Now’s Your Chance To See the Synchronous Fireflies in the Smoky Mountains

fireflies in the night sky

Synchronous Firefles is an exclusive event in the Smoky Mountains (original photo by Iris Huang/istockphoto.com)

Each year, thousands of people compete for the chance to attend this limited-capacity light show in the Smoky Mountains

The hardest ticket to obtain in the Smokies isn’t to Dollywood’s new drone show. It’s not dinner theater on the strip. Certainly, it’s not the lumberjack competition. It’s a ticket to a light show that only happens for a few weeks each summer. Welcome, my friends, to the Synchronous Fireflies Show in the GSMNP.

Each year a specific group of bioluminescent beetles – aka fireflies or lightning bugs – draw crowds to the Smokies to see the rare synchronous phenomenon. You can’t just show up and watch the display. You must enter a lottery for a vehicle pass through the National Park Service to earn your chance to see the rare phenomenon.

Synchronous fireflies in the smokies
While fireflies can be found throughout the continental United States, there are only a handful of places where they actually sync their lights as part of their mating ritual to create this unique effect (photo by Elgin Akin/shutterstock.com)

About the synchronous fireflies event

There are at least 19 species of fireflies in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Amongst them are a relatively rare species – synchronous fireflies, aka photinus carolinus. They are among only a couple in North America with synchronous flashing. They live near the Elkmont campground area but can roam a little further out. 

So, why do we care? Because this is one of those times when nature is cool. I know lightning bug butts lighting in unison can sound a little underwhelming. However, when it’s dark in the woods and there are thousands of lightning bug butts illuminating the forest in a series of 5 to 8 flashes, it’s surprisingly captivating. And also, because the Park Service has an interest in protecting the unique species, so not everybody can get in to watch the show. Exclusivity always drives up the interest.

Fireflies around glowing mushrooms
The annual synchronous firefly viewing light show event takes place in the summer in Elkmont within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee (photo by shaiith/stock.adobe.com)

When will it take place?

The mating season is two to three weeks in late May to late June but the process of getting tickets starts in late April. In 2024, the lottery opens for reservation applications on Friday, April 26 at 10 am and closes on Monday, April 29 at 11:59 pm. The event itself will be from June 3 through June 10, 2024.

The lightning bug lives most of its life – a year or two – in the larval stage feeding on the forest floor. Once they mature to adulthood, the end is nigh. Adult fireflies only live for three to four weeks. The flashing lights are – as we said – part of the mating ritual. Males flash. Females counter flash. Bing. Bang. Boom.

The National Park Service uses science to determine in advance when the mating season will be. Using temperature data and soil moisture, the Park Service tries to pin down when the mating season will be. As you can imagine, this is something of an inexact science. 

“The National Park also does not specifically mention keeping your Marvin Gaye playlist on mute, but maybe that’s just understood.”

– John Gullion, Contributor, TheSmokies.com
a firefly on a blade of dried grass
For a chance to see the fireflies, you must enter the lottery in April (photo by Jeremy_Hogan/iStockPhoto.com)

How to attend (if chosen)

Each year in April, the Park Service will announce that year’s dates and give guests a chance to enter the lottery for vehicle passes to see the show. The contest will be held on Recreation.gov’s Firefly Event page. Applicants are asked to pick two preferred dates. Because of the variability, the dates in the middle of the window are preferred. 

The lottery window closes in early May. In mid-May, applicants will be notified of the status of their application, one way or another. In 2024, the results of the lottery will be available no later than Monday, May 6. There is a cost of $1 to apply whether you win or lose. Successful applicants will automatically be charged $24 for the parking permit

If you win, the Park Service does offer some etiquette tips including covering your flashlight with red cellophane or using a red filter. If you go, use the flashlight only while walking to your spot and keep it pointed at the ground. Then, turn it off once you get to your spot. Also, please don’t catch the fireflies. That’s just rude. The National Park also does not specifically mention keeping your Marvin Gaye playlist on mute, but maybe that’s just understood.

The Smokies are full of rare and wonderful things. Amongst the wonders is a species of bioluminescent beetle that puts on a light show that rivals anything at Dollywood. Tickets – aka parking passes – are hard to get. But if you score, you’re likely to get a front-row seat to a unique piece of nature’s splendor.

Are you planning a trip to the Smoky Mountains? Be sure to check out our coupons page for area promos.

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