According to park rangers, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is now home to 1,600 black bears and counting. That’s a lot of bears! Even so, there is no guarantee you will see black bears during your visit.
With careful planning, however, you may be able to spot one of these amazing creatures; and from a safe distance.
Every year, thousands of vacationers see black bears in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, mostly on the Tennessee side.
According to numerous sources, the best place to see black bears is in Cades Cove, a few miles from Gatlinburg and Townsend, Tennessee.
Black bears love Cades Cove for its ecosystem and the abundance and variety of food sources. Wild berries like blueberries, blackberries, and huckleberries grow throughout the valley and are easily harvested by bears.
Eighty-five percent of a black bear’s diet consists of vegetation. They also eat fish, bugs, insects, bees, hornets, and many other small animals. Cades Cove is a virtual trove of these resources.
Black bears thrive in remote, highly wooded areas. Cades Cove fits the bill in every way. The semi-isolation, climate, food sources, density of oak and hickory trees, and a forest of rhododendron, all make black bears at home here.
Black bears find berries irresistible. They go wherever they have easy access to them. In Cades Cove, try looking alongside the Cades Cove Loop Road for berry bushes. When they are loaded with berries, you may see a bear eating.
The following video features a mama black bear and her four cubs crossing the road in Cades Cove in April 2017.
Video Courtesy of Catherine S. Blakespear (Used with Permission)
While Cades Cove may be the best place to see black bears, it is not the only place. You could see black bears walking across streets, in campgrounds, near streams, on hiking trails, or even in hotel parking lots.
Since they prefer remote areas, you are more likely to see them in the forest, but if they get hungry, they will go to more populated areas to look for food.
When is the best time to see black bears?
Black bears are like most people in two particular ways, they don’t like extremely cold or extremely hot weather. Contrary to popular belief, bears in the Smoky Mountains do not hibernate in winter, although they do sleep for longer periods than in summer. Technically, it is a semi-hibernation.
Spring and summer provide the best opportunities to see black bears in the Smoky Mountains.
Early morning and late afternoon sightings are more likely, since that is when they forage for food. Black bears avoid activity during the heat of summer days, preferring to lounge in the shade or rest high up in a tree.
Bears are great climbers and often hang out in trees. Hikers regularly see black bears on early morning hikes or before the sun goes down in the evening.
Winter in the Smokies is not one long cold period, but many short cold snaps. During winter warming periods, bears will wake and wander around a bit before returning to their den to sleep again.
While you are less likely to see black bears in winter, it is not impossible. Be careful when hiking in winter and do not go looking for sleeping bears!
RELATED: What to Do If You Encounter a Black Bear
If you want to see black bears up close in the Smoky Mountains, the best way to do it is through binoculars, a spotting scope, or a telephoto lens. As cute and cuddly as stuffed bears are in gift shops, keep in mind that black bears are wild animals and can be very dangerous when they feel threatened. They need and want their space!
When you see a wild black bear on your vacation, it is the icing on the cake. Just remember to leave the cake in the cabin, and NEVER, EVER FEED A BEAR.
IMPORTANT: It is illegal to approach a bear, disturb a bear, or feed a bear. This is a serious offense. Federal law states that a person knowingly doing any of these things is subject to a $5,000 fine and up to six months in jail. Park rangers have the authority to issue citations to anyone suspected of breaking the law.
(Updated on 24 April 2017; video added)