Where to See the Most Popular Animals in the Smoky Mountains

A black bear cub in a tree.

The Great Smoky Mountains are famous for their beautiful wildlife! Inside the borders of the national park, you can find some 240 types of birds, over 80 varieties of reptiles and amphibians, and around 65 species of mammals. Each year, millions of people visit the Smokies for the chance to catch a glimpse of their favorite critters. To help you make the most of your next vacation, Hearthside Cabin Rentals has put together a guided to seeing the most popular animals in the Smoky Mountains.

1. Black BearsA black bear walking through the forest

The black bear is far and away the most beloved animal in the Smokies. Gatlinburg’s official mascot is the black bear, and you will find a seemingly endless variety of cartoon bears adorning T-shirts, mugs, and other souvenirs. There are somewhere between 1,500 and 1,600 black bears in the national park, which works out to about two bears per square mile.

If you have your heart set on seeing a bear during your vacation, we recommend visiting Cades Cove. This gorgeous valley in the Smoky Mountains offers superb wildlife viewing because, unlike much of the park, it is not densely forested and features plenty of wide open spaces. As you drive along the loop road in Cades Cove, keep your eyes peeled for any black and furry movement in the trees. If someone else spots a bear, you’ll likely know it, because traffic usually comes to a standstill as folks get out of their cars to take pictures. For a location closer to downtown Gatlinburg, your best bet for a bear sighting is the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.

Aside from their hibernation in the winter months, bears are out and about for most of the year, with late spring and early fall being peak season for bear watching. The morning (6 – 10 a.m.) and the afternoon ( 3 – 7 p.m.) are when you’re most likely to spy a bear out looking for food.

When you’re in the national park, always stay at least 150 feet away from a bear (or any of the animals in the Smoky Mountains). Binoculars and telephoto lenses are ideal for watching bears from a distance. Never give a bear food or leave garbage behind in the national park. If a bear moves toward you, change your direction without turning your back to the bear/running away. In the unlikely event that a bear continues its approach, make loud noises and throw non-food objects if necessary.

Northern Saw-whet Owl perched on a branch.2. Birds

Bird watching or “birding” is a very popular activity in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. All you need is a good pair of binoculars and maybe a handy printout of the Birds of the Smoky Mountains Checklist. The types of birds you’ll find in the Smokies changes depending on where you are in the mountains. For the higher elevations, the Clingmans Dome area is a great spot for birding. Some of the species you may see around Clingmans Dome include:

  • Black-capped Chickadee
  • Dark-eyed Junco
  • Northern Saw-whet Owl
  • Canada Warbler
  • Common Raven
  • Brown Creeper
  • Winter Wren
  • Golden-crowned Kinglet
  • Red-breasted Nuthatch

The lower elevations of the mountains are also home to some gorgeous birds. Here are a few of the birds you can spot in Cades Cove:

  • Ruffed Grouse
  • Hooded Warbler
  • Yellow-throated Warbler
  • Pileated Woodpecker
  • Blue Grosbeak
  • Wild Turkey
  • Willow Flycatcher
  • Acadian Flycatcher
  • Orchard Oriole

3. ElkMale and female elk in the Smoky Mountains.

While elk are native to the Smoky Mountains, they were over-hunted to the point of local extinction in the mid-1800s. In 2001, the National Park Service reintroduced elk to the area with an initial group of 25 elk from the Tennessee-Kentucky border and another 27 elk from Alberta, Canada the following year. Today, there are over 200 elk in the Smokies!

If you want to see these beautiful animals in the Smoky Mountains, you’ll need to visit Cataloochee Valley on the North Carolina side of the park, which is just a short day trip from Gatlinburg. There is also a smaller herd that lives near the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. Elk can become aggressive during the mating season (September and October), so be sure to stay at least 150 feet away when you observe them.

A white-tailed deer fawn.4. Deer

White-tailed deer are plentiful throughout the Smoky Mountain area. Some of the best spots for seeing deer in the national park include Cades Cove and Cataloochee Valley. These gentle animals are most active in the morning and evening and are known to graze after rain showers.

Deer give birth in late June, so you’ll have the chance to see newborn fawn during the summer months. In August, the male deer (bucks) use their antlers to fight with one another for mating rights. The deer mate in November, and by the middle of winter, the bucks shed their antlers.

Where to Stay in the Smoky MountainsAmazing mountain views from the deck of one of our Smoky Mountain luxury cabins..

When you stay with Hearthside Cabin Rentals, you will be able to see all of these incredible animals in the Smoky Mountains. Our cabins come with your choice of awesome amenities, such as mountain views, arcade games, theater rooms, and swimming pool access. With everything from 1 bedroom cabins to 18 bedroom cabins, we are sure to have the perfect accommodations for your vacation. To start planning your getaway, browse our selection of cabins in the Smoky Mountains!