What’s the No. 1 question of visitors for 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.
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:
1. Pay for it (Go to Zoo Knoxville)
I know of only one way to guarantee you’ll see a bear on vacation: 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.
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.
3. Seek out the open areas
Cades 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.
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.
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.
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.
7. Don’t be an arse
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 will prove deadly for bears, and bears that haven’t been acclimated to humans can prove deadly for humans.
Give bears their proper space. Respect nature. Respect wildlife. Have a good time and don’t be stupid.
Would you add any tips to the list? Let us know in the comments.