Synchronous Fireflies | Elkmont Campground, Little River Trail


“We felt for the most part of the night at the Little River Trail that nature is having its own airport runway lights moment with the fireflies. On and Off they went along the trail and inside the bushes, carrying the synchronous blinks flashing in unison. Male fireflies are typically in flight while searching for females and males time their flashes to attract females which is interesting. It was magical and profound for us!"

                                     Elkmont Synchronous Fireflies, Photo by Ryan Atkins (Flickr)

Synchronous Fireflies are a phenomenon - a rare species in the world known to synchronize their flashing light patterns. They are found in The Great Smoky Mountains National Park at the Little River Trail. We were fortunate to be staying at Elkmont Campground as the Little River Trail starts from the entrance of the campground on the right.”.

This is the most I could get from cellphone camera. The real Synchronous Firefly activity was a steal. It is something to be seen and felt than captured.  100's of fireflies surrounded us (as seen in the first picture in the post from Flickr)

So many of you might already know, that Synchronous fireflies (Photinus carolinus) are the only species in America where individual fireflies can synchronize their flashing light patterns. Every year to limit the number of people watching this phenomenon at its peak, the National Park Service runs a lottery for a day for a viewing period of 1-2 weeks. This year that window was from May 30th - June 6th.

As we asked one of the rangers, he said, “Well the fireflies do not know the date, a day or two after or before also would give the optimum peak view and the best part was, we did not have to enter a lottery for that! He also said, the latest you go after the date, the better viewing it will be as they recede with time.

We got lucky with Elkmont Campground

We had booked our reservation for June 8th online, as luckily, we found sites along the river which were empty. But we had kept our plans open for June 7th aiming at taking a risk. And that worked. Even though the board on the outside said, that the camp is full, the ranger at the campground was more than happy to assist us into giving a site. And we were thrilled! Why wouldn’t we be?

In the whole park, Sugarlands Visitor Center has wifi and network.
This is also the place where rangers assist us with information. We also saw many books on
Synchronous Fireflies at the store with the Visitor Center during the time of our visit. 

             Also, do not forget to check out these colorful butterflies just outside the visitor center. 

We assumed that may be with the rain predictions there might have been cancellations. Or may be First Come First Serve campsites did not get all full and they had probably forgotten to change last night’s status. Whatever the case may be, the luck was on our side. Just as a side note on this, “The WIFI’s or the networks barely runs in the Smokies. However, Sugarland Visitor Center has WIFI.”

Both the sights at Elkmont Campground was great. It was by the river. We could hear the stream flow all through the night. It was very soothing. We also did get to relax by the river and walk on the peddles next to the river in our spare time. There is a small grocery store where we get some very basic essentials and log wood. There are also basic restrooms in the campgrounds.

                          If you haven't camped in the US, you are missing a lot.

                          The Spider that Camouflages . This one is changing himself to Orange.

 We did not needed logwood as it was raining all day! There are mosquitos in the area, not much, but still an insect repellent would be a great boon.

                                                          The river by our campsite.

One of the greatest advantages of staying here is, since the Synchronous Fireflies happens at night, it’s easier to just walk on the trail from the campground. A lot of people don’t even drive their cars to the trailhead parking they simply walk from their site to the trail. It’s a little uphill, but anyone would be able to do it.

Elkmont also shares a strategic position owning its proximity to Sugarland visitor center, Gatlinburg and Little River Trail.

A lot of people stay in Gatlinburg and drive down to Elkmont. For us, due to the weekend Traffic Gatlinburg had, we did not even have our lunch at Gatlinburg because it took us through 3 rounds of driving and even then, we could not get a free parking at Gatlinburg. So, we ended up cooking rice and beans  / noodles in the campsite. If you would love to explore Gatlinburg, do check out my previous post on it.

Synchronous Fireflies Experience

You will always see one or few fireflies next to your site in the dark at the Elkmont Campground. But for some reason, they aren’t synchronous- just a regular firefly doing their thing. And it makes me wonder, why this disparity. Because the campsites aren’t that far from the little river trail either. May be the little river trail is their breeding ground.

Anyhow , to view synchronous fireflies, I would suggest going to the Little River Trail just right from the entrance of Elkmont and parking your car at the trailhead parking lot during the evening hours before it gets dark. The earlier the better. The reason for that is, unlike in the dark, you can walk the entire trail during the evenings in the natural light. We could not do the entire trail because we gotten there late (by 8pm ish) but we did get to hike more than if we were completely in the dark.

                                    Remnants of the Elkmont Historic District on the trail.
                                            River with cascades on trail. 
Hiking during the evening also gives you an idea of the place. There is a river with cascades next to the trail, so one can’t venture much in the dark adrift from the trail, except a few steps into the bushes unless one is aware (Being on the right of the trail gives you more scope into the bushes as there aren’t river on the right ; but being on the left the river is always on your side just a few bushes away). The river sides are not covered, so it’s pretty much open with some trees. Please refrain from going too near to the river specially when walking in complete night darkness, because the river has cascades. I could hear and see the flowing water.

Now you get the idea. That paved road is trail. The river is on the left side.

The first part of the trail will take you past a remnant of old buildings from the historic Appalachian Club. A regular tourist to the park showed to us the pictures from her trip years back when they were intact, and they seem to be beautiful homes with front door on the side of river.

They also give you red cellophane paper at the entry point to cover your headlamps or lamps so that the bright light from them are muted. It’s very annoying to flash the bright light otherwise. Because everyone’s hooked on viewing fireflies.

Many people actually do come with their camping chairs and settle it on the side of the trail. You really don’t have to walk much into the trail to see the fireflies. Just a few feet and they are all over! Photographing the fireflies is not very easy. You need to have a tripod and camera on manual settings. We just carried our phones as it was slightly drizzling when we had gone in the trail.

One thing to keep in mind is though, even if it’s 9 o’ clock and it’s bright, the fireflies would be less visible. We got to see fireflies on both days starting from 9:20pm till as long we stayed because it was pitch dark with some natural light of the night sky. But the time they come, and shine depends on weather and the natural light and as long as natural light is bright enough, it’s not that great.

The lesser the light, the more visible they would be. And oh boy! When they blink in total darkness, there’s magic all around. We spotted synchronous fireflies on both days Jun 7th and June 8th however, on June 8th, there were fewer fireflies than 7th. Possibly because it was drizzling or possibly because as the ranger said their numbers recede with time.

All in all, a once in a lifetime experience.

We have also heard from our Google search and Youtube search that Elkmont is a Ghost town with abandoned homes located in the Great Smoky National Park. We did not do any haunted tour nor did we spot any sightings. Those abandoned homes are getting demolished one by one. We do not know how many of them still remain. Go figure!

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