Trailside Talk: Look! A Salamander!

Trailside Talk: Look! A Salamander!

Mike Hembree

Many of the millions of visitors who cross into Great Smoky Mountains National Park every year arrive with anticipation of seeing wild animals.

And when they see them, folks sometimes get so excited they can’t fully control their enthusiasm—especially when the animals are bears. Camera phones are whipped out of pockets. Children—“Joey has never seen a bear!”—are hustled out of cars and onto the sides of roads for better views. Traffic backs up, sometimes for miles, and not even the most authoritative park ranger or park volunteer can clear the “bear jam” quickly.

Smoky Mountian Elk
A Great Smoky Mountains elk grazes in the Cataloochee Valley. Photo courtesy of Mike Steele.

The environment becomes almost like that of a zoo, and GSMNP—and every other national park—is decidedly not a zoo. The park’s animals are wild. You can’t pose with them for selfies. And you shouldn’t get within 50 yards of the park’s bigger mammals.

Newcomers to the Smokies should not expect to be overwhelmed by the park’s animal population. Most of them don’t want to see you, and they stay hidden in the forest much of the time, unlike the critters in some of the big western parks. On my first trip to Yellowstone, I saw bison, coyotes, and wolves within an hour of entering the park—all from the roadway.

I’ve hiked many Smokies trails (some of them many times), and I’ve driven every road in the park at least once, yet my animal count remains quite low.

I’ve seen numerous bears, all from my car. The best sighting was of a mama bear and her two cubs in Cades Cove.

I’ve seen elk, both in Cataloochee and near the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. Deer are everywhere in Cades Cove. Wild turkeys are fairly easy to spot, and they’re typically not that interested in moving if they’re in the road.

I’ve seen several raccoons scampering across park roadways, plus two more playing in a creek in Cosby.

The park has about two dozen species of snakes, and one might think some of the more numerous varieties could be seen often along the trails. But I can think of only two snake sightings—a black rat snake near a trail in Greenbrier and a brown snake of some sort on Mount Le Conte. The park’s only two venomous snakes—the timber rattler and copperhead—have avoided me, and I am appreciative.

Imitator Salamander
Imitator Salamander, one of the elusive creatures Mike Hembree has yet to see in the Smokies.

Although the park has 30 species of salamanders, you can’t prove it by me. The next salamander I see will be my first. They are rather secretive, and for numerous reasons, the park doesn’t want folks splashing along streams and flipping rocks in search of them.

There is one park critter that is reasonably easy to encounter, and you’re almost certain to have an up-close-and-personal meeting. The Smokies are home to 9,800 (and counting) varieties of insects, from near-invisible crawlers to pesky gnats that like to target your eyes.

My bucket list of creature sightings in the Smokies is topped by the synchronous firefly population. I haven’t been in the right place at the right time to see the marvelous phenomenon of thousands of fireflies flashing in harmony. This typically happens in May and June and is so popular that the park holds a lottery for access to the best viewing areas.

Smokies LIVE

I’ve sometimes wondered if this concentrated gathering of humans confuses the fireflies. Maybe they’re showing up by the thousands to see us—yet another sighting?

Mike Hembree is a veteran journalist and the author of 14 books. He has visited 26 national parks and hopes to add many more to that list.


Please remember to view wildlife in the Smokies responsibly. Park regulations forbid feeding, touching, or willfully approaching bear or elk within 50 yards (150 feet), or any distance that disturbs or displaces wildlife. Violation of this rule is a federal offense and may result in fines and arrest. If wildlife is approaching you or trying to cross the road, it is your responsibility to maintain an appropriate and safe distance.

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