Some of the sights of the Smokies are quite easy to see. The trees don’t move.
The mountains, though occasionally obscured by clouds or wispy mists, are always exactly where you expect them to be.
The wildlife? Well, that’s another kettle of fish altogether.
There’s no guarantee of seeing much more than a squirrel on your trip to the Smokies, but that doesn’t stop visitors from coming with certain expectations.
Bears are the most commonly sought after wildlife encounter, followed by elk and then deer and turkey.
First of all, we should take a moment to issue the following warning:
Wild animals can be unpredictable and dangerous. Do not approach them, feed them, offer access to human food or pet them. Leave them be.
We encourage visitors to the Smoky Mountains to exercise responsible stewardship and follow the principles of Leave No Trace.
Remember, in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it is illegal to be within 50 yards of wildlife, or within any distance that disturbs them.
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Where to view wildlife in the Smoky Mountains
With that out of the way, one of the most common questions visitors to the Smokies ask is, “Where can I see wild animals in the Smoky Mountains?”
It’s a bit like asking to pinpoint when a star will streak across the sky. But there are ways to maximize your opportunities.
One of the options to view wildlife in the Smokies is Cades Cove. It offers the best opportunities to see the animals in their natural habitat.
Animal sightings are less frequent over the summer during the middle of the day when the heat is high. During hot weather, the animals tend to bed down.
Bear sightings in the Cove are slightly more random. I’ve seen a black bear high up in a tree, and momma bears are often seen while shepherding their little ones across the Loop road.
One of the best ways to spot animals in the Cove is to people-watch. Whenever you see visitors pulling off to the side, it usually means an animal has been spotted.
Here are some of the common types of wildlife you will see in the Smoky Mountains:
According to the National Park Service (NPS), the Smokies is home to 67 native fish species.
The common species of fish you will find include trout, bass, sunfish, bluegill, crappie, minnow and more.
There are great fishing opportunities near Gatlinburg, but it can also be a challenge. Make sure you brush up on the current regulations.
You can see a full checklist of fish species on the NPS website.
8. Reptiles and amphibians
The park has 80 types of reptiles and amphibians.
The main categories of which include turtles, lizards and snakes.
Most folks will commonly focus on the snakes and which ones they should watch out for.
Fortunately, there are only two types of snakes in the area that are venomous, which are the Northern Copperhead and the Timber Rattlesnake.
And it’s unlikely that you would be bitten by one. Still, watch where you step if you’re hiking in the Smokies.
The foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains are a prime location to support a variety of bird populations.
The NPS says there are 240 species of birds in the park, with more species being added to the list.
Bird species include warblers, wild turkey, sparrows and wrens.
There are also birds of prey including owls and hawks. The number of birds and the diversity of species can change with the seasons.
6. Salamanders and frogs
Salamanders and frogs are the two main groups of amphibians in the Smoky Mountains. The salamanders are the most notable. In fact, the Smokies is known for being the salamander capital of the world.
This is why you also should not move rocks near streams, rivers or waterfalls. It may hurt the salamander population.
Species of salamanders include the green salamander, three-lined salamander and the famous Eastern Hellbender salamander.
Frog species include types like a bullfrog, wood frog and green frog. You can view a full list here.
5. Weasels and otters
There are about 65 species of mammals in the Smoky Mountains.
Of the mammals, we’ll start with the Mustelidae family, which contains the largest family within the Carnivora order.
In the Smokies, this includes the long-tailed weasel, minks, the Northern river otter and a couple of species of skunk.
4. Coyotes and foxes
Also part of the Carnivora order, we have the Canidae family.
In the Smokies, this includes coyotes, red foxes and gray foxes.
There were once red wolves and gray wolves, but efforts to reintroduce them were unsuccessful.
3. Big cats
In the Felidae family, you will find bobcats.
The NPS website lists mountain lion as “extirpated”.
Currently, there’s no proof of an active mountain lion population in the Smokies, but this is a hot topic among some folks. Start asking locals on whether or not there are mountain lions in the area.
You will get varied responses.
2. Deer and elk
Here, we start getting into animals that people want to view. Deer are in wide abundance in the Smokies.
Watch the tree lines early in the morning or later in the evening, but deer are seen throughout the day as well.
One of the best places to see white-tailed deer are open areas like Cataloochee, a wide valley on the North Carolina side of the mountains.
The valley features spectacular views and several historic buildings that include a pair of churches, a school and a handful of homes. It’s North Carolina’s answer to Cades Cove.
Elk, on the other hand, were reintroduced to the park 20 years ago. Elk are now frequently seen in the park.
You’ll have a much better chance of seeing elk on the North Carolina side of the Smokies. The Cataloochee area is spot where they were reintroduced to the Smokies.
Also be sure to check out the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, located on U.S. 441 on the North Carolina side of the Smokies. The visitor center offers local history, a nice place to stretch your legs after crossing the mountains and a great chance to see elk.
1. Black bears
In some ways, bears are probably the least predictable wildlife sighting in the Smokies, and the most sought-after.
In the spring, the yearlings will stretch their legs to find their place in the world – preferably one with a lot of food.
That can lead to sightings in inauspicious places – occasionally even the streets of Gatlinburg or the back alleys of communities across East Tennessee.
The less fruitful the season in the mountains, the more likely you are to see bears at lower elevations. They are hungry. One of the best places to spot a bear is along the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.
Motorists on the nature trail, located just inside the park above Gatlinburg, are encouraged to go slow, soak in the sights and view the wildlife.
Another good place to explore is the Newfound Gap Road. Accessible either from Cherokee, North Carolina or Gatlinburg, via U.S. 441, The Newfound Gap Road isn’t far from Clingman’s Dome, the state line and is crossed by the Appalachian Trail.
The gap is the lowest drivable pass through the park and the Newfound Gap Road climbs dramatically to within a half mile of Clingmans Dome, the highest peak in the Smokies.
To see a full list of mammals, check out the NPS website.
How to guarantee a wildlife viewing
Almost every post promising wildlife in the Smokies offers a cheeky reference to some commercial business that might have a couple of bears for public viewing. I dislike those places.
While not ideal, Zoo Knoxville offers the black bears a more friendly enclosure with some room to run and play.
There have been significant expansions and improvements to Zoo Knoxville and it remains one of the best places in the world to see Red Pandas, which makes the trip from Pigeon Forge to Knoxville well worth it.
You will see a bear and a lot more.
What type of wildlife have you seen in the Smoky Mountains? Let us know in the comments!