From the top of the Gatlinburg Space Needle, you can see everything from majestic mountain views to tourists in fanny packs. On a lucky day, you can spot local wildlife, including black bears, from our SeeCoast ViewFinders. But for a more intimate, up-close view of these often elusive creatures, you will have to take a drive, and maybe even a hike, through the Great Smoky Mountains.
Bears are most active in the warm, summer months, as they hibernate during the winter. Since approaching a hibernating bear is definitely a bad idea, plan your bear hunt between late April and early October. Here are the best places to look:
The Little River in the Elkmont area is a popular watering hole for black bears, especially near dusk. As you walk along the river, be sure to look up in the trees. Sometimes bears can be seen overhead.
By far, the most bear sightings in the Smokies occur in Cades Cove. The open valley areas are home to a diverse population of wildlife, from deer to turkeys, which makes the bears feel right at home. Many sighting occur along the roadways, so leaving your car is not always necessary for a good look at a bear. The Cades Cove Loop Road has multiple pull-offs, providing plenty of opportunities to photograph a bear. A camera with a telephoto zoom lens is necessary for the best shots.
If you decide during your vacation to make the hour-long trip to Cherokee, North Carolina, look for bears as you descend the mountain into the Ocanaluftee area. Open spaces are often good places for bear sightings, but keep on the lookout for Elk, too. Rangers often stop on the side of the road in Ocanaluftee to protect sighted wildlife from overly eager tourists.
A Note About Safety
While we do not see a great number of bear attacks, safety must be your first priority when looking for bears. Never approach a bear, especially a cub, and never feed a bear. The National Park Service advises that if you do find yourself in a confrontation with a bear, make noise and extend your arms to make yourself look bigger. Of course, always stay on marked roadways and paths—in the case of an emergency, rangers will look for you in marked areas first.
Be sure to ask us about recent bear sightings when you visit the Gatlinburg Space Needle!