Smoky Mountain Wildlife Viewing: Everything You Need to Know

Over 11 million people visit the Great Smoky Mountains each year, and the area’s beautiful wildlife is a big reason why! The national park is home to more than 200 types of birds, over 80 varieties of reptiles and amphibians, and 65 species of mammals. Whether you’re an aspiring photographer or just a nature lover, seeing some of the region’s signature critters in the wild is a real treat. To help you make the most of your vacation, Acorn Cabin Rentals has put together a convenient guide to Smoky Mountain wildlife viewing.

Black Bears

The black bear is far and away the most popular animal in the Great Smoky Mountains. About 1,600 bears live in the national park, which works out to roughly two bears per square mile.

Cades Cove is the best spot for bear viewing in the Smokies. This breathtaking valley is full of wide open spaces, so animals aren’t hidden behind a dense cover of trees. When you drive along the 11-mile loop road in Cades Cove, scan the wooded area on the side of the road to look for bears. You will probably know if a bear has been spotted because traffic usually comes to a standstill in the event of a bear sighting. Be sure to follow the directions of park rangers if they tell you to keep driving.

The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is another excellent spot for black bear viewing. Bears frequent this 5.5-mile one-way road because there is an abundance of nuts and berries in the area.

Early morning (6 – 10 a.m.) and late afternoon (3 – 7 p.m.) are when bears are most likely to be out and about. Keep in mind that bears hibernate during the winter, so you won’t see them in December, January, or February.

If you do encounter a black bear in the wild, remember to always stay at least 150 feet away. Never approach a bear, and make sure you don’t leave any food behind when you visit the park.

(See Also: 5 Completely Free Things to Do in the Smoky Mountains)

Pileated WoodpeckersA beautiful pileated woodpecker.

No Smoky Mountain wildlife viewing expedition is complete without searching for a pileated woodpecker. These striking looking birds have black feathers with streaks of white and tufts of bright red “hair” on their head. The pileated woodpecker is the second-largest woodpecker in the United States.

Cades Cove is your best bet for spotting a pileated woodpecker in the national park. In particular, Hyatt Lane and Gum Swamp (a pond in the valley) are known for their woodpecker activity. Pileated woodpeckers have also been seen around the Great Smoky Arts & Crafts Community. Be sure to keep an ear out for their distinctive call!

White-tailed Deer

White-tailed deer are very common in the Smoky Mountains. With their graceful gait, deer are beautiful to observe in the wild. We recommend visiting Cades Cove or Cataloochee Valley (which is located on the North Carolina side of the national park) if you’re looking for deer.

Deer are more active during cooler times of the day, so try to plan your trip around the early morning or the evening. Foggy days or periods after rainfall are great for deer viewing, as the animals like to graze during these times.

A herd of elk in the Smoky Mountains.


Elk were once common throughout the Smoky Mountains, but they were driven to local extinction due to overhunting and loss of habitat in the mid-1800s. Fortunately, elk were successfully reintroduced into the national park in 2001. There are now over 200 elk in the Smokies.

All of the park’s elk live on the North Carolina side of the Smokies. The majority of the herd lives in Cataloochee Valley and a smaller group is known to frequent the area around the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. Be sure to stay at least 150 feet away from elk at all times, as they can be aggressive, especially during their mating season in September and October.

When you stay with Acorn Cabin Rentals, you will be near all of the best spots for Smoky Mountain wildlife viewing. With everything from 1 bedroom cabins to 8 bedroom cabins, we are guaranteed to have the perfect accommodations for your vacation. To start planning your getaway, browse our selection of cabin rentals in the Smoky Mountains!