Living Responsibly with Black Bears Around Great Smoky Mountains National Park

GATLINBURG, TN – Officially, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is home to about 1,600 wild black bears and counting. Some estimates report the total may be twice that number. Many tourists frequently express that seeing a black bear, up close, and in their natural environment, is one of the highlights of their visit to the park.

Indeed, having seen a mother bear and her cubs in Cades Cove myself, I can attest to the fact that it is quite exhilarating to see. However, black bears are wild animals. Black bears are wild animals. Black bears are wild animals. Yes, I said that three times, because it just doesn’t seem to sink in with many people.

During an outing with my wife to Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail near Gatlinburg, we came across a couple returning from a hike. They were loudly exclaiming that a bear and her cubs were just up the trail. A nearby young woman and her friend heard the warning and started running toward the bears. We attempted to tell them it wasn’t a good idea, but they were gone in a flash.

The law demands that humans stay at least 50 yards from black bears in the park. The reason? It is dangerous! Especially when a mother bear is protecting her cubs.

We have seen people get uncomfortably close to bears. The videos some people post to social media reveal a serious lack of judgment. Trying to take a selfie with a black bear is never a good idea and feeding bears will only get them killed.

Related: What to Do If You Encounter a Black Bear

The National Park Service reports that in 2019 more than 12.5 million guests visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Those numbers are superb from an economic perspective, and the residents of the gateway cities are thrilled to have vacationers enjoying our attractions, entertainment venues, restaurants, and outdoor activities.

We need everyone to be safe and that means vacationing with wisdom. The BearWise Task Force is a non-profit organization attempting to educate the public about black bears and how we can co-exist safely.

Confrontations with black bears are increasingly a problem, mostly due to poor decisions people make by storing food in their cars, not using bear proof trash cans, and leaving food out where bears can get to it.

Learn more about bear safety and how you can contribute to a safe environment in the Smokies for everyone.

Related: Three Big Reasons You Should Not Feed Bears