions or comments.

Things to do

Previous

Is Gatlinburg tacky? An honest analysis from a local

Best rides at Dollywood: Top 10 rides in the park ranked

Next

9 thoughts on “Bears in Gatlinburg: 7 best places and tips to see a bear”

  1. Cades Cove early in the morning definitely prime time for bear sighting as you stated. My kids and I were lucky to sit and watch a momma and her 3 cubs for over an hour one morning while visiting in summer 2021. We were also pleasantly surprised to find a momma and older cub strutting their stuff through downtown Gatlinburg and checking out a few shops amid the hustle and bustle midday. It kind of just happens when you least expect it. We love the Great Smokey Mountains and cannot wait to go back. It’s our “heaven on earth”.

  2. Well folks. I have a great chalet off ski mountain Rd about gburg. Bear activity is a given. You are almost guaranteed to see sa bear or a mama and cubs at least once per day, if not more. No joke.
    As much as we love seeing them, they can also be a nuisance. Unless all trash and food items are totally secure, plan on a visit soon.
    Either way, you’ll get one.
    Most of my guests see them, unless they are not paying attention or are not home when the bears come calling .
    When we are there we always see them, like clockwork! I’m serious.

  3. We were just there and and had the pleasure of seeing, a few bear sighting at the national park in the cove. We actually seen alot I was so surprised to see so many. We were so excited.

  4. If you see a bear, pull off the road so you don’t cause a “bear jam” and back up traffic for miles. Do not approach the bear….keep the distance of at least 50 yards. Do not get between Mama and her cubs. Do not feed the bears.

    I’ve been photographing in the Smokies for 20 years. I’ve seen a lot of people do a lot of stupid things.

  5. My family and I stayed at the summit Vista lodge this past August 2021 and made the mistake of not locking down our trash on the first night and saw several bears after that .The children and adults was excited about seeing bears a very cool experience.

  6. We were at the Gatlinburg Welcome Center waiting to board the trolley for Gatlinburg and on the hillside 4 bears were seen. A hush came upon the crowd! It was a beautiful sight and a memory that I will always have the next time I’m waiting for the “purple” trolley.

  7. This will be my first trip to Gatlinburg. I’m excited to explore the hiking trails and rafting.

Leave a Comment