A Guide to Synchronous Fireflies in the Great Smoky Mountains [2023]

synchronous fireflies in elkmont at the smoky mountains national park

Thousands of visitors gather near the Elkmont Campground to observe the naturally occurring phenomenon of synchronous fireflies (media photo by Radim Schreiber/NPS)

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You may have heard about the synchronous fireflies in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. But did you know that each year, the National Park Service (NPS) holds a lottery for guests to be able to view the special event in TN?

For 2023, the lottery for vehicle passes will open on April 28 and close on May 1, 2023.

For the event, the public may apply for the limited viewing opportunity for a vehicle pass through www.recreation.gov.


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What are synchronous fireflies?

Photinus carolinus is a firefly species that flashes synchronously. Fireflies are sometimes referred to as lightning bugs, but they are actually beetles.

Much of their lifespan is spent in the larval stage, where they feed on snails or smaller insects in the leaves of the forest floor. When they become adults, they only live for about 3-4 weeks.

This species synchronizes its flashing patterns. Notably, only a couple of species in North America do this.

According to the NPS, scientists believe that the males flash so the females can respond to “one of her kind”.

The result is a fascinating nature light show.

Read Also: When Do Lightning Bugs Come Out? How Long Do They Stay Out? [With Map]

Why do fireflies flash in sync?

Basically, the light pattern of the fireflies is part of a mating ritual.

Each species of firefly has its own characteristic flash pattern and color hue that helps males and females recognize each other.

The male fireflies fly and flash to attract the normally stationary females, which respond with their own flash.

Read Also: Lightning Bug vs Firefly: Is There a Difference?

a firefly on a blade of grass
A firefly rests on a blade of grass (photo by anko70/shutterstock.com)

What is the synchronous firefly event?

Every year, from late May to early June, thousands of visitors gather near the Elkmont Campground to observe these unique fireflies.

Park officials limit access to reduce traffic congestion.

This provides a safe viewing experience of the phenomenon for visitors that minimizes disturbance to the fireflies during the peak mating period. 

These fireflies take one to two years to mature from larvae and live as adults for only 21 days.

How does the lottery process work?

A total of 800 vehicle passes (100 passes per night) will be issued through the lottery process for this event. 

Each pass provides admission for the parking area at Elkmont for one passenger vehicle with a maximum of seven occupants.

Lottery applicants may enter two possible dates to participate in the viewing opportunity. 

The number of passes issued each day is based on parking capacity and the ability to safely accommodate a large number of viewers.

Synchronized Fireflies in Elkmont
The synchronized fireflies in Elkmont in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (photo by Alisha Bube/shutterstock.com)

How much does the synchronous firefly event cost?

The lottery system uses a randomized computer drawing to select applicants. A $1 application fee applies.

Successful applicants will receive parking passes. A $24 reservation fee will be charged to the same credit or debit card used for the application fee. 

The $24 fee covers the cost of awarding the passes. For example, this includes on-site portable restrooms, supplies and nightly personnel costs for managing the viewing event. 

Parking passes are non-refundable and non-transferable. And also, passes are only valid for the date issued.

There is a limit of one lottery application per household per season. Lottery winners will be notified by e-mail.

fireflies in a forest
Vehicles are limited during the synchronous firefly event to safely accommodate a large number of viewers (photo by tagu/shutterstock.com)

How do you see synchronous fireflies in the Smoky Mountains?

To apply, go to www.recreation.gov when the lottery opens.

It’s important to note that there are no refunds, transfers or rain checks for the parking pass.

Lottery winners must occupy the vehicle and must present a photo identification that matches the name of the lottery winner.

What you should know when you get there

The park entrance road will close to all incoming vehicle traffic at 4 pm. All parking lots, front country trails and park facilities will also close at 4 pm.

Vehicles cannot park in the parking spaces at Little River Trailhead. Instead, follow directions to the assigned parking spots.

Visitors are highly encouraged to bring their own low-powered red lighting and stay on designated trails or paved surfaces at all times. 

To protect the natural firefly habitat, do not catch the fireflies and pack out all of your garbage or items that you bring with you.

A limited number of ADA parking spots will be available on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Alcoholic beverages and pets are prohibited.

Where can I see synchronous fireflies 2023?

If you do not win the viewing lottery, you can try to visit Elkmont in the days before or after the official event.

You can also try to camp around Cades Cove. But remember, the main road closes at sunset. The Cataloochee area is also known to host synchronous fireflies.

But of course, your best chance of guaranteed viewing is by applying for the lottery.

Have you ever attended this event? Have you seen synchronous fireflies elsewhere in the park? Let us know in the comments!


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Morgan Overholt

Morgan is the founder Morgan Media LLC, a graphic design agency and the co-founder of TheSmokies.com LLC – a media company that specializes in regional travel sites.

1 thought on “A Guide to Synchronous Fireflies in the Great Smoky Mountains [2023]”

  1. In east Tennessee, they were never called fireflies. They are lightning bugs. Anyone who says differently is not from here!

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