The Smoky Mountains aren’t a place for quiet, intimate, or prolonged wildlife encounters. It’s a place for the masses to get a glimpse of the wild that could change their life. And that’s just as important.
My go-to methods for finding local wildlife consist of driving back roads at dawn and dusk and hiking low-trafficked trails. As America’s most-visited National Park, with over twelve million visitors last year, Great Smoky Mountains National Park doesn’t have either of these things. Its location puts it within a day’s drive of two-thirds of the US population. And it’s free. Add in the pandemic get-back-to-nature travel while staying close to home, and it can be a circus.
Cades Cove’s eleven-mile wildlife loop is a top destination in the park boasting black bears, deer, turkeys, and more on this picturesque drive. I braved the loop three times during my weeklong visit but didn’t see any bears.
The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is another hot spot for fall bear activity. An early morning drive landed us in a mile-long bear jam. Traffic is alternatively stopped and crawling as black bears worked their way along the wooded roadside in and out of the understory and up and down the trees feasting on nuts and berries. There are no pull-outs on this narrow road. When people see a bear, all traffic stops. It’s a weird juxtaposition of urban congestion and wild experience.
The Smoky Mountains provide an excellent, easy opportunity (no hiking, camping, or guide fees required) to see wild bears. For many people, this is their only opportunity to connect with an apex predator. It is a necessary experience for the health of humans, wildlife, and the planet we share. For me, it’s lacking in the intimacy that deepens my connection. Rob, who is more averse to crowds, doesn’t even want to stop here.
The Foothills Parkway is a newer fifty-mile winding, two-lane road snaking from Great Smoky Mountains National Park along the Smokies ridgeline west to the Cumberland Mountains. It leaves the park from Townsend, Tennessee, “the peaceful side,” part of the reason it’s underused. Views of the valley and distant peaks speckled with fall color are stunning.
On our first drive along this route, I spotted a small black bear on a tree branch almost over the road. We parked a hundred yards up the road and got out to watch him. Two cars stopped briefly, and then we were alone with him. Fifteen hundred bears and a million people, and it’s just the three of us. As one of the cars left, the passenger rolled down her window to remark to me, “I wonder where its mother is.” She was gently cautioning me that it wasn’t safe to be on foot with a bear cub up a tree and its mom likely nearby and unseen. This perception is symptomatic of the general misconceptions about wildlife that our culture promotes.
Black bears aren’t any more dangerous than people (far less so, I’d argue). They are labeled as vicious killers. Some are dangerous. But so are some people. We don’t label our entire species as evil and live in fear of aggressive encounters at every meeting. Likewise, if we respect wildlife (bears included) and give them the space they need, we will return from the experience enriched.
Back to the bear “cub.” Black bears are small. In promoting the curated image of a fierce creature, the media will show you a massive black bear which is why the concerned woman thought this was a cub. This bear’s mom is long gone. He is a young adult who will get bigger, but not a cub. The first time I saw a wild black bear, I had the same thought about the crazy people on the side of the road with an angry momma bear unaccounted for. As long as this bear is up in the trees continuing to forage, then we’re okay. He’s not concerned. I’m not concerned.
We watched him move through the branches with the ease of a monkey cleaning limb after limb of berries.When he started down the trunk, I retreated. We’d both need more space to be relaxed together on the ground. He jumped to another tree and ran back up to the next clump of berries. We left him to his winter preparations and moved on.
I’m thrilled that I got a cherished, personal encounter with a black bear in this busy place. I hope that everyone here who sees a bear comes away with a new appreciation and respect for the creatures we share our planet with.
If you’re interested in purchasing or licensing any of the images you see here, please email me: SNewenham at exploringnaturephotos.com and I’ll make it happen.
Subscribe here to receive an email whenever a new blog posts.