Synchronous Fireflies in the Smokies – Where and When to Watch

Viewing the lights of the amazing Synchronous Fireflies in early summer can create memories that last a lifetime.  Graham County, in the far western portion of North Carolina, is the home of two very special species of firefly; the Synchronous firefly (Plotinus Carolinas) and the Blue Ghost Firefly (Pauses Reticulate).

Photo by Firefly.org

Prior to 1900, synchronous fireflies were known only to a privileged few in the Appalachian Mountains.  Once the word got out about the spectacular light show that these fireflies perform naturally, people began to flock to our Smoky Mountain region for this incredible natural phenomenon. In fact, a popular viewing site at Elkmont in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park can become so crowded during peak firefly viewing periods, that the Park has implemented a lottery system for the privilege of being bused to the location.

Photo by Firefly.org

Fortunately, very few people are aware about these same species of synchronous fireflies that display at various locations in Graham County.   The Joyce-Kilmer Memorial Forest is one of the newly discovered locations to view one of the only species of firefly in the United States that can synchronize their flashing light patterns.

Photo by Firefly.org

Although it is impossible to predict far in advance, the synchronous fireflies typically appear between late May and mid-June. Expect activity of synchronized fireflies to start up around dusk to about 11:00 pm. However, if the moon is bright, expect this to delay the start of the show by 30 minutes or more.  On cool nights (below 50º Fahrenheit) and on misty evenings following rain, the flashing may be greatly reduced or altogether absent.

For the best viewing experience drive to the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest parking before sunset.  Bring a flashlight covered with blue or red cellophane in order to retain your night vision.  Park your car and walk up the trail to sit on a bench and get ready to watch the woods light up after dark. It will appear as if someone has flicked a light switch as the entire forest alternates between light and darkness.  It is an immersive experience you will never forget. Find a place to stay.

Photo by Judd Patterson Photography

An additional treat is that you will also see the wonderfully named Blue Ghost Firefly in the forest. This firefly is much smaller than the average firefly, about the size of a grain of rice.  They appear for about one month of the year, usually June, and are most often seen around ten o’clock at night.  Their blue-green light rarely blinks but glows continuously as the small firefly travels through the air and underbrush.  This firefly can actually control the intensity of its light, from low to brilliant. It is easy to imagine that it could have been the inspiration for Pinocchio’s Blue Fairy.

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