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A Day Away: Watching Fireflies

By Mike Steely

If you are lucky enough to get tickets to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park’s June  Synchronous Fireflies event you may find several surprises. Like most things in the Great Smoky Mountains the waiting lines are long, the expectations high, but the price is right. If you can get tickets!

My wife and I were lucky and called the park early. We drove over to the Sugarland Visitors Center on time, ate some sandwiches in the car, grabbed our flashlights, a blanket, and our cameras. We might as well left the cameras in the car and I’ll explain why later.

We walked up to where the trolleys were parked to find a line of visitors stretching from one end of boarding area to the other and even more people still arriving.

The boarding was from about 7 p.m. until 8:30 and we got on the fifth trolley. The ride was brief and noisy as the children on the bus were excited and the adults were also. We rode east toward Townsend and then up to the old Elkmont logging town. There the trolley stopped and the rangers were waiting with information, a sheet about the fireflies (or lightning bugs if you prefer) and the crowd began walking up the trail. The staff hands out red plastic to cover your flashlights so you won’t disturb the fireflies.

We had expected a large field where everyone would assemble and watch the lighting show but the show was going to take place along the path. Visitors sat up chairs or blankets here and there, most facing the forest, and waited.

Volunteers and rangers walked the long trail, talking with visitors who were impatient for the little creatures to start their show, and explaining that at about 9:30 sharp the display would begin. And so it did.

First one then two, than a burst of flickering tail lights from the insects. The hundreds, if not thousands, of little lights than began flashing for about five seconds then went dark. About five seconds later the lights began again. The display continued for a couple of hours or more, five seconds on and five seconds off, with the fireflies forming a flashing blanket up and down the path.

When it got totally dark the display was even more visible, in the forest and along the trail. Those fireflies along the trail were in the air and on the plants on both sides, so you could walk down the lighted pathway like a runway. It’s much like a fireworks display without the explosive noise and smoke.

If you plan to take photos no flash is allowed and hopefully you have a camera with a time exposure. Use a tripod and open the lens for about 5 seconds. My wife and I did not, so the best photos we got were of the visitors waiting for the show.

The male firefly flashes when flying, the female while stationary and in response. During their brief 21-day life the insect does not eat, only mates. The female then goes back into the ground, lays her eggs, and dies. The synchronous fireflies are the only species in America that have that flashing pattern.

The event only takes place in early June at the park and it’s hard to get tickets. You can go online when the event is announced and try to get tickets. The only cost is $1 per person for the trolley ride. If you get to the viewing area before dark you’ll notice the shuttle passes by the Elkmont campground and several of the campers there simply walked up to the event. Camping there might be the best way to make sure you see the firefly event, if you can get reservations.

Walking the trail after dark you’ll probably need your red-covered flashlight because there were people standing, setting and lying along the path and it’s easy to bump into them or step on them. The path is literally lined with people in the darkness more interested in the light show than who’s walking by them.

By the time you read this the firefly show will be over but you can check it out at www.smokiesinformation.org.

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