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RESOURCE CENTER AND ARCHIVES

Unique fireflies lightshow draws tourists, locals to Great Smoky Mountains National Park annuallycomment (0)

May 10, 2012

By Linda Holloway


The Great Smoky Mountains National Park hosts about 7,000 tourists each June for what is now known as “The Lightshow.” For a few hours on a summer night, no one will think about a computer or cell phone because this show is one of the most mesmerizing silent natural wonders anywhere. The stars of the show — synchronous fireflies (Photinus carolinus) and they are always on cue. 

Synchronous fireflies are one of at least 19 species of fireflies that live in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. They are the only species in America that can synchronize their flashing light patterns individually. This phenomenon happens in early June for almost two weeks as a mating ritual. Only a few places on earth — Southeast Asia being one — can boast this species. The Elkmont area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the Western Hemisphere’s largest population of these fireflies.

Most admire the Great Smoky Mountains for the diverse activities available during the daylight hours, but those who have witnessed the firefly event will tell you when the last finger of light has disappeared, you are in for a treat. 

“Watching these thousands of fireflies start flashing — randomly at first but gradually becoming organized into waves or simultaneous on-off cycles is an amazing sight to see,” said Bob Miller, management assistant of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This species of firefly is not the same as most of us chased at dusk in Alabama. They wait until there is complete darkness to begin their ritual. “It’s hard to believe that these primitive little creatures have been imprinted with the information to display this coordination, and we can see this same display every year at about the same time.”

The rhythmic, bright displays are performed by the fireflies flashing on and off. They exhibit six seconds of darkness; then in perfect synchrony, thousands light up six rapid times in a three-second period before all going dark for six more seconds. 

Tourists as well as locals welcome the sight. 

Gina Davis, a special education teacher at Sevier County High School, Tennessee, attends the event each year. 

“My family tries to take in the fireflies at least one evening every year,” she said. “Ideally, we try to book a campsite at Elkmont, but those usually go very fast. It’s really a unique experience and hard to imagine, but seeing is believing. Everybody who has seen the fireflies becomes a believer.” 

Visitors usually bring lawn chairs or blankets to sit on the ground in the midst of throngs of fireflies. The experience offers magic to a new generation of night explorers in the Smoky Mountains. To protect the fireflies and their habitat, park officials ask guests to not catch them and to cover flashlights with red or blue cellophane. Because flashlights disrupt the fireflies, you should only use them when walking to your viewing spot. When the display ends, visitors come away with an environmental awareness to pass on to the next generation.

The popularity of the firefly event has increased significantly over the past several years, prompting Great Smoky Mountains National Park to put in place a new reservation system. Previously visitors rode the mandatory shuttle system from the Sugarlands Visitor Center parking area to Elkmont to view the fireflies on a first-come basis. The shuttle service is the sole transportation mode for visitor access during this period, except for registered campers staying at the Elkmont Campground. For this year’s viewing event, which runs June 2–10, a new online ticketing system will provide visitors with parking passes to park at the Visitor Center, but without the inconvenience of having to arrive hours in advance. The passes have sold out for 2012, except for 25 passes per day to accommodate individuals who did not learn of the new pre-purchase tickets. Those last 25 passes will go on sale online at 10 a.m. the day before the event and will be available until 3:30 p.m. on the day of the event. The shuttle trolleys, which are provided in partnership with the City of Gatlinburg, will begin picking up passengers from the Visitor Center parking area at 7 p.m. If you miss the show this year, try again next April when the passes will be available for June 2013. 

Be sure to check with Gatlinburg hotels for discounts for the event. 

Victor McLean, owner of The Lodge at Buckberry Creek said, “We offer special packages for our guests with dinner options, and we provide a ‘private viewing’ of the fireflies. Children and adults also enjoy our after-viewing activities on our outside dining deck.” 

For information and parking passes, visit www.Recreation.gov or call 1-877-444-6777.

For area tourist information, visit www.gatlinburg.com or call 1-800-588-1817.

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