While you will not encounter lions or tigers in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP), the chances of seeing a black bear are actually quite high. In fact there are almost two bears per square mile of the park, making it one of the highest concentrations of black bears on the east coast. For many visitors in the park, the possibility of seeing a bear is exhilarating (though most people would prefer to see one from a distance).
As a long time hiker in the park, I have been fortunate to come across bears on numerous occasions. Luckily most of my encounters have been from some distance. My first reaction has been surprise followed by fear, and I have usually started singing Old Susanna at the top of my lungs and clapping my hands. (Making a lot of noise and waiting until the bears move along is one of the best ways to keep your self safe.)
When staying in your cabin in Gatlinburg and you decide to go looking for bears, your best bet is to head fro the park. If you are going on a bear hunt, or rather a mission to see a bear, I would advise you to head toward the magnificent mountain stream, Roaring Fork, one of the fastest moving mountain streams in the park. A drive along the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail accessed just off the main parkway in Gatlinburg, is the perfect way to experience this brilliant stream and possibly spot a bear. This picturesque motorway is a one-way 6 mile loop that winds through old-growth forest with a number of restored log-cabins and other historic buildings to view along the way.
Before you even start the drive, I would suggest a short hike on the Noah Bud Ogle self guided nature trail, located just before you enter the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. This brisk jaunt will take you through a real mountain farmstead and surrounding forest.
You are very likely to see bears as you drive through the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, but on several occasions I have also encountered bears at the Rainbow Falls trailhead and along the Rainbow Falls trail, which is located just beyond the Ogle homestead. In fact if you are up for a nice hike in the park, this trail is 5.4 miles round trip and offers spectacular views of one of the most popular waterfalls in the park, Rainbow Falls. Trust me, it is well worth the hike, and you might even spot a bear.
The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is known for its variety of splendid waterfalls. So while you are on the look-out for a bear, you might also like to hike the Grotto Falls. You can view these falls by hiking the Trillium Gap Trail through which actually runs behind this 25 foot waterfall, a 3 mile hike roundtrip. And don’t miss the wet weather waterfall at the end of the motorway known as Place of a Thousand Drips!
While many people who discover a bear may want to get closer for a picture, we have to remember that black bears are very different than cuddly teddy bears. They are wild animals with an instinct to protect their young. As warning signs posted around the park reiterate willfully approaching a bear within fifty yards is in fact illegal, as the park wants to protect people and maintain the delicate ecosystems of all wildlife in the park.
Should you be lucky enough to see a bear, here are few safety precautions you should remember:
1) If you see a bear, stay vigilant, but do not approach it.
2) Do not run, slowly back away.
3) If the bear does not move or attempts to approach you, talk loudly, sing, clap your hands, and make yourself look as large as possible.
4) If the bear continues to approach you, throw non-food objects at the bear, stand your ground, stare at it and don’t run.
5) Finally, remember do not feed the bears; this encourages other problems.
Hopefully, your Gatlinburg bear sighting will occur from the safety of your car, should you encounter one in the wild just follow my tactic, and sing Old Susanna. Remember bears are more scared of you than you are of them. While many people seek the thrill of sighting one in the wild, just follow the above safety precautions and have a happy bear viewing!
Elk Springs Resort
1088 Powdermill Rd.
Gatlinburg, TN 37738