One of the greatest experiences one can have while visiting the Great Smoky Mountains is being able to spot a few Smoky Mountains black bears in their natural habitat.
Black bears are one of the largest species of animals found in the Smokies, right behind the recently reintroduced elk, and are truly a phenomenal sight to see when you catch a glimpse. During my six days in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I was lucky enough to see three black bears: two that were fully grown and one baby black bear scrounging for berries.
The first smoky mountain black bear I saw was while hiking the Little Cataloochee Trail, the second was on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail after hiking Grotto Falls and the third was while taking a scenic drive on the Newfound Gap Road.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is home to more than 1,500 black bears. Given that the Smokies take up more than 522,000 acres and there are 640 acres in a square mile, that means there are roughly two black bears for every square mile of the park. That also makes the Great Smoky Mountains the largest protected bear habitat east of the Mississippi.
While your chances of spotting a black bear in the Smokies are good, remember that they are wild animals and they have attacked humans. Always stay at least 50 yards away from black bears, never approach or feed them and always remain watchful.
1. Roaring Fork Motor Trail
The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is a drivable auto trail that sits on the outskirts of Gatlinburg. It’s also the absolute best spot to view black bears in the Smokies. Roaring Fork is an 8-mile one-way road that makes a loop, so it’ll take a solid 45 minutes to an hour to complete the drive since many people go less than 5 miles per hour.
I’d highly recommend sticking to the less-than-5-mph guidelines because you never know when a black bear will show its face. This was the most up close and personal I got with a black bear — and probably the closest I wanted to be.
After hiking Grotto Falls Trail and stepping off the trailhead, I began walking back to my car on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. Seeing a traffic jam of cars lined up in the middle of the street, I knew everyone had struck the metaphorical jackpot and had seen a bear.
So I walked closer to my car, asked a kind driver where the bear was and they replied, “it’s right behind you.”
To say the least, this startled me to no end. I turned around and, sure enough, the black bear had gone around the cars to my left and re-entered the road about 20 yards behind me. I wanted to snap a photo, but I sort’ve panicked. It was the first black bear I had seen in my life up close and personal and no amount of research could’ve prepared me for that moment.
I snapped a photo with my DSLR camera, but it was still set to custom settings from the recent waterfall photos. So I took out my phone (the bear was walking in the opposite direction, not paying attention to me, and had gotten about 50 yards away at this point) and took a terrible iPhone photo. Oh well. Even though I don’t have a great photo, I’ll certainly never forget that moment.
2. Newfound Gap Road
After driving the Newfound Gap Road’s 30 miles end to end and back again, I stumbled upon another traffic jam. It was Saturday afternoon, so I figured the jam was due to people stopping at lookout points and patiently waiting to hit the road again.
I was wrong. In fact, if you ever stumble upon a traffic jam in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, whip out your cameras and get ready. It’s probably a black bear causing the jam.
This time, it was a baby black bear foraging for berries on the side of the road. It was truly a sight to see but, again, my camera wasn’t ready and I couldn’t snap a good photo by the time I had spotted and passed the baby black bear.
But keep a lookout for black bears while driving the Newfound Gap Road because seeing a bear on your drive is a high probability.
Cataloochee is a great place to see Smoky Mountains black bears due to its extreme remoteness from the rest of the park and its lush nature that surrounds it. There’s also a wide-open area at the base of the remaining town called the Cataloochee Valley, which is the best spot to see elk and a decent spot to see black bear.
During my roughly two days in Cataloochee, I was lucky enough to see one black bear — or I was lucky enough that it saw me first.
I was about halfway through hiking the 10.2-mile Little Cataloochee Trail when I saw it scamper away on the mountain above me. I had stepped on a stick and cracked it, which startled the bear that was located about 50 yards above me. That was pretty scary because I was the only person hiking the trail
It took me about two hours to get to that point on the trail and the rest was even more remote. After seeing the bear scurry away, I weighed my hiking options, promptly turned around and hiked back to the car. Again, no picture because it saw me before I saw it and had scurried away before I had really realized what just happened.
4. Little River Road
The Little River Road is known for being one of the best scenic drives in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and one of the best black bear viewing spots in the Smokies. This 30-mile stretch of road runs from the Sugarlands to Cades Cove, spanning the Little River almost the entire way through an extremely remote part of the park.
Although I didn’t spot any bears during my end-to-end drive on the Little River Road, I also drove it in mid-afternoon. Since it’s at a lower elevation, the weather is much hotter during the day than places like Cataloochee and Newfound Gap Road.
5. Cades Cove
The last best place to see black bears in the Smokies may also be one of the best — if you go at the right time and the right time of year. Cades Cove is a valley outside the mountains, so summer temperatures regularly reach the mid-90s during the day. Since bears don’t like extreme heat and it gets hot there very quickly, you’ll need to head to the remote Cades Cove around 6 a.m. for a great chance to spot bears.
Cades Cove is known as one of the best black-bear viewing areas in the Smokies due to its verdant valley that’s home to blueberry and blackberry bushes and trees that produce acorns and walnuts — all of which are pivotal staples to the diets of black bears.
When Do Bears Come Out in the Smoky Mountains?
Black bear viewing in the Smoky Mountains is best done in non-extreme temperatures since bears don’t like extremely cold or hot weather. During the spring and summer, your best bet is to get out and view them first thing in the morning or early in the evening. In the winter and fall, since Smoky Mountain black bears don’t actually hibernate, set out in the late afternoon after the sun has heated up the atmosphere.