4 Tips for Seeing Smoky Mountain Black Bears in the Wild

Smoky Mountain black bears in a tree.
September 21, 2016

If any animal is the official mascot for Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains, it’s definitely the black bear. With between 1,500 and 1,600 black bears in the national park, there are roughly two bears per square mile in the Smokies. Many visitors come to the area so they can see these majestic creatures from a distance. To help you safely view Smoky Mountain black bears in the wild, Gatlinburg Cabin Rentals has put together the following tips:

1. Late Spring and Early Fall are the Best Seasons to See Bears

You can put away your binoculars in the winter, because you won’t see any black bears during this time. When the weather gets chilly, black bears hibernate inside of tree cavities. Bears will search for a hollow area in a tree that is about 20 to 60 feet off the ground and snuggle up inside until spring arrives.

Aside from winter, black bears are out and about for the rest of the year. Late spring and early fall are your best chances for spotting a bear. In preparation for hibernation, bears are particularly busy during the autumn. To build up fat for the winter, bears gorge themselves on hickory nuts, walnuts, and acorns, often eating hundreds of theses foods in a single day!

(See Also: 4 Fun Things to Do in the Smoky Mountains in the Fall)

If you're interested in seeing young bear cubs, keep your eyes peeled in May and June. This is when mama bears bring the cubs who were born in the winter out of the den for the first time.

2. Bears are Active in the Morning and Late Afternoon

A black bear walking through the forest in the Smoky Mountains.

The best times for viewing Smoky Mountain black bears is in the morning ( 6 – 10 a.m.) or late afternoon ( 3 – 7 p.m.), since this is typically when the bears come out to eat. These times are especially attractive to bears in the spring and summer, because mornings and afternoons are cooler and quieter.

3. Visit Cades Cove or the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail

Cades Cove is one of the very best spots for wildlife viewing in the Smokies. Unlike the rest of the national park, which is densely forested, Cades Cove is a valley with plenty of meadows and wide open spaces. This makes it easy to spot animals like deer, turkey, and, of course, black bears.

If a bear is spotted in Cades Cove, you’ll probably know it, as traffic usually comes to a standstill. It’s not uncommon for people to get out of their cars and watch a bear in the woods that is visible from the road. Of course, if a park ranger tells you to keep driving, be sure to listen.

The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is another popular spot for black bear viewing. Like Cades Cove, travelers on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail have the advantage of seeing the sights right from their car. Bears can sometimes be seen crossing the road to enjoy the area’s abundant nuts, acorns, and berries.

4. Follow Proper Safety Precautions

If you see a bear in the national park, be sure to follow all of the necessary safety precautions:

  • Stay at least 150 feet away from Smoky Mountain black bears and don’t approach them. Binoculars and telephoto lenses are great for watching bears from a distance. If a bear changes its behavior because of your presence, you are too close.

  • Do not feed bears or leave food behind in the national park. It is important that bears remain wary of humans, but if a bear becomes accustomed to receiving food from national park visitors, they can become dangerous.

  • In the unlikely event that a bear approaches you, change your direction. If the bear continues to follow you, intimidate the bear with shouting and loud noises. Making yourself as big as possible (by moving to higher ground, for instance) and throwing non-food objects (like rocks) will also help scare the bear away. It is important to not run from or turn away from the bear.

A black bear next to a stream.

When you stay with Gatlinburg Cabin Rentals, you will be just a short drive from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. With everything from 1 bedroom cabins to 6 bedroom cabins, we are sure to have the perfect property for your getaway. To start planning your vacation, check out our selection of Smoky Mountain cabin rentals!