18,000 people enter the lottery. Only 800 are selected. My sister was one. It had been raining the last couple of days–heavy downpours. Our mom tried to talk us out of going, but we were determined to see the fireflies. (Click here to learn more about the Synchronous Firefly lottery in Tennessee.)
On June 5, 2017 at 5:00 p.m., we left Knoxville for the drive up to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, stopping only briefly along the way in Sevierville to grab a quick dinner to eat in the car. When we arrived at the Sugarlands Visitors Center parking lot, we were greeted by a cheerful park ranger and had our passes checked. We were then directed to a parking spot and given one last opportunity to make use of running water and electricity.
We arrived just in time for our assigned shuttle window (7:00-7:20 p.m.), which was allotted alphabetically by last name. After gathering our chairs, red flashlights (firefly-approved), and rain gear in case any additional showers should appear, we lined up with 200 others to await the Gatlinburg trolleys serving as shuttles to Elkmont (aka the firefly mating haven). (During our half hour wait, much to my family’s chagrin, I entertained fellow visitors and park staff with readings from my copy of FIREFLIES, GLOW-WORMS, AND LIGHTNING BUGS, which I brought along to guide us on our adventure.)
After paying the nominal shuttle fee, we finally began the 20-minute ride, during which our assigned park ranger gave us a brief lesson about the upcoming experience. (I took this opportunity to refer to FIREFLIES, which the park ranger showed to the other 30-something shuttle riders.) The fireflies we were about to see in action (literally and figuratively) were the species Photinus carolinus (see page 121 in FIREFLIES). Interesting things to note* (both from the book and from the park staff), include:
- The fireflies are more likely to come out when it is cloudy and/or rainy, so the poor weather is better for firefly-watching, even if it is less-desirable for us.
- While the firefly synchronization is a mating dance that happens around the same time every year (late May/early June), there is not an exact set of dates, so the dates of the lottery are set months in advance and are an estimate of the best time for the synchronization. The synchronization will occur before and after those dates, and anyone can come to Elkmont outside of the lottery time period.
- The lottery was put in place about 10-12 years ago when social media began taking off and more people began to hear about the firefly synchronization. Due to pollution and overcrowding, the lottery was put in place to limit the amount of traffic to the area during this popular time of year.
- During the synchronization, the male fireflies stay lower to the ground, and the females are higher up.
- The fireflies are “attracted to small clearings surrounded by rich, open forest.”
When we disembarked from the shuttle, we were offered red film for our phones and any non-red flashlights. (According the park staff, red and blue lights do not disturb the fireflies, but any other bright lights will disrupt their flashing.)
By 8:00 p.m. or so, my family then started down the trail to find the right spot to camp out for the next few hours. (We would have to be back to board the shuttle by 11:00 p.m.) Using FIREFLIES as a guide, we decided to stop by an opening to a side trail. (All side trails were blocked off so that everyone would stay on the one main trail.) We then waited for it to get dark… We were told the flashing would start around 9:30 p.m.
For the next couple of hours, we saw a few sporadic flashes, and, then, by 9:45/10:00 p.m., we started to see a few faint synchronizing fireflies in the distance. Around 10:15 p.m. or so, it started to rain, and we gave up. A couple of us headed back down the trail to the shuttle, while a few others did have more success near a creek on the way back. Once we finally arrived back at our car, the Sugarlands Visitors Center parking lot was almost completely empty, and it was around 11:25 p.m.
We were warned the experience would not be a “Disneyworld fireworks show,” and it certainly was not that. Was it a memorable experience of a few exciting glimpses of the wonders of nature? Yes. Do we feel like we won the lottery? Absolutely.
*Please refer to FIREFLIES and the National Park Service for exact details and verification.